Why Do Some Cats Have Six Toes?

By: Lili Feinn/The Dodo  Our differences are what make us special. In a way, they are like superpowers. This is not only true for humans but animals, too.

Found on the streets of Portland, Oregon, a small kitten with unusual paws was dropped off at a veterinary clinic by a couple of kind passersby. The little kitten had long white fur, one blue eye, and one green eye, and to top it off, an extra toe on each of his front feet. At 6 weeks old, veterinarian Stephanie Harvey could tell this tiny ball of white fluff was different from the rest and named him Wallace.

Stephanie Harvey

Harvey knew that uniqueness was something to be cherished, and decided she and the odd little kitten were meant to be. “I see A LOT of kittens and had so far resisted taking any home with me, but Wallace was special and I had to have him,” Harvey told The Dodo.

Wallace has polydactylism, a genetically inherited trait that causes cats to be born with more than the usual number of toes on their paws. Cats typically have a total of 18 toes, explains New York City-based veterinarian Dr. Lisa Lippman: Five toes on each front paw and four on each hind paw, so anything extra makes a cat polydactyl. The extra equally sized toes tend to give the impression that polydactyl cats have big feet.

Howie831/Wikimedia Commons

Like most polydactyl cats, Wallace’s additional toes are only present on his forepaws. It is considered rare for cats to have extra toes on their hind paws, even moreso to have all four feet affected by the condition (though one Canadian polydactyl cat was found to have as many as 28 toes, seven on each paw).

Harvey quickly adopted the six-toed kitten, but all was not smooth sailing. The combination of Wallace’s large feet and his energetic personality seemed to land him in constant messes.

“We called him Wallace the Worst when he was a kitten because he would get into trouble: knocking over glasses of water with his big feet, chewing on cords,” Harvey said. “He likes to tear through the house and charge up and down the stairs for no reason.”

Stephanie Harvey

Polydactyl cats are most commonly seen along the East Coast of the U.S., Canada and even some parts of the UK, notes Lippman, making Wallace even more rare in the Pacific Northwest where Harvey found him.

Ventus55/Wikimedia Commons

How the genetic trait started and expanded is something of a mystery to this day. “How polydactyl cats came to be is up for debate, but there is general agreement that polydactyl cats were caused by a mutation that was carried on ships originating in Boston, which then spread them to a number of port cities soon after,” Lippman explains.

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