Cat Fur Patterns, Colors & Genetics

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Cat Fur Colors

Cats come in an array of gorgeous colors and patterns. The most common colors for cat fur are black, white, brown and red/ginger/orange. Cats also come in gray/blue, chocolate, cinnamon, lilac, cream/buff, and fawn. These more unusual colors are genetically recessive or diluted versions of the darker colors.

This litter has two brown kittens, two gray kittens, and one orange kitten, all tabbies.

Cat Fur Color Genetics

Brown Fur Gene

A “browning” gene codes for eumelanin, which produces black and brown fur. The dominant form, B, of the gene will result in black fur. Two versions of the recessive form of the gene, b and bl result in medium brown (chocolate) or light brown (cinnamon) fur respectively.

Orange Fur Gene

A gene on the X chromosome determines if the brown-colored eumelanin will be replaced with phaeomelanin, a red pigment. Female cats have two X chromosomes, and male cats have 1 X and 1 Y chromosome. Each chromosome can have either a dominant O or a recessive o in the “orange” gene spot. Therefore, a male cat with 1 X chromosome can have either O and be fully orange, or o and have no orange fur at all.

Since female cats have 2 X chromosomes, they have 2 places for this oranging gene to be expressed. If the female cat has OO, she will be all orange. If she has Oo, she will be a tortoiseshell or a calico cat, having some areas of orange fur and some areas of non-orange fur. Female cats with oo will not have any orange fur at all.

This gorgeous female kitten is an orange tabby, which means she has two dominant OO orange alleles.

This X-chromosome linked gene is why calico cats are always female, and why orange female cats are fairly rare. Male calico cats do exist, but they are extremely rare. Their fur color is typically due to a chromosomal abnormality, such as XXY Klinefelter syndrome.

Another fun fact about orange cat fur gene is that it always makes a cat’s underlying tabby pattern visible. While other colors may fully or partially mask tabby stripes and splotches, you won’t find a orange fur on a cat without tabby markings present. Cool!

White Cat Fur Gene

There are three main genetic variations that can produce a cat with an all-white coat: the dominant white gene, a fully expressed “white-spotting” gene, or albinism.

First, the KIT gene contributes to white fur on a cat. This gene is sometimes called the “masking” gene because it “masks” other color fur with white. The wild type w results in no white. The dominant form of the gene, WD, is associated with blue eyes and deafness in white cats.

Their is a white spotting version of this gene, WS, which is also called a piebald gene. This allele results in a cat that is up to 50% white if the cat is heterozygous for the gene, and 50-100% white if the cat is homozygous for the gene. There is also the recessive wg “Birman white gloving allele” that gives carriers characteristic white socks. Deafness is also associated with this white-spotting white fur gene. While cats that are white due to the dominant white gene described above will have blue eyes, cats that are white due to the white spotting gene will have yellow or green eyes.

A cat with white fur and yellow eyes lounges and looks down from a brick surface.
Cats with white fur due to the white spotting gene will have yellow or green eyes, while cats who are white due to the dominant white gene will likely have blue eyes and be prone to deafness.

Albino Cat Genetics

A different gene, called the tyrosinase gene, determines if a cat will be an albino. There two different forms of albinism that can cause a cat to have all white fur. One will cause an albino cat to have pale blue eyes, and one will cause an albino cat to have pink eyes (indicating no pigment at all). Neither form of albinism is associated with deafness in this genetic expression that leads to white furred cats.

Dilute Color Fur Gene

Cats have another gene commonly called the dilution gene or dense pigment gene. The dominant form of the gene D results in commonly colored cats like brown and black. Cats with two recessive alleles d will have a diluted coat. Black coats get diluted into gray or blue. A chocolate coat comes out lilac; a cinnamon coat becomes fawn; red becomes buff or cream.

A comparison of two similar kittens - one calico and one dilute calico
These sisters are both calico, but the one on the right has the dilution gene.
Genes that determine color combine with the gene for pigment dilution to determine what color a cat's fur will be
The information for this chart has been adapted from http://www.fanciers.com/other-faqs/color-genetics.html.

Cat Genetic Testing

If you’re interested in discovering the genetics carried by your favorite feline, check out this genetics test kit. Starting at $99 for a single test, this at-home test kit covers 4 major breed groups and key breeds in each. The report also includes 39 genetic mutations that correspond to 17 diseases your cat may be susceptible to. With 4.5/5 stars and 215 reviews, this test kit is a solid option for learning more about the genetics carried by your beloved feline!

Cat Fur Patterns

Cats come in solid colors, tabby, pointed, bicolor, and tricolor.

Solid Cats

Solid color cats, or “solids” are cats with only one color on their entire coat. If a cat has any splotches or splashes of another shade of fur, it is not considered to be a solid colored cat. In some locations, solids are called self-colored cats, or “selfs” instead of solids.

A cat with solid black fur looks at the camera with copper eyes.
This cat has solid black fur.

Tabby Cats

All tabby cats have a classic “Tabby M” on their forehead, making a large capital M above their eyes and between their ears. This distinctive marking is super cute. Tabby cats often have dark “eyeliner” markings around their eyes, with lighter colored fur around the lining. They have stripes on their torsos, tails, and legs (though the torso bands disappear on some types of tabbies).

The tabby "M" forehead markings and lines around the eyes are clearly visible on a cute brown kitten.
The tabby “M” forehead markings and “eyeliner” lines around the eyes are clearly visible on this cute kitten.

Types of Tabby Cats

Tabby cats come in several different styles. A classic tabby has broad whirls, spirals, and bands.The classic tabby fur pattern can also be called a blotched tabby or a marbled tabby.

A silver tabby with a classic tabby pattern.

A mackerel tabby has many thin stripes that sometimes break into spots and bars. This is the most common tabby pattern.

A cat with a brown mackerel tabby pattern.
A mackerel tabby cat

Spotted tabbies have spots instead of stripes. Their spots may be arranged either horizontally or vertically.

A spotted tabby pattern on a cat with gray fur.
A gray spotted tabby. Attribution: Cdhowe at English

Ticked tabbies have a special gene that gives them a gradient of color on each hair strand over their entire coat. This gradient results in a ticked tabby coat that is not striped but instead appears speckled or salt-and-pepper-y. Despite their lack of stripes, ticked tabbies are still considered to be tabby cats. They display that classic tabby “M” on their forehead and eyeliner markings.

A tabby cat with ticked fur. Tabby markings are visible on the face, and stripes visible on the legs and tail. Image from Wikimedia.

Pointed Cats

When a cat has a pale coat color with darker patches on its face, ears, feet, and tail, it is called point coloration. Siamese cats are the most recognized breed of cat with pointed coats, but the point coloration gene can be carried by many breeds.

The body of a pointed cat is usually white or cream, but may be orange, fawn, or even tortoiseshell or a tabby pattern. The gene that causes the point coloration pattern is regulated by temperature. Cats are born with the lighter color, since they have been living in a uniformly warm environment up until that point.

A pointed cat with light body fur and dark fur on its face, ears, legs, and tail.
This pointed cat has light body fur and dark fur on its face, ears, legs, and tail.

As the cats grow and develop outside the womb, the cooler parts of their bodies develop the darker color while the warmer body parts remain with lighter colored fur. Thus, the extremities – feet, tail, face, and ears – are what darkens in the characteristic point fur pattern.

Sepia and mink cat fur

Some cats carry genes that originated with Burmese cats that leads to a more extreme color pointing. In these cats, the fur is dark everywhere except for the warmed area of the body – the abdomen. The cat’s tummy will retain a lighter color, and the rest of the cat’s body will be dark. Cats can also carry one gene for a pointed coat and one gene for a sepia coat. In this case, the cat’s fur pigment distribution will be in between the extremes of pointed and sepia. This in-between coat pattern is called mink.

A cat with darker color pointing.
A cat with darker color pointing.

Bicolor Cats

Bicolor cats have a coat with one primary color and white fur. The primary color can be a solid color from the black fur color family, or orange or brown tabby. Bicolor cats are also sometimes called piebald cats. The amount of white ranges from almost entirely white fur, to a colored cat with only a small splotch of white on the chest area.

Bicolor cats (and tricolor cats) get their fur pattern from the white spotting gene. There are different names for bicolor cats with different patterns of white and color. Some of the names for the different patterns include magpie, harlequin, tuxedo, van, mitted, and cap & saddle.

Tortoiseshells are also a type of bicolor cat, since they have two colors in their coat. However, torties are usually referred to by this separate name, and “bicolor” typically refers to color-and-white cats.

Tortoiseshell Cats

Tortoiseshell is used to describe a coat pattern that is a mixture of black and orange fur. The black area may be expressed as chocolate, tabby, gray, or blue. The orange fur may be diluted to yellow or cream. Some tortoiseshell cats are have the two colors of fur thoroughly mixed together, and some have distinct patches of black and orange tabby. These cats are sometimes called particolored cats.

Processed with VSCO with j2 preset

Tortoiseshell cats are almost exclusively female, due to the oranging gene in cats being linked to the X chromosome. Torties can have variable amounts of white on their coat in addition to the orange and black. This is due to the activity of the white spotting gene. If there is enough white present, the tortoiseshell will be called a calico. A tortie with a small amount of white will be classified as “tortoiseshell and white”. Tortoiseshell cats that have brown tabby markings rather than black fur are referred to as torbies.

Tricolor Cats

Calicos

Calico cats are tortoiseshell cats with a large degree of white spotting. Like all cats with both orange and brown or black fur, calico cats are almost always female. Calicos may carry the dilute fur gene, turning their black or brown patches to blue, lilac, or fawn, and their orange patches to cream. Calicos may also have patches of tabby in either the red areas or the brown areas of their fur. Calico cats with tabby fur are sometimes called “caliby” cats. Calicos may have anywhere from a small patch of white fur (such as a tortoiseshell-and-white, as described above), to being almost entered white with small areas of red and black fur. This is determined by the expression of the white spotting gene.

Cat Coat Pattern Genetics

Agouti Gene

The agouti gene is what determines whether each hair will be a solid color, or will be a gradient from one color to another. The wild-type dominant A gene will result in individual cat hairs having bands of color. These “ticked” hairs are typically alternated with a solid color, resulting in tabby stripes. The type of tabby stripes are determined by another gene. A cat with two non-agouti recessive aa genes will have a solid-colored coat. Although – sometimes a subtle underlying tabby coloration is seen on otherwise solid colored cats and kittens. This phenomenon is called ghost striping.

In orange colored cats, the orange color overrides the the agouti aa genes and the orange cat will always display tabby stripes. In the black or brown color family, the agouti gene determines if tabby stripes will be visible or not. The type of tabby stripes (that may or may not be visible) is determined by the tabby gene.

Tabby Gene

The tabby gene has three prominent alleles that result in the most common tabby patterns. The most common version of this gene, Ta, gives the ticked tabby pattern. The next most dominant Tm results in mackerel tabbies. The recessive tb allele codes for a classic tabby pattern. Only cats with two copies of the recessive allele tb will have the classic tabby pattern.

Agouti-Tabby Gene Table

Agouti and tabby genes combine to make different tabby patterns in the various fur colors.
The information for this chart has been adapted from http://www.fanciers.com/other-faqs/color-genetics.html.

Due to an incompatibility between the pheomelanin genes that code for the orange family of feline fur colors (reds, oranges, yellows) and the non-agouti gene, all orange cats are tabbies. If you see a solid-colored orange cat, it is likely due to careful breeding that has “washed out” the tabby pattern to be less visible. Look for the other signs of the tabby pattern, such as an “M” on the forehead, and eyeliner markings.

Tipped, Shaded, and Smoked Cat Fur

Cat hair can have varying amounts of pigmentation (or lack thereof) at different points along each hair length. This color characteristic is called shading. Shading classifications include tipped, shaded, smoked, solid, or ticked.

Solid color cats have no other colors present on their coats.

Tipped Cats, Shimmered Cats, or Chinchilla Coats

When just the very tip of the hair is colored, it’s called tipped, shelled, or chinchilla. The “uncolored” portion of the hair is typically white, though it may be another light color such as cream, yellow, or light orange. The tabby pattern is not visible in cats with tipped hair shading. The tabby stripes comes from the cat’s non-ticked hairs alternating in a striped pattern with ticked cat hairs. In cats with tipped hairs, the hairs all lighten before the banding would begin. Tipped cats often look white or cream at first glance, but sparkle with a silvery or golden shimmer upon closer inspection.

A white tipped-fur cat sitting on red decking.
A tipped-fur cat. Image from wikimedia.

Shaded Cats

When a cat has shaded hair, the outermost 1/4 of the cat’s hairs have color. As with tipped cats, the tabby pattern is not visible in shaded cats. However, the pigmented color is more visible in shaded cats, particularly on the head and along the cat’s back.

Smoked Cats

A smoked cat has hairs that are pigmented on the outer half of the hair. The dark pigment overrides enough of the ticked pattern that the tabby pattern is not visible. Smoked cats often look like solid color cats until they move, at which point the lighter undercoat becomes visible. For more images of tipped, shaded, and smoked cats, check out this Love These Cats Pinterest board.

Cat fur can have variable pigmentation along each hair length.
Each cat hair may have a different distribution of pigment along the root, the middle, and the tip of the hair. Information from The Complete Cat Breed Book.

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