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Polydactyl Cats: The Charm of Big Feet

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Look at those big feet! This is a polydactyl cat, born with more than the regulation number of toes. Polydactylism can affect any animal with toes, but the genetic anomaly is relatively common in domestic cats, which normally have five toes on the front paws and four toes on their back paws. Photograph by Flickr user Actor212

Photograph by Marc Averette.

Polydactylism (literally "many-fingered") is a genetic mutation that is passed down via a dominant gene. The trait is found most often in western England, Wales, and the eastern parts of the United States and Canada. They are historically sought out as ship's cats, which explains their prevalence on "both sides of the pond." We don't know which side they originated on. However, the mutation can arise spontaneously in any cat population, so all polydactyls are not necessarily related to each other.

Photograph by Flickr user Meredith Leigh Collins.

The condition is usually benign, and cats rarely suffer from having extra toes in and of itself. There is a genetic condition called feline radial hypoplasia in which extra toes are common. Radial hypoplasia causes other birth defects in addition to polydactly, such as underdeveloped or twisted forelegs, which is a genuine disability, and such cats should be neutered to prevent passing on the abnormality. But those cases are in the minority.

Photograph by econimcahome, via The Cat Scan.

Unlike most mutations, extra toes don't hinder a cat, and can be considered an asset. Just the appearance of polydacts causes cat lovers to fall for them.

Photograph by Flickr user Jessica Feis.

Polydacts were popularized by author (and cat lover) Ernest Hemingway, who was given a six-toed cat  by a sea captain named Stanley Dexter in the 1930s. Hemingway loved the cat he named Snowball. About 60 cats still live at the Hemingway Estate in Key West, where they are fed and protected as a historical treasure. About half are polydacts, possibly the decendents of Hemingway's cat.

Image from I Can Has Cheezburger.

Another famous polydactyl was a cat owned by President Theodore Roosevelt named Slippers. See a picture of Slippers. The Roosevelts had a veritable zoo in the White House, and Slippers was not the only cat.

Photograph by Flickr user gillicious.

Some polydactyl cats present "mitten paws," which occurs when the extra toes are attached on the medial side, or "thumb" side of the paw. This can lead to a cat that appears to have opposable thumbs. Some cats have learned to manipulate the extra digits like a human thumb. Cats have been known to use this ability to pull stunts that amaze their owners, such as opening latches and windows. I haven't found any case of a polydactyl cat successfully using a can opener, but there's always a first time. You know they are working on it!

Photograph by Flickr user Liren Chen.

Cats that have multiple toes that aren't "mitten paws" just appear to have big feet, which are called "snowshoe paws" or "pancake feet." They might remind you of the Canada lynx, which normally has extra large paws (even without extra toes) which enables them to travel on top of snow.

Photograph by Cats Protection.

The Guiness World Record for the number of toes on one cat is 28 toes. Jake, a cat owned by Paul and Michelle Contant of Ontario, Canada, was crowned the record holder in 2002. However, a kitten born in 2011 named Fred also has 28 toes and may be a contender. Fred's littermate Ned has 26 toes.

Milo's Mirror

Milo has seven toes on each front paw. He gets around just fine on those big feet!

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats 'Blep'?
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As pet owners are well aware, cats are inscrutable creatures. They hiss at bare walls. They invite petting and then answer with scratching ingratitude. Their eyes are wandering globes of murky motivations.

Sometimes, you may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with his or her tongue lolling out of their mouth. This cartoonish expression, which is atypical of a cat’s normally regal air, has been identified as a “blep” by internet cat photo connoisseurs. An example:

Cunning as they are, cats probably don’t have the self-awareness to realize how charming this is. So why do cats really blep?

In a piece for Inverse, cat consultant Amy Shojai expressed the belief that a blep could be associated with the Flehmen response, which describes the act of a cat “smelling” their environment with their tongue. As a cat pants with his or her mouth open, pheromones are collected and passed along to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouth. This typically happens when cats want to learn more about other cats or intriguing scents, like your dirty socks.

While the Flehmen response might precede a blep, it is not precisely a blep. That involves the cat’s mouth being closed while the tongue hangs out listlessly.

Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, tells Mental Floss that cat bleps may have several other plausible explanations. “It’s likely they don’t feel it or even realize they’re doing it,” she says. “One reason for that might be that they’re on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it.”

A photo of a cat sticking its tongue out
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If the cat isn’t sedated and unfurling their tongue because they’re high, then it’s possible that an anatomic cause is behind a blep: Johnson says she’s seen several cats display their tongues after having teeth extracted for health reasons. “Canine teeth help keep the tongue in place, so this would be a more common behavior for cats missing teeth, particularly on the bottom.”

A blep might even be breed-specific. Persians, which have been bred to have flat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it. “I see it a lot with Persians because there’s just no room to tuck it back in,” Johnson says. A cat may also simply have a Gene Simmons-sized tongue that gets caught on their incisors during a grooming session, leading to repeated bleps.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless they’re doing it on a regular basis. That could be sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth, prompting an evaluation by a veterinarian. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired—or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your cat puts up with that kind of nonsense). “They might put up with touching their tongue, or they may bite or swipe at you,” Johnson says. “It depends on the temperament of the cat.” Considering the possible wrath involved, it may be best to let them blep in peace.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
The Right Way to Hold Your Cat, According to a Vet
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Every cat parent has experienced the soul-crushing rejection of picking up their kitty for some cuddles, only for Fluffy to fight for freedom, occasionally leaving behind a nasty trail of scratches. The good news is that your cat probably doesn't hate you—you might just be holding him wrong.

There are a few ways to avoid having to break out the first aid kit, all while making your cat feel more comfortable and secure. In a video spotted by IFL Science, veterinarian Uri Burstyn of the Helpful Vancouver Vet YouTube page used cat models Claudia and Pirate to demonstrate some proper handling techniques.

There are a few different maneuvers you can use, depending on your cat’s personality and what you’re trying to accomplish—whether it be picking them up for some cuddles or holding them down to get them to swallow a pill. First, Dr. Burstyn advises pet owners to approach with caution, letting the cat sniff your fingers or giving her some gentle tickles under the chin.

If the cat seems receptive, you can now pick him or her up. Dr. Burstyn notes that “the key to picking up a cat safely is to make them feel supported.” Let’s say you want to remove your cat from the kitchen counter for the thousandth time: Place one hand under the cat’s chest, another under the abdomen, and lift gently. This prevents the cat from kicking its hind legs in an attempt to gain ground, which is one of the most common causes of scratches, Dr. Burstyn says.

Whether you’re holding a cat in your arms or trying to stop them from running away, the key is cat squishing. Yes, really. Gently press down on a cat that’s trying to wriggle its way out of your grasp. If you're holding the cat, pull it closer to your body.

“If we do have a cat who’s trying to get away from us, we always squish that cat,” Dr. Burstyn says. “You don’t have to worry about hurting a cat. They’re very tough little beasts and just squishing them against your body is never going to do them any harm. In fact, they tend to feel more safe and secure when they’re being held tightly.”

There’s another hold that Dr. Burstyn calls the “football carry,” which involves scooping up the cat so that its head is tucked between your arm and your torso. One hand supports its abdomen while another supports its bottom. This is best for emergency situations when you need to move your pet quickly.

And if you happen to have a “shoulder cat” like Pirate, they’ll do most of the work themselves by climbing onto your shoulder, but there’s still a proper holding technique. Support their butt with one hand, and when you’re ready to put them down, slowly lean forward while still supporting their bottom until they twist around and hop back on their feet.

Of course, some cats simply don't like to be held, so it's important to pay attention to their body language. A low tail and flattened ears are both signs that your feline probably wants to be left alone, according to Mother Nature Network.

For more on Dr. Burstyn's tips, check out the video below.

[h/t IFL Science]

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