Dear Doctor: Poly what?


Q. How many toes is a cat supposed to have? A cat I just adopted from the shelter seems to have an awful lot — more than is normal.

Emerson Coyle
Canton, Ohio

A. Dear Mr. Coyle,

A cat normally has a total of 18 digits — five on each front paw and four on each back one. The fifth digit on each front paw is the dewclaw. It doesn’t touch the ground.

If your cat has more than 18 toes, she has a condition known as polydactylism (from the Greek for poly, which means “many,” and daktulos, which means “toes” or “fingers”). It’s a harmless genetic mutation that causes the extra digits. And it is relatively common. That’s because it’s a dominant genetic trait.

The number of toes on a cat with polydactylism can vary, although the common presentation is one or two extra toes on each front foot. Extra toes on the hind feet are unusual, and extra toes on all four feet are highly unusual — but again, harmless.

Common nicknames for polydactyl felines include mitten cats, boxing cats, and Hemingway cats. Ernest Hemingway had one at his Key West home, and that cat’s polydactyl descendants live there today.



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