Cats

Ernest Hemingway's House Is Full Of Six-Toed Cats

We've learned that animals can have two heads (creepy), but did you know that there are dozens of six-toed cats roaming Key West, Florida? We can thank Ernest Hemingway for at least part of the abundance of adorable island anomalies. Or, rather, his cat Snow White.

Why All The Cats?

According to a since-lost-to-cyberspace article in a 1998 issue of Cornell University's Cat Watch, the first polydactyl cats probably came to America from England in the 1600s aboard Puritan ships, since ship's captains considered them lucky. That, incidentally, is how they got to Ernest Hemingway's house.

According to the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, a ship's captain gave Hemingway a white six-toed cat named Snow White. They claim that some of the cats currently living on the museum grounds are descendants of Snow White, though no one can be sure. The famous writer named each additional kitten after his famous friends — a tradition that continues as more cats pop up on the property today. Although the kitties may have been a little rattled by 2017's Hurricane Irma, all 54 made it through the storm safely.

Hemingway wasn't the only famed owner of a six-toed feline — Theodore Roosevelt also owned a polydactyl cat named Slippers.

The Tale Of Multiple Toes

Cats normally have five toes on their front paws and four toes on their back paws (18 total). But normal is boring. Polydactylism translates to "many-fingered," and polydactyl cats typically have six or more toes on their front paws. In 2002, the Guinness World Record for the cat with most toes went to a Canadian ginger tabby named Jake. He had a total of 28 toes—seven on each paw. Each toe had "its own claw, pad and bone structure."

How does this happen? Well, as you might've guessed, it's a genetic mutation. Dr. Arnold Plotnick of Manhattan Cat Specialists explains to VetStreet that if one parent is polydactyl, then there's a 40 to 50 percent chance that the kittens will be born with extra toes.

There are actually two types of "polydactyly," as it's called: thumb cat polydactyly and mitten paw polydactyly. Thumb cats have dewclaws — those extra thumb-looking toes that sit higher up from the rest— that are large enough to resemble fully formed thumbs, while mitten-paw cats have extra toes on the inner edge of their paws. Polydactylism can occur with any cat breed, but it was historically common in Maine Coons: it's said that about 40 percent of the population had it at one time, though it has since been mostly bred out.

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Videos About Cats

Meet The Hemingway Cats

Polydactyl cats are often referred to as "Hemingway cats." Hear from the Hemingway House staff.

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Slow Motion Flipping Cat Physics

How does a cat go from feet up to feet down while falling without violating the conservation of angular momentum?

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. When falling, cats first try to determine which way is up with their eyes or ears. 01:24

  2. Cats with bobbed tails also land on their feet with the cat righting reflex. 02:49

  3. Watch a labelled, slow-motion demonstration of the cat righting reflex: 04:31

Written By Curiosity Staff January 18, 2017