Felines come in many shapes and sizes. Well, maybe not as diverse as its fellow rival the dog, but cats do have an extensive range of colors and patterns. And it’s all thanks to genetics. This is the first installment of a three part series.
In general, there are six basic patterns, or combinations of colors in a specific layout: solid, tabby, bi-color, tortoiseshell, tricolor, and color-point. This post will cover the first three patterns.
The easiest one to recognize is the solid pattern, which is, for the most part, a single-colored coat that is evenly distributed all over the body. It is key that a solid-colored cat has no recognizable stripes, spots, ticking, patches, or shading. For example, a “solid-blue” cat or a “maltese” is blue-gray all over, whether it may be a dark slate gray, a medium gray, or a pale ash gray. Or, a “solid-black” cat is black all over and includes shades such as coal black, grayish black, or brownish black. (Fun Fact: Black cats can “rust” in the sunlight; the coat will turn into a lighter brownish shade.)
Interestingly, when they are very young kittens, some solids may display a few hairs of a secondary color. As the cat matures, the odd hairs disappear and the cat becomes solid colored all over. In general, a feline with a solid-colored coat was once rare. However, it is now extremely common due to breeding and can be found in every breed.
Most solid-colored cats are the result of a recessive gene that suppresses the tabby pattern. Sometimes, the tabby pattern is not totally suppressed, so one might see indistinct “shadow” tabby markings in certain lights even on a solid-black cat. This is also seen in melanistic felines as well. Black panthers will also have these shadow markings because they too have a similar spot-suppressing gene.
On the other hand, the tabby-suppressing gene is not effective on red or cream cats, so there won’t be any red or cream cats without tabby markings. Red is the professional term for the coat color otherwise known as orange or ginger. The gene for red color is sex-linked, which is why red cats are usually males. Cream is a dilute version of the red and in combination with blue, it can create dilute calicos and tortoiseshells.
Breeders have produced red and cream cats that appear solid by selecting for rufousing polygenes, group of smaller genes that cause the tabby markings, that tend to wash out the contrast in the tabby pattern. A tell-tale ‘M’ can still be seen on the forehead of most “solid” reds.
Solid white cats are the result of a different gene that suppresses color completely. However, young white cats often have vague smudges of color on the top of the head where the color is not completely suppressed. Sometimes this persists even in an older white cat. There are several genetic varieties of white, some of which create an all-over solid white cat, others bicolor or tricolor cats. One genetic variety of solid white can sometimes cause deafness; however, not all white cats are deaf (just as not all deaf cats are necessarily white).
All these colors can be frequently seen but solid brown cats aren’t common. The only breed really associated with this color is the Havana Brown. In some breeds, brown variations are also called chocolate.
Other similar colors to brown are lavender/lilac, cinnamon, and fawn. Lilac or Lavender are interchangeable names for a shade of light gray-brown with pink overtones. Some associations and breed clubs use one while others use the other. Cinnamon is a variety of solid light brown color with distinct red overtones while fawn is a dilute version of cinnamon.
Next are the tabbies, the most common coat pattern in the wild. In fact, they can be seen in the popular big cats. The tiger is a stripped tabby. The leopard is a spotted tabby, while the lion is a tabby agouti. It shouldn’t be a surprise that tabbies are the most common, this pattern is especially useful as camouflage for these predators. Hiding behind the grass blades of the African savannah, or in the branches of a leafed tree, spots and stripes can make a cat virtually invisible to its prey. It is also extremely common among domestic cats, particularly those of mixed breeds.
All tabby cats and kittens share similar facial markings. These marks include dark lines that go from the eyes toward the back of the head and special marks on the cat’s forehead that resemble the letter “M”. These marks are visible in all tabby pattern variations and colors. They are called the “tabby mask”.
Tabbies come in four varieties: striped, blotched, spotted, and ticked.
The striped tabby is the easily the most recognized pattern. It is also known as the mackerel pattern because of the resemblance to a fishbone. Cats with this pattern have long vertical stripes along its body. If it is a “show-quality” striped tabby, the stripes should be whole and evenly spaced. People will also refer to them as a “tiger.”
A blotched tabby has two shades that create a blotched-like pattern of rounded stripes and circles. This is also known as a “marble” pattern. Compared to the striped pattern, the body of a blotched tabby features wider stripes in addition to bull’s-eye swirls.
Another pattern is the spotted tabby who sports spots all over. Sometimes these are large spots, sometimes small spots, and sometimes they appear to be broken mackerel stripes. Usually the spots are the darker color of the two shades.
Last is the ticked tabby. Unlike the other three types, there is no clear markings other than the tabby facemask. Instead of any distinct striped or spotted pattern, there is only ticked agouti, the gene responsible, hair all over the body. They can be distinguished by bands of colors in a salt-and-pepper style, usually in the colors of red, ruddy, blue, and fawn shades. Each hair is decorated with alternating bands of light and dark colors, ending with a dark tip. This pattern is typical in several breeds, such as the Abyssinian and the Singapura, but is otherwise rare.
Like solid-colored cats, tabbies come in many different colors. One way one can tell what color a tabby is by looking at the color of its stripes and its tail tip. The color of the agouti hairs (the “ground color”) may vary tremendously from cat to cat as some cats may have a washed out gray ground color while others will have rich orange tones.
- A “brown tabby” has black stripes on a brownish or grayish ground color. The black stripes may be coal black, or a little bit brownish.
- A “blue tabby” has gray stripes on a grayish or buff ground color. The gray stripes may be a dark slate gray, or a lighter blue-gray.
- A “red tabby” has orange stripes on a cream ground color. The orange stripes may be dark reddish orange, or light “marmalade” orange.
- A “cream tabby” has cream stripes on a pale cream ground color. These stripes look sand-colored or peach-colored rather than orange.
- A “silver tabby” has black stripes on a white ground color. The roots of the hairs are white. Blue silver, cream silver, or red silver tabby (red silver is also known as “cameo tabby”) are also possible depending on the color of the stripes. In all cases, silver tabbies have a pale ground color and white roots. To make sure, part the hairs and look at the roots.
The term bi-color refers to a coat of white and one other color, which can be a solid or show a tabby pattern. This pattern is common among mixed bred cats but it also acceptable in many breeds.
Depending on the ratio between white and the color, bi-colored cats have multiple nicknames. The term “harlequin” is sometimes used to describe a cat with a mostly white coat. “Vans” is more specific variation of “harlequin,” in which the cat is mostly white with patches of color on the head and tail only. On the other hand, if a bi-color cat is mostly colored, the patches of white may have names that describe their location: locket (chest), mittens (paws) and buttons (patches on the abdomen). A black cat with white paws, belly and sometimes face, is often referred to as “Tuxedo”.
Come back next week for the next installment where we discuss the last three patterns: tortoiseshell, tricolor or better known as calico, and color-point!
References + For More Reading
Eyewitness Companions: Cats by Dr. Bruce Fogle