Polydactyl Kitties and people, too!
Written by Kerry E.B. Black
Mitten Kittens. Cats with thumbs. Acclaimed American author Ernest Hemingway admired these extra-toed creatures so much, he kept over twenty-five as pets at his Florida home. In the 1930’s, ship captain Stanley Deuter made a gift of a beautiful five-toed cat named Snowball, inspiring Hemingway’s obsession with the creatures. A healthy group of about sixty cats roam the grounds of his Florida home which is preserved as an historic treasure, some descended from Snowball, and many of the herd exhibit this physical anomaly. Because of his admiration for cats with extra digits, polydactyl kitties are often called Hemingway cats.
The reason the ship captain might have given Snowball to Hemingway might have been an old belief that polydactyl cats bring good luck, especially at sea. Their extra digits gave them better “sea legs” and aided in catching rats and vermin. Since a superstition held if a ship’s cat fell overboard it’s vengeful spirit would summon a storm to sink the ship, sure-footed animals were favored. (Sailors also believed cats invited winds with its tail, and the kind of wind depended on the cat’s mood.)
The Norwegian ship cats are six-toed for just that reason, and in Southwest England along the shipping lines, the high concentration of polydactyl cats inspired the name cardi-cats (for the busy ports in the Cardigan areas.)
Scientist pointing to possible evolutionary advantages to the wider foot in snowy country, and legends grant the extra-toed greater fishing abilities. Some pet owners claim thumb cats are more intelligent and can open latches like humans.
This genetic anomaly does not impede the cats, nor despite sea-farer’s beliefs does it seem to convey extra abilities. A normal cat possesses eighteen toes, five on each front paws and four on the back. Any extra digits count as polydactyl, though the design of the pads varies. An enlargement of the dew claw pad resembles thumbs. Double digits lend the appearance of snow shoes. In the 1970’s, a report cited Mickey Mouse as having the most toes recorded, numbering 32. Pre-axial results in extra toes on the inside edge of the paw, while post-axial’s extra toes form on the inside. True double-pawed cats result from a genetic defect which is different from polydactyly.
The greatest number of polydactyl cats are found in Boston and Massachusetts (probably arriving with the Puritans in the 1600’s), Yarmouth, Halifax, and Nova Scotia, but there are reported cases in Asia. Any breed of cat can be polydactyl, but the Maine Coon cat often exhibited the trait, until breeding standards interfered. Presently, PixieBob and Mojave Spotted Cats are the breeds with the greatest percentage of polydactyly, and The American Polydactyl Cat is an emerging breed in its own right.
Perhaps the most famous polydactyl cat presided over meetings in the White House, assisting his friend the President, Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy brought his extra-toed kitty Slippers when he took office, and he gave his furry friend the run of the estate.
Although polydactyly can occur in any species with digits, it is most common in cats and humans. Anne Boleyn was said to have an extra finger, and the legend stated that after the execution, her hand was removed and used as an ingredient in black magic. (This has been disproved when her body was exhumed. Both hands were intact and neither boasted an extra finger.)
In the fictional Princess Bride, a character Inigo Montoya quested after The Six Fingered Man. 2 Samuel in the Christian Bible describes a person with polydactyly. Actors Ashton Kusher, Gemma Arterton, Hrithik Roshan, Oprah Winfrey, and Halle Berry boast extra digits, as do Phillies Pitcher Antonio Alfonseca and singer Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor.
*This is our newest addition to the family. We call her Hemingway, or Hemi for short.