Thought to have developed and spread aboard trade ships moving between Europe and America – specifically Boston – the Polydactyl cat is a distinctive and highly sought breed that is popularly seen today as a domestic pet. Recognised for its uncanny number of toes, the American Polydactyl is the result of a spontaneous genetic mutation that caused many cats to emerge with up to eight digits on one paw, compared to the usual five. Sometimes referred to as ‘Hemingway cats’ due to Earnest Hemingway’s love of the breed, the American Polydactyl was highly valued amongst sailors for its unparalleled hunting and climbing capabilities, being able to flush out rodents and thus control the vermin population aboard ships, protecting valuable cargo from sabotage. While some believed the Polydactyl to bring good luck at sea, others thought the breed was cursed and associated it with witches and black magic. Despite its name, there is nothing to prove the Polydactyl is an all-American cat.
A medium to large-sized breed, the Polydactyl is distinctive regardless of its unusual feet. A cat of solid build, with a squared face, wide-set ears and inquisitive eyes, the Polydactyl stands on straight legs and is often observed with a bobtail. As well as having extra toes, it is common to see a Polydactyl with thumbs. Many describe the cat as looking as though it is wearing mittens. This genetic condition is not particularly uncommon, nor is it confined to any specific breed. The mutation was seen in the original Maine Coon cats with great prevalence, having evolved to help the cats move through thick snow in its native landscape.
Despite its unique characteristic, the American Polydactyl is similar to most other domestic cats, although some breeders, owners and enthusiasts have claimed the breed is more intelligent and laid-back than most. The Polydactyl is also described as affectionate, patient with children, relaxed and well-suited to indoor or outdoor living. On average, a healthy Polydactyl will weigh somewhere in the region of 10-20 pounds, with a life expectancy of up to 15 years. Outdoor cats, regardless of breed, have a far lower life expectancy than indoor cats, usually surviving for less than 5 years.
Generally, the genetic mutation that causes extra toes is completely harmless and is not considered a deformity. On some occasions, where there are too many toes, problems can be encountered with nail growth, with overgrown or ingrown claws causing discomfort. Besides this, the Polydactyl is prone to very few health complaints and is typically very resilient. Because Polydactyl cats appear across breeds, the health of a Polydactyl is dependent on the health of the breed in question.