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What is Polydactyly?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 29, 2024
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Polydactyly is a genetic condition which manifests in the form of extra fingers and toes. These digits are sometimes called supernumerary, in a reference to the fact that they exceed the number of conventional digits. Polydactyly is not life threatening or harmful, although it may be associated with a more serious genetic condition which does require treatment. In some parts of the world, people choose to remove these excess digits to avoid comment or social isolation.

These extra digits can take a number of different forms. The most common is a stub of tissue without any joints, typically located next to the little finger or toe. In some cases, however, the extra digit has bones and articulated joints, and it can even be used. This can cause x-rays to look quite unusual and sometimes a bit confusing. Some people have polydactyl thumbs, meaning that they have two thumbs on the same hand, typically right next to each other.

The condition is caused by an error in the genes which determine the shape of the hand or foot. In some cases, it's an isolated genetic incidence, and the polydactyly is the only symptom. In other instances, something goes awry during fetal development, causing genes to misfire and grow another digit. In other instances, the condition may be part of a larger genetic condition such as aneuploidy, an odd number of chromosomes which can lead to serious birth defects.

The only treatment for polydactyly is surgery. Since the condition is not harmful, most surgery is cosmetic, although in some cases the extra digits may interfere with normal life. Some people choose to retain their polydactyly, and other than trouble finding gloves that fit, the condition is usually not an issue. However, in some areas birth defects are treated with serious superstition; deformities are treated as curses and they are associated with Satan and evil doings. In these cases, surgery is a good choice, because it will allow the patient a much happier life.

Many people are familiar with polydactyly in cats, since it is a rather common mutation, especially along the East Coast of the United States. A polydactyl cat may have one or more extra toes on each foot, causing the feet to appear large and splayed. The Hemingway cats in Florida, who live on the former estate of Ernest Hemingway, are well known polydactyl cats, demonstrating the genetic link to polydactyly in cats as they represent multiple generations of felines.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon318035 — On Feb 05, 2013

I have this disorder and I am 16 right now and in high school. It's pretty rough to get through it with people making fun of you because you're different and you don't look like they do, but it's something you just have to suck up to and live with it and I don't mind having it.

By anon230352 — On Nov 18, 2011

It's not only third world countries, but in developed countries too. People have been very insensitive about this particular condition. I have experienced it myself. It's not about the countries, but about people's attitudes.

By anon168749 — On Apr 18, 2011

My son was born with an extra thumb on his right hand. Fully-functional, two-boned thumb with a joint, it's own ligaments, and a fingernail.

We were concerned about being able to afford the surgery, but our medical insurance covered it. If they hadn't, the state said they would pay for it. Apparently, the US doesn't want people running around with extra fingers. It does not run in either of our families, and he has no other defects. Do not pity those who live with this condition, pity the ones who react so negatively towards them.

By anon78285 — On Apr 18, 2010

My mother had this condition and then the doctors cut off the wrong finger. Imagine that! But some can benefit from this, just look at Hound Dog Taylor.

And as for third world countries, although some may see it was an evil sign, but there are many that would also see it as a sign of greatness and due for high power, e.g., those who had seizures as children or born with some form of mental retardation often became Shamans and were seen as a person who had direct connections with the spirit worlds.

By breakofday — On Feb 19, 2010

I feel bad for the poor children who are born with this condition and live in these countries that view it as evil. I assume that the countries that still see it that way are most likely 3rd world and poor, so while surgery is a "good choice" how many families just can't afford it? Then that child grows up a pariah for something he/she had no control over and lack of money was the source.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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