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Ask the Vet: Cats With Extra Toes Nicknamed 'Hemingway Cats'

Dr. Lee Pickett on

Q: I've had cats before, but none ever looked like the cat I adopted this week from the shelter. Both of her front paws have the normal four toes -- plus three thumbs instead of one. I've never seen a cat with so many thumbs. What is this called? Should the extra thumbs be surgically removed?

A: Your new cat is polydactyl, which in Greek means multiple (poly-) digits (-dactyl). This common, inherited condition poses no problems, provided that you trim the claws on the thumbs to prevent them from growing into the pads.

Most cats have five toes on their front paws and four on the rear paws, which lack the "big toe." Toes are numbered from the thumb to the baby finger, so the thumb is digit 1, the pointer finger is digit 2, and the outermost is digit 5.

Extra toes are numbered with decimals or letters. Thus, a single additional thumb may be referred to as digit 1.5, or several thumbs may be called 1a, 1b, 1c and so forth.

Polydactylism affects the cat's front paws more often than the hind paws. In some cats, the extra thumbs on the front feet are opposable, making it easier for the cat to manipulate small objects.

Long ago, sailors called their polydactyl felines "ship's cats" and considered them good luck because they were excellent mousers and could even climb the rigging in pursuit of their prey.

 

When Ernest Hemingway lived on Key West, half his approximately 50 cats were polydactyl; their multitoed descendants still live there. Thus, cats with extra toes are sometimes called "Hemingway cats."

Enjoy your special new kitty. My experience is that polydactyl cats are very sweet indeed.

Q: Marty, my 16-year-old dog, is blind and arthritic. He still wags his tail, but he's not as social as he used to be, and even with his arthritis medication, it's harder for him to get around.

I want him with me as long as he is happy and comfortable, but I don't want him to suffer, so I'll have his veterinarian euthanize him when his quality of life is poor. How will I know the right time?

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