Once considered a sign of good luck by the sailors that kept such cats on their boats, Maine Coons with extra toes have become less common than they once were. Known as polydactyly, many Maine Coons used to display this interesting feature, though breeders who viewed the extra toes as a genetic anomaly worked to eliminate the feature from the breed.
Of course, this unique feature has started to make a comeback in popularity. In recent years, fanciers have prized the polydactyl Maine Coons, causing breeders to start accentuating the trait once again. Today, around 40% of all Maine Coons sport these extra toes. But why do they have them? How did this strange physical feature form and does it help or hurt these cats in any way?
While Maine Coons are one of the most common examples of polydactyl cats, they’re not the only ones. In truth, any breed of cat can produce polydactyl offspring. Unlike humans, cats don’t have the same number of toes on each foot, to start with. Under normal conditions, a cat will have 18 toes in total, which works out to four toes on each of the rear paws and five toes on each of the front paws.
When a cat is polydactyl, they have extra toes on any of these feet. Usually, a cat will have just two or three extra toes in total, but sometimes, they can grow a multitude of new toes instead. The cat that holds the world record for feline polydactyly has a whopping 28 total toes!
You may also hear of polydactyl cats referred to as Hemingway cats. Ernest Hemingway, the prolific author, was a feline fancier that owned about 50 cats. Nearly half of those cats were polydactyl as he was highly favorable to felines with extra toes. The name stuck, and polydactyl felines are still called Hemingway cats today, even though many people may no longer understand the reference!
Types of Polydactyly
Cats can have different types of polydactyly, named for where the additional toes appear. For example, in postaxial polydactyly, more commonly called snowshoe paw, the extra toes are on the outside of the paw. If the extra toes are located before the dewclaw on the side of the paw that’s facing the cat’s midsection, then it’s known as preaxial polydactyly or mitten paw.
How Does Polydactyly Occur?
It takes just a single gene mutation to create a polydactyl cat. If the Pd gene in a feline mutates as a result of input from a polydactyl parent, there’s a 50% chance of this creating polydactyl offspring. So, we understand how polydactyly passes from parent to offspring, but where the trait started with Maine Coons in specific is a bit more of a mystery.
Polydactyl Maine Coons were prized by sailors. Cats with this mutation were often found on ships traveling between England and the New World. Even today, cats in England, America, and Wales seem to be disproportionately affected by polydactyly compared to other cats worldwide.
The first polydactyl cats were noted on ships coming out of Boston. Many of these ships traveled between Boston and Maine regularly, and it’s believed that Maine Coons started mating with these polydactyl cats on such trips, causing the trait to become rather prevalent in the breed.
Polydactyly Benefits for Maine Coons
When these polydactyl Maine Coons were found on sailing ships, they were prized by the sailors on board. As it turns out, there are some serious benefits to having extra toes if you’re a cat. Maine Coons with extra toes were superior climbers. They had a stronger grip and could use their paws more like hands. This allowed them to climb trees and masts more easily than felines without the extra appendages. Additionally, this made these extra-toed cats even better at catching mice, which is why they gained such favor with sailors, who considered the trait to be good luck.
Problems for Polydactyl Maine Coons
Most postaxial polydactyl cats won’t experience any issues with their extra toes. However, preaxial polydactyl cats sometimes need surgical intervention. For these cats, the additional toe or toes are located between their normal toes and their “thumb.” These extra toes can fold over and grow into the foot. Generally, the claw on the extra toe is removed in such circumstances, to avoid the pain and infection that are likely to accompany such growth.
Can Polydactyl Maine Coons Compete in Shows?
If you wish to show your polydactyl Maine Coon, there are opportunities, but it’s dependent on the federation in which you wish to show. Some federations have accepted extra-toed felines, such as the New Zealand Cat Fancy Inc. or the International Cat Association, which both allow polydactyl Maine Coons, though they’re registered as a separate breed from other Maine Coons with their own specific standards. However, other federations still don’t recognize polydactyl Maine Coons and won’t allow them to compete, such as the Federation Internationale Feline (FIFe). In fact, this federation has entirely banned the registration and breeding of polydactyl Maine Coons altogether.
Polydactyl Maine Coons might have an evolutionary advantage over other domestic cat species. Not only are they one of the largest domestic feline breeds, but about 40% of them also sport extra toes, which can help them to climb better than their normal-toed comrades, enabling them to be better hunters.
Sailors always prized this trait and it’s becoming more popular with feline fanciers today, but Hemingway cats, as polydactyl felines are affectionately called, were not popular with breeders until recently, causing them to actively work against the propagation of such traits within the breed. Today, polydactyl Maine Coons are receiving some recognition in feline fancier federations, though there’s still plenty of distance to go in the uphill battle before they receive the same recognition that other Maine Coons get.
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