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Equine Polydactylism
 By Winniefield Park   •   1st Dec 2018   •   346 views   •   0 comments
Once upon a time, a friend of mine had a cat named Mother. Mother, as her name suggests produced numerous offspring, back in that wild and wooly time before spaying and neutering was common. Most of the kittens were re-homed or became barn cats. And all the kittens had one thing in common with their mother, besides being cats.

They were polydactyls.

Mother’s kittens often had endearingly larger than normal feet because they had extra toes. This is called polydactylism. Polydactylism also happens in humans and other mammals. Polydactylism is probably more common in cats than horses but it does happen. But the result is extra fingers or toes. In the case of Mother and her kittens, there was very likely a genetic factor that caused the extra digits. Some chicken breeds for example have breed standards that include extra toes. Extra toes are prized by owners of Maine Coon Cats. In other cases, something just ‘happens’ that produces those extra toes or fingers.

In horses the extra appendage is called a supernumerary digit, and it grows off the splint bone on both front or hind legs. There may be four supernumerary digits, there may be only one, or a partial digit. The splint bone is a small bone that runs alongside of the canon bones. They are quite small compared to the other bones in the horse’s leg. The leg may appear to emerge from either side of the splint bone, or from the back. This may be a throwback to a time when horses had more than one toe on each leg.

The supernumerary digit can be just a nub of bone that does not look like a hoof, or could be fully formed, with fetlock joints and all other structures of the hoof in place. The extra leg and hoof may look quite normal, as in miniature, or it may be somewhat deformed. Rarely does it appear that if left to grow, would the extra hoof or hooves meet the ground. But it does depend on how far down the leg the extra digit grows. In the case of one horse, named HRF Trooper, a horse rescued by the Horse Rescue Fund in Britain, a supernumerary digit grew from the inside of one foreleg, and is long enough and far down enough that the small extra hoof hits the ground.

Before veterinarians and horse owners had the knowledge and resources available to remove extra digits, animals with polydactylism were regarded with suspicion or as an oddity. Today, if a foal is born with this condition, surgery is done to remove the extra bone and tissue. But, before Trooper was rescued, his owners did not provide the veterinary care required, and Trooper is now known as the five-legged horse. Another famous polydactyl horse from Britain was known as the Norfolk Spider. This Shire horse had six ‘feet’ and was known as the ‘cloven footed horse’. Polydactylism is a rare, but not an unknown occurrence in the Shire breed.

Below images and writings by Othniel Charles Marsh are in the public domain.

Polydactylism


Polydactylism
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