Marmalade was affectionately referred to as “Mitten Cat,” a common nickname for many polydactyl cats. You may be asking yourself, “What the heck is that?” Polydactyl is a Latin term meaning many toes or multiple digits.
Cats with thumbs, extra fingers, extra toes, or whatever you choose to call their extra digits exist mostly in western England, Wales, and the eastern United States and Canada. In colonial times, they were long famed for being favored as ship’s cats. Many sailors considered them tokens of good luck on their voyages. They traveled the Atlantic with their human counterparts, aiding in rodent control. Sailors believed polydactyl cats were better hunters, and it appeared that they had better balance on rough seas as well as adept climbing skills.
I can attest to the latter. Marmalade belonged to a family that had a lofted bedroom in their cabin. The only way up was to climb a ladder. We had gone hiking for the day, leaving Marmalade on the main floor to hunt unwanted mice with her giant front paws. When we returned, she was laying at the edge of the loft, peering down at us, contentment conveyed by the slow leisurely twitching of her tail. We stared up at her astounded. How did she do that? My friends actually witnessed her climbing the ladder many times thereafter. She got to a point where she could not only ascend, but she could descend as well. No doubt those padded thumbs aided in that feat!
Whereas a typical cat has five toes on each front paw and four on each back paw, a polydactyl cat can have many more. The most ever recorded was 28! Marmalade had the condition where she had an extra first digit on each front paw that was so large it resembled a thumb—hence the aforementioned nickname. Others can have extra toes without the thumb fixtures. It’s more common for these toes to appear on the front paws, but don’t rule out the possibility of extra toes on the hind paws. These occurrences are caused by a genetic mutation in the dominant genes, and there is about a 40 to 50 percent chance that parents carrying the mutation will pass it on to their offspring. While there are no specific breeds of cats that are more or less likely to have extra digits, 40 percent of Maine Coons do have extra toes.
Perhaps the most famous polydactyl cat lover was Ernest Hemingway. He was gifted with a white polydactyl cat, Snowball, by a ship’s captain and fellow drinking buddy in the 1930s. His house-turned-museum in Key West is home to around 50 cats, and many are direct descendents of Snowball. This explains another nickname for these felines, the “Hemingway Cat.”
Mutations can be considered a hindrance to a species; however, having this gene seems to only be an asset to those bestowed with more digits than the usual 18. And let’s be honest, what feline lover doesn’t coo over this adorable and unique physical trait?
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Bekka Burton is a cat lover, freelance writer, ESL teacher, and intrepid traveler from upstate New York.