Why are Maine Coons polydactyl?

Not all Maine Coons are polydactyl. The simple answer as to why Maine Coon cats have a tendency to have more than the usual number of toes is because they originate in cats from England who were polydactyl and which were chosen as ships cats because of their extra toes. It is believed that they came from Western England, Wales and Kingston-Upon-Hull. The sailors believed that they were more able to retain their balance on board ship plus that they were better at catching rodents on the long journey to the new world, America, with European settlers. A false thought really. This is the classic and almost legendary story and I’m sure there is a lot of truth in it.

Polydactyl Maine Coon kitten
Polydactyl Maine Coon kitten. Photo in public domain and improved by PoC.
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Most of us know that polydactyl cats are called Hemingway Cats because he lived on the east coast of America in the Florida Keys and was given a polydactyl cat by ship’s captain. This was the beginning of his well-known colony of polydactyl cats at his home which is now the Hemingway Museum. The cats are still there being cared for by the administrators.

Of course, the Maine Coon cat breed originates in the state of Maine which is on the east coast of America. This ties in nicely with the settlement of America by Europeans in the early 1600s. Early Maine Coons were called ‘Maine cats’. They were random bred farm cats. All cats before the late 1800s were non-purebred by today’s standards. The concept of pedigree, purebred cats, selectively bred by breeders did not exist before the late 1800s.

Where do polydactyl cats come from?
Hemingway and cat. Photo in public domain.
Staff member feeds the cat at Hemingway's house
Hemingway’s House. Photo: Edgar and Ron – Busy.

It is said that 40% of Maine Coons are polydactyl. Polydactyl cats are affectionately called “poly cats”. Boston, Massachusetts has the largest population of polydactyl cats which are, as mentioned, the descendants of cats originally brought to the US by European settlers specifically English puritans. Since the first introductions of domestic cats by English settlers there followed more domestic cats with European immigrants. Some were polydactyl.

The bottom line is that Maine Coons are polydactyl because some of the original medium-longhaired cats imported into America and which came ashore on the east coast were polydactyl. They bred and spawned a race of barn cats which breeders turned into, arguably, the most handsome of all purebred domestic cats; the Maine Coon.

Tootsie a typey rescued Maine Coon photos by Valley Girl
Tootsie a typey rescued Maine Coon. Tootsie is polydactyl. Photos by Valley Girl.

P.S. For the clarity polydactyl cats have more than the usual number of toes, usually on their forepaws. It is a benign condition caused by a genetic mutation. Genetic mutations are, for example, the reason for tailless and hairless cats as well. Polydactyl cats are not a separate cat breed.

P.P.S. The origin of the name Maine Coon is unclear. Perhaps the best story is that a ship’s captain name Captain Coon loved his cats and brought them ashore at various ports in Maine where they mated with onshore cats. Although it seems too convenient for a person to be called Capt. Coon!!

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