Pet doctor: Famous cats raise questions of government involvement

Recently, Ernest Hemingway's free-ranging cats have been in the news. These 47 cats live on the grounds of Hemingway's old home, which is a museum and national historic landmark. The author loved cats, and his beloved six-toed cat Snowball is said to be the great-grandcat to the feline colony on the property.

Most cats have only five toes on their front feet -- four actual toes and then a dewclaw that is often referred to as their "thumb." Cats with extra toes are said to be "polydactyl" (poly = many; dactyl = toes). Polydactyly, as it is called, is an incomplete dominant trait in cats. This means that the extra toe will be passed from parent to most of their offspring.

Cats with extra toes often look like they are wearing mittens or catcher's gloves. There is no known advantage to having extra toes, though some owners claim their polydactyl kitty is able to use these toes like a human thumb.

Hemingway's cats may have to use their thumbs to hitchhike to another home if the federal government has its way. After concerns were voiced about the cats' well-being and roaming life style (some have wandered out into the street and been killed by cars, others have made a nuisance of themselves with the neighbors), the U.S. Department of Agriculture has investigated the situation.

The USDA concluded that the Hemingway House must comply with the federal guidelines within the Animal Welfare Act. Essentially, the act spells out the temperature, food and housing requirements that must be met to properly care for the cats. The museum has apparently installed some wire mesh and a misting system in an attempt to keep the cats within the property's wall. Other solutions, such as increasing the perimeter fence's height or adding an electric fence have been rejected for a variety of reasons. The Hemingway house failed three different inspections necessary to get a license to comply with the Animal Welfare Act.

Now, the Hemingway House seems to be suggesting that this is a case of Big Government intruding on their "privately owned" cats. Is this a David and Goliath battle or is there more that the Hemingway Museum can and should do to provide for the safety and well-being of these six-toed felines?

In the end, this issue is part of a bigger question -- how much should the government tell you what to do with your pet? In California, the answer to that question is complicated and contradictory. On the one hand, legislation to mandate the spaying and neutering of dogs and cats recently failed passage in the state legislature. Meanwhile, West Hollywood's ordinance to ban an owner's right to have his cat declawed was recently upheld in California Appellate Court.

Of course, Hemingway's cats have become an issue because we do care so much about our furry friends. Perhaps he was referring to this wonderful, rewarding relationship when Hemingway wrote "One cat just leads to another."

Dr. Jon Klingborg is a Merced veterinarian and is associated with Valley Animal Hospital. His e-mail is