Polydactyl Cats: AKA Hemingway Cats

By Hannah Baker March 12, 2019

Ernest Hemingway, prolific American novelist and short story writer, was a pioneer of the 20th Century. His ideology, outlined in his various works of fiction and nonfiction, would go on to shape the remainder of history. A little-known fact about Hemingway (but one that is equally noteworthy) was his love of cats. Specifically, Hemingway had an enormous heart for six-toed cats, or polydactyls. Because of his memorable fondness for these special, more-to-love cats, polydactyls have come to be known colloquially as Hemingway Cats.

The Legend of Hemingway Cats

The story began in the 1930s. Hemingway had just settled into his new home in Key West, Florida where he discovered his newfound love of the American landscape in this corner of the country. During this time, Hemingway was writing A Farewell to Arms, one of his most prolific works. Somewhere in this tumultuous period of his life, Hemingway met a sea captain. This sea captain’s name was Stanley Dexter. According to the legend, sea captains during this time had a preference for polydactyl cats. In fact, this unique type of cat was believed to be good luck for captains on the sea. This is because their extra toes on each foot allowed them to have better balance when out on the rough sea, and this allowed them to be wonderful mouse hunters even during the most tumultuous of sea storms.

Stanley Dexter gifted one of these lucky polydactyl cats to Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway named this cat “Snow White.” And the rest, they say, is history.

About Hemingway Cats

Normally, a cat has five toes on their front paws and four toes on their back paws. Polydactyl cats, however, carry a genetic mutation that provides them with an extra amount of love - in the form of one (or more) extra toe on the front paws (and sometimes even on the back paws!). Cats can be carriers of this genetic defect without physically manifesting the extra toe. Polydactyl cats are not a particular breed, but they have essentially come to be known as a new breed because of the general societal love that people have for this genetic defect. This genetic trait can appear in any breed, such as tabby cats, calicos, tortoiseshell, and many other types. No two Hemingway cats are the same - they vary in color, shape, size, and (of course) personality.

In fact, some humans even seek out this special type of cat to have for their own. Breeding of polydactyls has become a fairly common practice because of the widespread desire to own a polydactyl cat. Predominantly, polydactyl cats are found on the East Coast of the United States and Canada as well as in Wales and South West England. Perhaps it was the sea captains and their love of polydactyls that originally brought the Hemingway cats to the East Coast of America, likely the port city of Boston, Massachusetts. Various nicknames for these polydactyl cats include Hemingway cats, mitten cats, boxing cats, mitten-foot cats, snowshoe cats, and thumb cats.

The Cats at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s first cat, Snow White, began it all. Upon receiving this gift from the sea captain Stanley Dexter, Hemingway brought the polydactyl cat back to his Key West home. As time passed, Snow White had litter after litter, and thus the lineage began. After Hemingway died in 1961, the house that he owned in Key West was turned into a museum. Luckily, the clan of cats remained.

To this day, anywhere between 40 to 50 cats live at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. While about half of the current feline residents of the Hemingway house exhibit the physical trait of having extra toes, all of the cats there carry the genetic trait within them. It’s believed that most of the cats at the home are direct descendants of Snow White, and in fact, it’s likely that most of the polydactyls on the small island of Key West are related somehow. To continue the legacy of the Hemingway cats, one kitten is allowed to produce a litter every year and the others are spayed and neutered.

Because Hemingway liked to name his cats after famous people, the same tradition remains at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. All polydactyl cats, old and new, that live at the residence are named after the famous. Some of the cats even come to their given name. You can find a complete list of the name, birthday, and favorite house spot for each cat on the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum app. For example, one tortoiseshell cat named Gertrude Stein can be found most often on the walkway near the staff housing.

The cats go through nearly two tons of dry cat food every year. The feline residents are routinely fed twice daily (wouldn’t that be a sight to see?) at various spots throughout the home. The cats at the home are well taken care of and undergo routine veterinary care such as ear mite and flea treatment and annual vaccinations. Because of the high quality of care that these cats receive, most of the Hemingway cats in the area live to be very old. When one of the cats reaches the end of their life, however, there is even a special cemetery just for Hemingway cats on the premises.

Visitors come to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum from far and wide every year. Not surprisingly, some of these visitors come solely for the Hemingway cats.

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 A Tour Of The Hemingway Home And Museum