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Hemingway Cats

Can you see my feet - I have lots of toes!
brownpau [Flickr]
Can you see my feet - I have lots of toes!

Polydactyl cats have extra toes on one or more paws.  They are often called Hemingway cats.


A normal cat has four toes on each back foot, and five toes on each front foot. But it is not unusual to find a cat with six or even seven toes. Such cats are called “Polydactyl”, the result of a genetic trait.

In 1935, a ship captain gave a six-toed cat named Snowball to Ernest Hemingway. Three years after the author’s death in 1961, his Key West home was turned into a museum, which houses Hemingway memorabilia – and forty to fifty of Snowball’s descendants. About half of the cats have extra toes, although all carry the polydactyl gene.

The cat population at the Hemingway Home and Museum has become famous, and more than just a few tourists who go there are more interested in seeing the cats than learning about the famous Nobel-prize-winning author. These special cats are living the good life in the warm Florida sunshine, well fed, regular veterinary care – and they have the run of the place.

Several years ago, the U-S Department of Agriculture claimed the Hemingway Museum should have a license required for exhibitors of live animals. And, it said, the cats must be confined or caged. The Museum disagreed, saying the cats are not performing or “on display” but rather are residents of the property, part of the cat population that has lived there for eighty years.

After a four-year battle with the USDA, the Hemingway Museum finally won its case – with help from the Key West City Commission, which voted to exempt the Hemingway cats from federal rules, calling them “animals of historic, social and tourism significance.” They are, said city officials, “an integral part of the history and ambiance of the Hemingway House."

You can see pictures of some of the Hemingway cats by visiting the museum’s website at You may be inspired to adopt your own feline friend.

Whether it has extra toes or not, you will discover what visitors to the Hemingway Museum learn, that each cat is interesting, and unique – which makes each one special, when you’re speaking of pets.


Mindy Norton has been “Speaking of Pets” on Alabama Public Radio since 1995.
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