Thumbs Up! Are Cats with Opposable Thumbs a Myth or Reality?


Polydactyl cats, also known as “Hemingway cats,” are born with extra toes. The technical term for having extra digits is called polydactyly. While polydactyly is considered an abnormality, it does not typically affect the cat’s quality of life.

Polydactyl cats have been documented throughout history, with appearances in early Egyptian art and Norse mythology. But they are often associated with the famous American author Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was gifted a six-toed cat in the 1930s, beginning his lifelong affection for polydactyl felines. Today, dozens of cats with extra toes still roam the grounds of the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida.

This article provides an overview of polydactyl cats, including their history, physical traits, geographic distribution, behavior, health considerations, and what it’s like to live with and care for these unique cats.

Causes of Extra Toes

Polydactyly in cats is primarily caused by genetic mutations. The most common is a dominant gene mutation that results in extra toes. This mutation causes the SHH (sonic hedgehog) gene to be overexpressed during limb development, leading to additional digits. Selective breeding can propagate this mutation, as breeders may intentionally breed polydactyl cats to maintain the trait [1].

In some cases, polydactyly may be caused by environmental factors during pregnancy that disrupt normal embryonic development. Exposure to toxins, radiation, or viruses could potentially interfere with genetic signaling pathways involved in limb formation. However, genetic mutations are the main cause in the majority of polydactyl cats.

Through selective breeding programs, polydactylism has become fixed in certain cat breeds such as the Maine Coon and Hemingway cats. Breeders select for the polydactyl trait, causing the mutation to be propagated through successive generations. This increases the prevalence of extra toes in these cat breeds.[2]

Famous Polydactyl Cats

Some of the most well-known polydactyl cats come from the home of famous author Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was gifted a six-toed cat named Snowball in the 1930s while living in Key West, Florida. Hemingway loved Snowball and his unusual paws so much that he began collecting other polydactyl cats to live on his property. Today, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West is home to around 60 descendants of Hemingway’s original polydactyl cats.

Another famous polydactyl cat is Captain Jack Sparrow, who starred as Mr. Beasley in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Captain Jack Sparrow has seven toes on each front paw and five on each back paw. His role in the movies helped showcase polydactyl cats to a wider audience.

Geographic Distribution

Polydactyl cats seem to be most commonly found in certain geographic regions, primarily:

  • Western England and Wales – Polydactyls are especially prevalent in South West England and parts of Wales. This region has a long history of polydactyl cats, with some references dating back hundreds of years.
  • Eastern United States and Canada – Polydactyl cats are frequently found along the East Coast of North America, including parts of New England in the United States as well as the maritime provinces in Canada like Nova Scotia.
  • Other parts of the world – While less common in most areas, polydactyl cats can be found in varying numbers globally. Some other regions reporting polydactyl populations include parts of Scandinavia, Turkey, Russia and Japan.

Experts theorize coastal regions may have higher numbers due to the mutation being adaptive for cats on ships and boats. The exact origins are unclear, but the mutation persists most strongly in cats from the British Isles and Eastern North America.

Physical Traits

Polydactyl cats are born with extra toes on one or more of their paws. These additional toes may appear as extra digits on the front or hind paws. The most common type of polydactyly in cats manifests as extra toes that look like thumbs, giving the cat’s paw a mitten-like appearance. These thumb-like toes are referred to as “postaxial” polydactyly.

The number of extra toes can vary significantly between polydactyl cats. Some cats may only have an additional toe or two, while others can have as many as seven toes on a single paw! The record holder is a cat named Jake that had a whopping 28 toes total across all four paws.

The size and placement of the extra toes can also differ. Some extra toes are small and lie flat against the paw, almost like a dewclaw. Others are more prominent and functional. Cats with larger, well-formed extra toes tend to have better dexterity and use of them.

In rare cases, a polydactyl cat may even have extra toes growing out of the middle of their paw rather than off to the side. This is referred to as “mesaxial” polydactyly. These centrally located extra toes can make the cat’s paw look almost hand-like.


Polydactyl cats are often said to be more adept at grasping and manipulating objects with their extra toes. According to one source, “Some polydactyl cat owners claim that their cats do use their extra toes sort of like thumbs, grasping toys and even figuring out how to open doors and cabinets” ( The extra toes give them better grip and control when holding and playing with toys. Some polydactyl cats even learn how to open doors and latches.

The additional claws can also aid polydactyl cats in climbing and give them better stability and grip when scaling surfaces. They tend to excel at climbing due to their extra “fingers” for grabbing. With greater claw surface area, they are able to latch onto more texture variations and not lose their footing as easily.

There is no evidence that polydactyl cats are more intelligent than other cats. Their personality and temperament is not influenced by their additional toes. Like all cats, their intelligence and ability to solve problems comes down to the individual cat and its experiences.

Health Considerations

Polydactyl cats are generally healthy, but their extra toes can sometimes cause minor medical issues. One potential problem is that the claws on the extra toes do not retract properly, which can lead to ingrown claws if not trimmed regularly. Extra toes may also be poorly formed or fused together, which can cause lameness or discomfort if they rub against each other. In rare cases, severely malformed extra toes may need to be surgically removed.

Polydactyl cats should have their claws clipped more frequently than normal cats to prevent problems with ingrown claws on the extra digits. The spaces between fused or misaligned toes should also be kept clean and dry to prevent irritation or infection. Owners should monitor their polydactyl cat’s gait and mobility, watching for any signs of lameness indicating discomfort. If lameness or other problems develop, a veterinarian can examine the cat’s paws and recommend treatment options.

With proper preventative care and monitoring, most polydactyl cats lead normal, healthy lives. Their extra toes are a cosmetic difference and do not inherently cause health problems or require intensive medical care. Regular claw trims, inspection of the paws, and veterinary checkups will help ensure a long, comfortable life for a polydactyl cat.

Acquiring a Polydactyl Cat

Those looking for a polydactyl cat have a few options for finding their perfect companion.

Adopting a polydactyl cat from a shelter or rescue is a great way to provide a home for a cat in need. Many shelters specifically list polydactyl cats available for adoption. Sites like Chewy and Adopt-a-Pet allow searches for adoptable polydactyl cats by location.

When going through a breeder, it’s important to find one who engages in ethical breeding practices. Reputable breeders focus on health and temperament over physical traits. Polydactylism should not be the sole motivation for breeding. Kittens should be screened for health issues and breeders should aim to place kittens in loving homes.

The cost of adopting a polydactyl cat is often $50-$150 from a shelter or rescue. Purchasing a kitten from a breeder ranges from $600-$1000 depending on lineage and location. While the novelty of extra toes may be appealing, the additional cost of a deliberately bred polydactyl cat is not always justified.

With patience and an openness to adoption, polydactyl cat owners can avoid supporting irresponsible breeding practices. Shelters and rescues offer the perfect opportunity to provide an exceptional home to a cat in need.

Living with a Polydactyl Cat

While polydactyl cats have extra toes, this feature does not usually impact their exercise needs or require any special care. However, there are some tips for meeting the enrichment and activity needs of a polydactyl cat:

  • Provide ample scratching posts and boards – Scratching is an important cat behavior for stretching and marking territory. Trimming the nails regularly will help prevent issues.
  • Engage in interactive playtime – Use wand toys and engage your cat’s natural hunting instincts with feather teasers and balls. This allows exercise and bonding.
  • Set up puzzle toys – Food puzzle toys provide mental stimulation. Polydactyl cats enjoy batting small toys around just like any other cats.
  • Give access to cat trees and perches – High vantage points appeal to cats’ natural climbing instinct. Multiple resting perches let cats survey their territory.
  • Consider another pet – Properly introduced cat companions provide social interaction, play, and activity.

While polydactyl cats do require regular nail trims, their extra toes generally do not limit their activity. Providing a stimulating home environment with opportunities for play and exercise is important for any cat.

Rarity and Population

Polydactyly is considered a fairly rare genetic trait in domestic cats, though the exact number of polydactyl cats in the world is unknown. Some estimates suggest that as few as 1 in 500 cats may be polydactyl. However, the prevalence likely varies by geographic region and breed.

There are several challenges in accurately measuring the population size of polydactyl cats globally:

  • Lack of centralized records and registries for tracking rare genetic traits in cats
  • Polydactyly can occur sporadically as a spontaneous genetic mutation, making it difficult to track inheritance
  • Many polydactyl cats may go unreported if owners do not view the extra toes as noteworthy
  • Prevalence studies tend to be limited to small geographic areas and may not capture worldwide population patterns

While polydactyly seems to be uncommon, pockets of higher concentration do exist, especially in areas where polydactyl cats have been intentionally bred to propagate the trait.

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