CALIFORNIA – A litter of four very unusual orange and white kittens is frolicking around Pets Lifeline this week – and these particular wee ones come with “more to love.”
Whereas most cats have five toes on their front paws and four on their back, some cats have a few extras, and they’re known as polydactyl cats. Pets Lifeline’s new batch of calico kittens are all “polys” – with one of the fluffy customer counting 24 toes.
The story behind this special litter begins with a Glen Ellen couple – who prefer to remain nameless – who have been taking care of feral cats in their neighborhood for years.
Earlier this month, the woman heard manic meows from inside the wall of her house, so she cut a hole to save a tiny kitten trapped inside. The kitten’s mom was absolutely nowhere to be found.
It was early evening and Pets Lifeline was closed so she went to Pet Food Express on West Napa, where the store manager, whose name is Bobby Crawford, was very eager to help.
He brought the kitten – who is now called Wally – home that night and, since then, has bottle-fed the newborn to health.
A couple of weeks later, the woman located four more poly kittens from the very same litter in her garage and brought them to Pets Lifeline for immediate care, and then went back to look for the mother.
“It’s so important that kittens be with their mom as much as possible when they are tiny,” stated Pets Lifeline executive director Nancy King.
A day or more later, the woman found the feral mother and discovered that she is also a polydactyl. She, too, was then brought in to Pets Lifeline to be spayed and to be reunited with her litter.
“All three boys and one girl are now doing well, getting bigger and eating well,” explained the center’s adaptation specialist Shoshanna Brown. “When they are weaned, they will go into foster until ready to be spayed/neutered and then adopted.”
Brown stated that, for many years, the center never saw a poly cat. But over the past five years they have cared for several, all from this same area in Glen Ellen.
Meanwhile, Crawford has fallen in love with Wally and has adopted him. “He is frisky and confident and gets along well with our other cats,” he stated.
The polydactyl genetic mutation is passed down through a dominant gene – so if one parent is a poly and the other is not, then around half of their kittens will also have extra toes.
Very little is actually known about the total population of polydactyl cats nationally or worldwide.
The Guinness World Record for the cat with the most toes is a whopping 28, and the honor is held by a Canadian ginger tabby cat named Jake, who has seven toes on each paw. Having extra toes isn’t unhealthy or detrimental in any way shape or form except that it can occasionally make trimming a cat’s nails more difficult.
Extra-toed cats are most common along the East Coast, particularly in Boston, Canada and also England. These spotty populations of polydactyl cats could be due to the felines’ popularity on sea ships. Sailors believed extra-toed cats were actually good luck when at sea. Often called “gypsy cats,” their large feet were valued for their extraordinary climbing and hunting skills, making them a valuable asset in controlling shipboard rodents.
Polys are also known as Hemingway cats because Ernest Hemingway was given a poly cat whose name was Snow White by a ship captain in the 1930s. The cat went on to have several litters with polys at the author’s own Key West home. Today, more than 40 polydactyl cats still reside at the Hemingway House and Museum and are protected as a historical treasure.
The poly trait may appear in any breed. At one time it is estimated that 40 percent of Maine Coon cats were polys and their wide paws functioned a bit like kitty snowshoes.
The cats are also often called “mitten cats,” because the cat’s paws look exactly like mittens. Polyism is most often seen only in the front paws, although some cats have extra toes on all four paws. The condition is never seen in only the back set of paws.
The condition is completely harmless and polydactyls are just as healthy as other cats.
The poly kittens at Pets Lifeline are currently five weeks old and each weighs around 1 pound. They are currently being cared for at the center and at established kitten fostering homes.
Pets Lifeline will begin accepting applications (in person only) for this particular litter from 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov.15 until midnight the same day. On Saturday, Nov. 19, the community is invited to come into the center at 19686 Eighth St. E. to see the polys and to enter a contest to name the kittens.
King isn’t sure how many people to expect on Nov. 19, as something about the unusual looking kittens has truly struck a nerve with local cat-lovers.
A photo of one kitten in the litter, a male who has 24 toes, was posted on the Index-Tribune’s Facebook page on Oct. 8 and, as of Oct. 24, had been viewed more than 1.6 million times, shared more than 11,000 times with 3,500 readers offering up naming suggestions for the unusual kitten.