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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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Animals
Why Your Cat Can't Roar, But Jungle Cats Can
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Your kitty may have the swagger of a mighty jungle cat, but it’s hard to take the tough cat act seriously once it opens its mouth. Unlike their roaring relatives, domestic cats have a high-pitched, mewling cry. However, they do purr—a trait that isn’t shared with lions, tigers, leopards, or jaguars, the four species of cats with loud, growling vocalizations.

In the video below, SciShow’s Hank Green explains the science behind why your beloved ball of fur can’t roar—and how it’s linked to their ferocious cousins' lack of purring ability.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love to Knead?
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If you're a cat lover, chances are your favorite feline has shown a penchant for kneading, and at some point has given you and/or a favorite piece of furniture a massage with his or her rhythmic paws. Colloquially called “making biscuits,” kneading is a common behavior among kittens and adult cats alike—but animal experts still aren't sure exactly why they do it.

Scientists have a few theories, some of which SciShow’s Hank Green outlined in this fascinating video. One theory is that your cat's kneading is an attempt to mark its territory—yes, even if that “territory” is you—with the scent glands in its paws. Another rationale is that kneading is a neotenic behavior, or a juvenile trait that sticks with cats into adulthood. Kittens knead their mother's belly to stimulate milk production—an act that’s nearly identical to that strange, Shiatsu-like practice it’s doing in your lap. (This could also explain why some adult cats also "suckle" the items they're kneading.)

Green does point out that domestic cats knead, whereas wild cats don’t, which raises the question: Why have only domestic felines retained this behavior? Green attributes this to the fact that house cats were selected over thousands of years for their friendlier, less aggressive traits, but says they've "probably also held on to some of their more social, baby-like behavior, just because it serves them well when they’re around people."

"I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but wildcats are not super social," Green jokes. "They don’t come up and cuddle, so much as try to eat your flesh. Felis silvestris, the ancestor of all domestic cats, is a solitary hunter that only socializes with members of its own species when it’s time to breed. So wildcats only developed social behaviors for two situations”—mating and caretaking behaviors between mother cats and their kittens.

“Unlike wild cats though, domesticated cats have a lot of social behaviors as adults, because they’re not wild loners anymore," Green adds. "They have us to cuddle with, con treats out of, and demand food from. So their innate tendencies for snuggling with mom and hitting on the lady cats are put to good use on us."

While occasionally painful or bothersome, kneading one’s owner is definitely a loving act on the part of the cat, a way of letting you know that it feels comfortable and safe with you. That said, don't sweat it if your cat isn’t big on the habit—or, conversely, worry that it kneads too much.

“Some cats are more needy and knead more than others,” Dr. Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and author of the syndicated newspaper column "Animal Doctor,” advised one anxious reader who reported that her kitty had taken to kneading the family dog. “This behavior is exacerbated when a cat is weaned from its mother too soon. It’s an anxious cat’s way of seeking contact comfort.”

If you’re not a fan of kneading, it's futile to train your cat to cease a perfectly natural behavior. Instead, consider investing in a pair of nail clippers—and when you’ve finally had enough, gently push the cat away and enjoy the fleeting freedom of an empty lap.

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