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What is a Polydactyl?

 Copyright 2001-2010 Sarah Hartwell


Polydactyl, or extra digits, is a common trait among cats, particularly it seems, among Celtic cats and cats on part of America's Eastern coast and South West Britain. This distribution may well be linked. Except for Twisty Cats, polydactyly is not a product of bad breeding. It is simply a naturally occurring genetic variation and, as noted later on, polydactyly is found in fossil reptiles - meaning that five digits might be the abnormal form! Only one form of polydactyl is known to be harmful.  


In a 1967 issue of Britain's "The Cat" magazine, Mary Collier of Axminster, Devon wrote Can any readers of THE CAT give me any information about 6-toed cats, sometimes called 'Boxers' or 'Boxing Cats'? I have recently acquired a very fine kitten of this type [...] What I particularly want to know is their district or origin, or country if outside the British Isles and the date they may first have been recognised." In February 1978, the Daily Mirror carried a series of letters on polydactyl cats. Jennifer Wellstead, of Penzance, Cornwall, had asked if any other readers had cats with 6 toes on each paw. A "Mrs I" of Kettering, Northants, replied that 6-toed cats were favoured as witches' familiars of witches. Mrs Farley, of Havant, Hampshire, said she had 6 cats, 3 of whom had 6 toes and 2 had 4 toes on each foot in place of the ‘normal’ 5. She added that a recent litter had produced one kitten with 7 toes, 4 with 6 toes and 2 with the normal number of toes.


Polydactyly (six or seven toes) varies from the classic "mitten cat" through to cats which simply have more toes than normal, but no "thumb". A correspondent to the New Scientist noted that the innermost extra toes on the front paws are often opposable and some cats use them with quite startling proficiency to manipulate small objects with almost human dexterity. Some owners of polydactyl cats joke that their cats are more intelligent because of this and represent the next stage in feline evolution - the ability to open cartons and cans unaided.



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