“How many toes do cats have?” is a question that people ask on the Internet. The answer is 18. Five toes on each of the cat’s forepaws and four on the hind paws.
Most of us are now aware of a genetic abnormality which leads to more than the usual number of toes in domestic cats. It is not uncommon especially in Boston where 12% of domestic cats are many-toed (1996). The condition is referred to as polydactylism.
Dr Desmond Morris reports in his book Cat World that biologists in Boston discovered that the city was the centre for the spread of polydactyl domestic cats in North America. In Boston, it was found that 39 out of a cohort of 311 cats had extra toes. This is a much higher percentage than anywhere else in America.
As Bostonians travelled to other cities they took their many-toed cats with them. Accordingly, where there’s been an influx of Bostonians (of the human kind) there has also been an increase in many-toed cats. The distribution of polydactyl cats reflects the distribution of people moving away from Boston. In New York 0.5% of cats had more than the number of toes while in Philadelphia the figure is 0.2%. In Boston, 12% of the cats are many-toed.
The famous White House cat, Slippers, belonged to Teddy Roosevelt. He was a polydactyl cat having six toes on each foot. The most famous owner of cats with more than the usual number of toes was Ernest Hemingway.
About half of the cats at the Hemingway Museum (the former home of Ernest Hemingway) have the polydactyl trait but all of them carry the gene. They can create more polydactyl cats. They are still there and are a feature of the Hemingway Museum.
I have read that sailors in the 17th century preferred many-toed cats for ship’s cats because they believed that they were better able to navigate the deck of a ship. They benefited from the extra toes which provided greater stability. As a consequence these cats found their way to the east coast of America during the period of settlement from Europe. Hemingway had made the acquaintance of a sea captain which was unsurprising as he lived in Key West, Florida. The captain owned an unusual six-toed tomcat which he gifted to Hemingway. This was the start of the link between the author and polydactyl cats.
World Record Polydactyl Cat
Jake has 28 toes, 7 on each paw, a nice symmetry. He lives or used to live in Ontario, Canada and is Guinness Book of Records certified. I don’t know if he is still alive.
The sharp cat claws contrast with their soft paw pads. Beneath each front paw there are seven small pads. Tufts of fur separate them from each other. There are five digital pads one for each claw. In the centre of the foot is the largest of the paw pads. This is called the plantar pad. It is the main support-point for the cat. It protects the weight-bearing bones of the legs. On each hind foot there are five pads. Indoor cats have soft spongy pads while in outdoor cats they become tough and leathery.
Cats have partially webbed paws. My belief is that this allows cats to navigate water courses more efficiently. It is a legacy of the domestic cats wild cat ancestor, the North African wild cat.
Cats are digitigrades. They walk on their toes. Placing pressure on their toes is one good reason why declawing is cruel. I created an image comparing the human hand and arm with the cat’s paw in the context of walking.
It is believed that the precursor of the great American cat, the Maine Coon, were longhaired European cats some of whom weere ship’s cats travelling with the settlers in the 17th century.