Are Polydactyl Cats a Separate Breed?

CatChannel veterinary expert Arnold Plotnick, DVM, explains polydactyly and some of its history.

By Arnold Plotnick, DVM | Posted: July 10, 2009, 3 a.m. EDT

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Q: Can you tell me if six-toed cats are a rarity, or is there a breed?

A: Polydactyly (extra toes) is somewhat common in cats. My cat, Mittens, is a polydactyl cat. Her rear feet have one extra toe. Her front feet have the usual five, but her thumbs are gigantic. I confess that it was her freaky feet that attracted me to her in the first place. 

Polydactyl cats are not a separate breed. Historically, however, the original unregistered Maine Coon cats had a high incidence of polydactylism — around 40 percent! It has been written that the extra toes evolved as a “snowshoe foot” to help Maine Coons walk in the snow, and local folk tales claimed that these cats used their big mitts to catch live fish right out of the streams, taking them home to feed their owners. These stories are charming, however, there is no evidence that polydactylism confers any natural selective advantage to affected cats. Breed standards required a normal foot configuration, and did not allow polydactyly in Maine Coons, and so the trait was deliberately bred out of this breed. In the Netherlands and Belgium, there is currently a move to restore the polydactyl form of the breed.

Although polydactylism is alluring, breeding cats deliberately for polydactylism is controversial. Some cat enthusiasts fear that unscrupulous breeders would try to produce cats with excessive and disabling numbers of toes on each paw. Fortunately, polydactyl genetics doesn’t work this way; you can only fit so many toes on a cat’s foot. Even so, a good compromise would be to write breed standards to define the maximum number of toes allowed, to discourage such attempts.

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Reader Comments

Jessie    Tecumseh, MI

9/21/2014 8:57:09 AM

They should be a breed. They have so many fun characteristics! We have a male 1 yr 7 months. Very fun smart agile affectionate and in tune with our family. We have a daughter with terrets and he can sense them when she has an episode coming. He also calns her down when she is very bad. He can leap extremely high from the floor... 6' at times! He learns very easily and doez "tricks", plays fetch, jumps and catches stuff in the air, sits and sits on his butt with front paws up. Like a dog. We don't have any other pets but he adapts well to other animals. Cats and dogs... he plays with them. He is truly the most unique cat I have ever had. We became homeless for a few months this summer and we had him with us. He was great. His front paws look webbed and his back ones look like rabbit feet! Very large. And his fur is lije silk. His color is orange with a pattern, not stripes but some look like stripes on his tail and legs but the rest are just like a maze. In the sunlight his pattern looks like its got a purple tint! Very cool! His name is Hunter. He is awesome. Talks like crazy! He also has what look lije wrists on his front above his paws they bend unlike normal cats craziest thing i have ever seen. The vet said he is very special and unique.. a definite keeper! He will be apart of our family for the rest of his years which I hope is many. My last cat was 88 in human years when he passed.

emily    anthon, IA

6/2/2013 5:39:48 PM

actually my cat i just got today has seven toes on each of his feet it is not common. having it on all feet is rare

m    Lake City, FL

12/12/2012 11:33:44 PM

Thanks for the intelligent and interesting article!

Christine    Boston, MA

10/28/2012 4:55:59 PM

I myself have a polydactyl cat. She is 7 years old and has an extra digit on her two front paws, and a limp inactive extra digit on her two rear paws. That I know of her parents were not Maine Coon cats, but tiger cats, or short hair domestic. It is possible that somewhere in her ancestry was a Maine Coon. I must say she has a similar body build.

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