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Do All Cats Have Thumbs? Feline Anatomy Explained

Bynewsmagzines

May 8, 2023
tabby cat licking her paw

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tabby cat licking her paw

Despite popular belief, not all cats have thumbs. It may seem like a silly question, but it is surprisingly very common because cats are impressively dexterous creatures. Most people often assume that it must have thumbs since a cat can open doors, climb trees, and scratch.

Thus, discussing a cat’s anatomy regarding its toes and why some cats have extra toes is important. Read on to learn everything you need to know about this phenomenon.

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Do Cats Even Have Thumbs?

This question has puzzled cat enthusiasts for many years, and its answer lies in evolution. Cats are descendants of the Felidae family. These are ancient carnivores, including tigers, leopards, and lions. These felines were also all digitigrades, meaning they had to walk on their toes without using the ball or heel of the foot. It gave them more agility and greater speed when hunting prey.

Initially, these animals didn’t have thumbs, and as time went by, the thumbless trait was passed down to their descendants, which includes our modern-day felines. Sure, some animals like dogs and bears from the Carnivora family evolved to have thumbs, but cats never developed this characteristic.

Rare polydactyl orange cat showing large paw with extra toes
Image Credit: Lux Blue, Shutterstock

Why Do People Assume Cats Have Thumbs?

Since cats can grab objects, they must have a thumb, right? It might seem straightforward, but the answer is not quite so simple. While the extra toe may appear to be a thumb, it doesn’t function similarly to human thumbs.

All five fingers usually work in the same way, meaning none of them is opposable like that on a human hand. So, even though it may look like a thumb, it has the same function as the rest of the fingers. This is perhaps why some people prefer not to refer to any of a cat’s toes as thumbs.

Either way, veterinarians and pet owners typically refer to them as thumbs to differentiate them from the basic five toes that all cats are born with.

What Is Polydactylism in Cats?

This is a genetic mutation witnessed in cats born with more than the standard number of toes on both front and back paws. While this mutation can affect any sex or breed, it is not present in all cats. It is only common in some specific cat breeds and regions around the world.

Generally, there are three different types of polydactylism in cats.1

  • Preaxial: This refers to the situation where extra toes grow on the medial side of a cat’s paw.
  • Postaxial: This one occurs when extra digits form on the exterior side of your cat’s paw.
  • Mesoaxial: this is the third and rarest of them all. It occurs when extra toes develop at the central part of your cat’s paw.

Usually, cats have a total of 18 toes in all paws. Five of them are on the front paw, while four are on the back paw. However, some feline experts consider this information inaccurate because cats have an additional declaw located higher up in the leg. The declaw is almost obsolete in today’s modern world and is often equated to a human thumb.

According to research studies,2 over 60% of all cats affected by polydactyly have an extra toe only in the front paws. About 10% have an extra toe in their hind paws.

Also, the Guinness world record for the most toes ever found on a cat stands at 28 toes.3 While polydactyly is not expected in a specific cat breed, some breeds, like the Maine Coon Polydactyl and American Polydactyly, are popular for having extra appendages.

cat front paw
Image Credit: foxhound photos, Shutterstock

As already mentioned, even though the extra toe may resemble a thumb in appearance, it cannot function the same way ours do. However, it does give a cat an extra edge over those that do not have it.

For instance, cats with extra toes can climb faster and with ease. Some cat breeds have even evolved to use the extra toes to grab and pick up objects like toys and balls.

Moreover, when cats with extra appendages are confronted by a predator, they can use their claws to defend themselves. Using the extra claws for defense is commonly witnessed in stray and wild cats that spend most of their lives outdoors.

Health Problems Associated With Polydactyl Cats

Even though some people might shy away from buying or adopting polydactyl cats because of their extra toes, they live a pretty normal life, just like other cats do. With proper exercise and the right dietary regimen, most polydactyl cats can lead average contented lives.

Feline experts believe the thumbs in cats are hereditary and do not pose any serious health concerns for affected cats. However, the declaw can grow at an awkward angle and cause some irritation in the paw. This could easily end up inhibiting your cat’s movements.

Tips on Taking Care of Polydactyl Cats

One of the best ways of ensuring that your polydactyl cat is not affected by its mutation is to keep its nails trimmed. Granted, this may seem like a tasking endeavor, but it is well worth the time and effort.

If your cat’s claws are not trimmed, they can become overgrown and very sharp. This can lead to your cat’s paws getting caught and stuck in things like fabrics.

You should also periodically monitor your cat’s paws to ensure that they do not have any type of infections or inflammations or ingrown toenails.

If your cat’s extra toes are causing problems or discomfort to your cat, you can also have them surgically removed. It might sound like a drastic and complicated measure, but it is a relatively simple and effective medical procedure that can be done while your cat is under anesthesia.

The process involves getting rid of the last joint of the cat’s extra claws, leaving the cat with a blunt nail.

hand with cat paw
Image Credit: 5 second Studio, Shutterstock

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Conclusion

While cats do not technically have thumbs, any extra appendages growing on their paws other than the normal 18 toes are often referred to as thumbs. This is because their appearance resembles thumbs found on human hands.

Any cat breed with extra toes is referred to as a polydactyl cat. This hereditary mutation is not found in all cats but can affect cats from a certain geographical region.

Even though the extra toe may resemble a human thumb, do not expect your cat to pick up a cup or anything similar. However, the thumbs can come in very handy when a cat is scratching, climbing, playing with toys, or even defending itself from predators.


Featured Image Credit: SJ Duran, Shutterstock

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