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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
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

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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environment
How Japan's 'Dancing' Cats Predicted a Deadly Environmental Disaster
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In the 1950s, residents of Minamata, Japan, noticed that something was wrong with the city's cats. As the SciShow's Hank Green recounts in the video below, the cats would convulse, make strange noises and jerking "dancing" motions—and eventually die. Soon, these symptoms spread to the local townspeople, and scientists began searching for the cause of the terrifying sickness.

The culprit was soon revealed to be the Chisso Corporation, a Japanese chemical company with a factory in Minamata. About 30 years earlier, the company had begun making an organic chemical called acetaldehyde, using mercury as a catalyst to trigger the needed reactions. Afterwards, the company dumped the leftover chemicals into Minamata Bay, where the mercury came into contact with bacteria that transformed it into the most noxious form of the metal: methylmercury. This toxic substance was absorbed by plants, which were in turn eaten by fish. Eventually, the methylmercury made its way up the food chain and poisoned both felines and humans. Birth defects became rampant, and more than 900 people died. Thousands of victims have since been identified. The neurological syndrome caused by extreme mercury poisoning is now known as Minamata disease.

You can learn more about the worst mercury poisoning disaster the world has ever seen by watching the video below.

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