Cat Coloration and Patterns
Way back in high school, I was fascinated by genetics – especially how some genetics develop certain traits like eye color or coat color/markings. For me, it was very interesting to learn how genetics and selective breeding created these certain traits. Fast forward a couple of years when I was working in animal shelters. It is very important to properly identify an animal when they come in as a stray. Especially when trying to reunite a lost pet with their owner. Sadly, it doesn’t happen as often as it should. Some of the reason is due to a lack of proper identification with I.D. tags/collar and microchip. But unfortunately, I believe a lot of it has to do with owners not being able to completely and accurately describe their pet’s coat color and markings. Even though I no longer work in animal sheltering, I still come across people who don’t get the color/markings correct. It is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. For example, I can’t tell you the amount of times where people say they have a grey tabby and it is actually a brown tabby.
This picture of Miroku and Angelo can clearly show you the difference between the two. Miroku is the grey tabby in the foreground and Angelo is the brown tabby on the right. This blog will discuss the coat colors and patterns/markings in cats and some history and insight into why they appear as they do.
There are two great documentaries that I have fully invested my time in and if you are looking for something to watch, I would recommend them to any cat fancier. The first one I saw on Netflix, called The Lion in Your Living Room (2015). The second is from PBS Nature, The Story of Cats (2016). In The Lion in Your Living Room, researchers have traced genesis of the domestic cat from Wild Cats to Israel. These early domestic cats still had the appearance of their wild ancestors with their brown striped coat. The researchers have found that these early cats were not domesticated to help humans hunt rats and other varmints but simply because humans had garbage and it was easy meals for the cats. Even though they never really had a purpose other than being a good pet, they still were favored and began to travel with early humans throughout the rest of the world. It was actually the ancient Egyptians who first started breeding cats. These cats still had their wild ancestor’s looks. It is believed that the first coat color mutation from the brown tabby is the solid black coat. These solid black coats are simply a lack of the other colors. There are some solid colored cats that you are still able to see the stripes in just the right lighting – there are two examples of this below. Due to the ancient port city of Alexandria, humans and cats expanded around the world and in doing so, new coat patterns would appear. The Vikings seemed to favor the red tabbies and they are seen in higher frequencies in the regions the Vikings were trading in, even to this day. Then in the 1800’s, Great Britain fell in love with the “blotched” tabby and started to breed cats and have cat shows. The interesting fact here is that humans developed most dog breeds to perform certain tasks; cats were bred strictly for appearances.
The Story of Cats has a lot of great details about wild cats and our domestic friends. One section of the documentary discusses coat patterns (otherwise known as markings). In the wild, having a spotted coat pattern allows the cat to be better camouflage to hunt during the dawn and dusk hours. Having a solid or stripped coat allows the cat to hunt in grassy areas. This documentary also discusses the fact that a cat’s colorations are actually skin deep. If you were to shave a multi-colored cat, their skin has different pigmentations where their fur differs. The sphynx cat is a perfect example of the skin pigmentations.
Another part of my coloration/pattern pet peeve is that people believe that if a cat has a certain look or characteristic then it has to be a purebred mix. For example, all cats with points are a Siamese mix, or tailless cats are a Manx, or all long hair brown tabbies are Maine Coon mixes. But that is not at all the case; ALL domestic cats can have the same colors, patterns, and mutations as purebred cats. My kitty Stewie is a great example of that. He arrived at the shelter with two siblings. Stewie looks like a Persian, his brother was a regular-looking short haired brown tabby and the other one looked like a mixture of the two with a short hair coat and a muzzle that was half the length of a regular cat muzzle.
Just a quick note before I start on colorations and patterns: all the photos on this blog were taken by me of my personal pets, cats from the local animal shelter or MVVS patients unless marked otherwise. Please do not use these photos as your own.
Since the tabby was the first domesticated color pattern, I am going to start with this group. Tabbies can be divided into four tabby patterns: mackerel, classic, spotted and ticked.
This is sometimes wrongly referred to as a “tiger” cat. This pattern has narrow vertical stirpes that run down its side with one stripe that runs the length of the spine. Looking down at this angle the stripes can resemble a fish skeleton, hence the term mackerel tabby.
This tabby pattern is what some regions refer to as “blotched” tabbies. Tabbies with this pattern have bold, swirling lines over its body much like a marble cake.
This foster kitten of mine has some characteristics of a spotted tabby on his mid-section. Spotted tabbies is exactly what their name implies, they have spots all over their body. The spots can be round, oval or rosettes. The size of the spots can be small like the Ocicat or large like the Bengal cat.
Ticked tabbies can be referred to as Agouti tabbies or Abyssinian Tabbies. This coat pattern has stripes on their legs and face but no stripes on the body. Instead, the body has agouti hairs; meaning if you take a look at a single strand of hair – it has alternating light and dark bands. The ticked pattern is prominently displayed in Abyssinians.
As you can see from the photos above, tabbies can come in several different colors. Some have white accents and some do not.
Brown tabbies can be slightly different shades of brown. Like the dark brown classic tabby or the lighter mackerel tabby.
There are grey tabbies.
I had a wonderful group of red tabby foster kittens that had three out of the four tabby types.
(picture from Pexel.com)
A patched tabby or torbie is basically looks like a tortoiseshell with stripes or a tabby that has patches of red/orange.
Torties have random patches of black, red and cream. Torties are most often female cats.
Calicos are mostly white with patches of black and red. Just like tortoiseshell cats, calicos are mostly females. It is estimated that for out of 3,000 calicos only 1 will be male. That is a 0.03 percentage! In over 18 years, I have only ever seen 2 calico males.
DILUTED TORTIE or DILUTED CALICO
Also known as blue cream or blue tortie/calico. Easiest way to describe either of these is to say the grey (or blue) replaces any of the areas that would be black on a tortie or calico. Dilutes are also mostly females.
Like I stated earlier, solid colorations are the absence of other colors. But occasionally the tabby stripes can still be seen – like in the photos for the black kitten and the first grey kitten below.
WHITE MARKINGS (BI-COLOR)
White markings can occur on any color. There are some terminology that can describe where/ how the white markings appear on the color.
This picture shows a black and white tuxedo and a chocolate and white tuxedo kittens. A tuxedo cat has white chest, belly, paws and sometimes on the face.
Cats with a white “button” has white spot on their belly. This picture of Enzo shows he has a button and locket white patches.
Harlequin markings are patches of color on a mostly white background.
A cat with a locket has a white spot on its chest.
Mitted has only white on paws. I cannot find a photo of a cat with just white paws.
Van markings are mostly white with patches of color on head and tail only.
FROSTED / SMOKED
Some cats can have single strands of hair that are part white and part black that causes the fur to have a smokey or frosted appearance.
A cat with points have one color on their ears, face, legs, paws and tail and a different color on the rest of their body.There are several well-known purebred cats that have points. When a domestic short or long haired stray cat or kitten shows up, most people believe it is a cross with one of these breeds. The Siamese, Thai, Ragdoll, Snowshoe, Himalayan, Tonkinese and Javanese are just a few of these purebred breeds with points. Both standard and purebred points come in several different varieties.
Seal points have dark brown markings. Often the coloration is dark like a sea lion.
Chocolate points are very similar to Seal points but they are a lighter shade of brown.
Lilac / Blue
Lilac or Blue points have grey color points.
Flame points have orange color points.
(photo from unsplash.com)
Cream points have a very light buff color point.
Lynx points have any of the above color points with the addition of striped tabby markings on their face, legs and tails.
Tortie points has what the name implies – points that are tortoiseshell.
There has been a lot of information provided in this blog about cat colorations and patterns. Hopefully, you have learned something but if not at least you got to look at the wonderful diversity of beautiful cats!