Why Does My Cat Have an Extra Toe?

Our veterinary expert, Arnold Plotnick, DVM, explains how polydactylism (cats with extra toes) occurs in cats.

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Q: My kitten has an extra toe, which makes it look as if she has on mittens. Is that normal, or is it a certain type of cat breed that has it?
A: Your cat has a condition called polydactylism, (from Greek: poly = many, daktulos = fingers). Normally, a cat has 18 digits. The front paw has five toes — four toes and one dewclaw (the small toe on the medial side of the foot that doesn’t touch the ground). Most polydactyl cats have one or two extra toes on each foot, with the extra toes appearing on the thumb side of the foot. The normal rear paw has four toes. Polydactylism is a common trait among cats.

Polydactyl cats are occasionally referred to as “mitten cats,” “thumb cats,” and “Hemingway cats,” the latter name referring to the writer Ernest Hemingway, who made his home on the small island of Key West, Fla. Hemingway shared the island with almost 50 cats, including a six-toed polydactyl named Snowball (or possibly Princess) given to him by Stanley Dexter, a ship captain and drinking buddy. For the next 100 years, unrestrained breeding between this cat’s descendents and the local cats (alas, they weren’t as keen on spaying and neutering as we are today) led to a high percentage (almost 50 percent) of polydactyls in the local population.

Hemingway isn’t the only famous person who is linked to polydactyl cats. President Theodore Roosevelt had a polydactyl cat named Slippers who was one of the first feline residents of the White House.

Polydactylism doesn’t affect cats adversely. It offers them no advantages, nor does it yield any disadvantages. (If it did, polydactyl cats most likely would have died out.) It is simply an enchanting quirk. I should know. My own cat, Mittens (very corny name, I know) is polydactyl, and it’s one of the things that charmed me about her. While people often worry about cats catching the extra toes on furnishings, this is rarely a problem. The toenails associated with the extra toes tend to be normal nails, although occasionally, the extra toe is incompletely formed, and the nail bed is deformed, leading to claw problems like ingrown or overgrown claws. Like all kitty toenails, the extra ones require regular trimming.

Arnold Plotnick, DVM

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Reader Comments

jess    elizabeth city, NC

4/29/2014 9:18:34 PM

my polydactyl winnie is an amazing girl, but i was curious if poly's like her have been known to have issues with growing. she is still no more then four pounds and she is well fed and almost a year old. but she looks like she is only a couple of months old. i am worried that it can pose issues in her future. thank you.

steve    International

6/5/2013 12:28:26 PM

hey dont worry if your cat has more toes than normal ! we have a polydactyl cat and he is the most inteligent cat we have ever known ! His life is the same as other cats in fact he has an extra ability he can actually grab things almost like a human because of his extra toes on his front paws ! Also he has found out how to hang off the door handles and open the door !!! You just dont get a cat you get a special cat if it has extra toes !

S    Lake City, FL

12/2/2012 11:49:30 PM

Thanks for the in depth fascinating information. Happened upon this while looking up spraying articles- funny because I had just seen a polydactyl cat at Petsmart and was going to look that up later too.
Thanks again- great informational article about an interesting (and for potential adopters of such cats, also important) topic!

Tara    Falmouth, MI

10/24/2012 9:33:38 PM

My cat has 5 toes on front and back. What does that mean?

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