Why Do So Many Cats Have Extra Toes?

A cat with extra toes and nails is shown in a close up picture of the paw. Soft white fur extending into black and orange fur.

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Cats with extra toes are called “polydactyl” cats, a name that comes from the Greek origin words “poly” meaning “many” and “daktylos” meaning “digits”. Polydactyl cats aren’t all that uncommon. In fact, a polydactyl cat even made it to the White House when Theodore Roosevelt had a cat with extra toes named Slippers. While most cats have 18 toes, with five on both front paws and four on the back paws, it’s not unusual for a cat to have extras, some as many as eight toes on a given paw.

Why So Many Cats With Extra Toes?

Polydactyly is a genetic abnormality that causes extra toes to form on one or more paw. Most polydactyl cats have extra toes on their front paws, though some have extras on the back paws, as well. It is passed down from parent cats through a dominant gene, so even if one cat has a normal amount of toes while the other is polydactyl, 40 to 50 percent of their kittens will have extra toes. There is nothing medically wrong with a cat having extra toes and it doesn’t hurt in any way. In fact, they can be quite beneficial.

Domestic cat in snow

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Some breeds are more likely to have polydactyly. In the past, up to 40 percent of Maine Coons had extra toes, which was a useful trait in the state of Maine, which gets more than 100 inches of snow annually. The extra toes helped Maine Coons’ paws act like snowshoes so they could walk around outside without falling through the snow as easily.


(Picture Credit: Wiki Commons – Onyxrain)

The reason Polydactyl cats are so widespread in certain parts of the world like England, Whales, the eastern United States, and Canada may be because they were prized by sailors as bringers of good luck. They were often called “gypsy cats”, and their extra toes made them great mousers and allowed them to stay balanced on rough waters.

Mitten Paws

Adorable orange tabby polydactyl cat, belly up, looking at camera while showing paw with six toes. Also called Hemingway cats, some believe them to be a step forward in cat evolution as they sometimes use the extra toe as opposed finger.

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Some polydactyl cats are called “mitten cats” because they have extra toes on the medial side or “thumb side” of their paws. These toes usually aren’t fully formed and are not opposable like human thumbs, though some cats have learned to use them in a similar manner to the way humans use their thumbs. Owners have been amazed by mitten cats’ ability to open latches or windows with these extra digits.

The Most Toes


(Picture Credit: Wiki Commons – Marc Averette)

The current Guinness World Record for most toes on a cat goes to Jake, a Canadian male ginger tabby cat who has 28 toes, seven on each paw. There are rumors of a cat named Mickey Mouse who lived in the 1970s that had 32 toes, but it’s likely that this cat had a condition known as “double paws” where there are actually two paws fuse together. There are also rumors of a cat named Triple who had 30 toes among his five legs and six paws, but that is likely the result of having a conjoined twin that never fully developed.

Hemingway Cats

Polydactyl cats are often called “Hemingway Cats”. In the 1930s, a sea captain named Stanley Dexter gifted an extra-toed kitten to writer Ernest Hemingway. The cat was the descendant of Dexter’s own polydactyl kitty named Snowball, and Hemingway named his new kitten Snow White. This started a major fascination in Hemingway for polydactyl cats, and at home in Key West, Florida he collected more than 50 felines, half of which had extra toes. He cared deeply for his cats and named each one of them after a famous person.

Today you can visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum where there is still a colony of 40 to 50 cats, some of which are directly descended from Snow White. About half of them still have extra toes. They receive regular veterinary care, including vaccinations and treatments for fleas and other pests, and in the spirit of Hemingway’s love for his felines, they all still get named after famous people.

How many toes does your kitty have? Do you think your cat is a descendant of the ones that sailors carried on their boats? Let us know in the comments below!