The Ultimate Guide To Cat Coat Colors
There’s a huge variation of cat colors and patterns out there, and as cat lovers we know that every single kitty is beautiful and unique. But all this amazing variety is actually the result of some very simple genes! For example, did you know that all cats are fundamentally either black or orange?!
The genetics that control a cat’s coat color behave somewhat like a photo-editing app: a few simple genes can filter or modify the “base layer” underneath to create the final beautiful effect.
Let’s take a look at how it works so you’ll finally know how your kitty got so gorgeous!
Black or Orange?
It’s crazy but true: there’s actually only TWO base colors of cat coats. Deep down, all cats are either black or orange, or both!
Most cats are either one or the other. Only tortoiseshells are both orange and black. That’s because the color gene is linked to the X chromosome: since females have two X chromosomes, it’s possible for them to have one orange X chromosome and one black X chromosome, resulting in the classic tortoiseshell.
Since males only have one X chromosome, they can only be black or orange — not both. So, all tortoiseshells are female (except for extremely rare genetic abnormalities, which may result in a tortoiseshell male).
But did you know that orange cats are usually male? Approximately 80% of orange cats are boys! That’s because a male orange cat only needs to inherit one orange X chromosome to grow up ginger, while a female would need both of her two X chromosomes to carry the orange gene in order to be orange herself.
Since the orange gene is less common than the black gene, it’s less likely that a female will be born with two orange X chromosomes. She would either need both of her parents to be orange (guaranteeing she would also be orange) or she would need to have an orange father and a tortoiseshell mother. In that case, she’d have a 50% chance to be orange like her dad and a 50% chance to be tortoiseshell like her mom.
In short: because it’s statistically uncommon for females to be orange, most orange cats you’ll meet are male!
Solids: Cats of One Color
But wait! You know you’ve seen cats with lots of other colors! So if all cats start with a “baseline” of black or orange, where do other colors come from?
They come from genes that “filter” this baseline. Think of it like an Instagram filter, overlaid on the initial orange or black “picture.”
All solid-colored cats are either pure black or have a gene that dilutes black into another shade, such as brown, blue (gray), lilac, fawn or cinnamon.
For example: Russian Blues are actually solid black cats with a gene that dilutes black to gray. Havana Browns are black with a filter gene that turns black into chocolate-brown. Meanwhile, all-black cats let their natural color shine! They are the #nofilter of cat colors.
So: all cats that are entirely one color are genetically black, and this black color may or may not be “filtered.” (There’s one exception, though: solid white cats. We’ll get to them later!)
What About Solid Orange?
Just like black can be filtered to gray, the orange baseline color can be filtered to cream — but unlike black cats, an orange or cream cat will never be a solid color. That’s because the tabby gene works differently on orange pigment, meaning there are no solid orange cats!
Thomas O’Malley from Disney’s Aristocats may be handsome, but you’ll probably never see a cat like him in real life. Except for rare genetic mutations, a cat’s coat cannot be solid orange. Orange cats will always have a tabby pattern.
Tabby: To Be or Not To Be?
So, now we know all cats are black or orange at heart, and their amount of pigment may or may not be diluted into another shade.
On top of this baseline color, all cats also fall into one of two categories: Tabby or Not Tabby.
All cats carry either the “agouti” gene (tabby pattern) or the “non-agouti” gene (no tabby pattern). The agouti gene is dominant and more common, which is why so many cats are tabbies. In fact, you could argue that all cats start out as tabby, but cats with the non-agouti gene have the tabby pattern “turned off.”
With just these options — black vs orange, color filters and tabby or not — there are already many combinations possible.
For example, let’s say a cat has the baseline color black, which is diluted to gray, and they also have the agouti gene. That cat will be a gray tabby!
Did you know that black cats can be tabby, too? It’s true! Black cats can also have the agouti gene. You usually can’t tell, but sometimes you can see it when they’re still kittens or when the sun hits just right!
Of course, when it comes to tabbies, many of the most famous cats in popular culture such as Garfield or Puss-in-Boots have been orange tabbies.
Even if orange cats have the non-agouti gene, their underlying tabby pattern still doesn’t get “turned off.” That’s because the non-agouti gene only impacts black pigment. It has no effect on orange pigment.
And that means...all orange cats are tabby by default!
Spots & Stripes: Types of Tabby
Just like how the baseline orange or black color can be diluted to create different shades, the agouti gene can be modified to become four different types of tabby pattern.
The most common tabby pattern and the one most people envision first is “mackerel”: the stripey-tiger look, named after the stripes on the sides of a mackerel fish.
The second most common is “marbled,” also called “classic.” This pattern features large blotches and swirls.
The “spotted” tabby pattern is often considered the wildest or most exotic because of its resemblance to big cats like jaguars and leopards. It is most often seen in breeds like the Bengal or Savannah Cat, which are domestic cats that have been purposefully crossbred with non-domesticated cat species, such as servals.
Finally, the “ticked” tabby pattern is the most unusual and hardly even looks tabby at all. This pattern creates faint stripes only on the cat’s head and legs, while randomly speckling colored hairs throughout the cat’s coat. The Abyssian cat breed provides the classic example of a ticked tabby.
Bicolor & Tricolor: Let’s Add Some White
So, now we have orange vs black and tabby vs not. There’s just one more important gene that gives many cats a splash of white.
It’s called the “masking” gene, and it covers any color with white, no matter what the cat’s baseline color is. If the masking gene is only expressed on parts of the cat’s body, it’s called partial masking or “piebald.” If the masking gene is expressed everywhere, it’s called complete masking and results in an entirely all-white cat!
Piebald: Bicolors and Tricolors
A bicolor cat will be part white and part any other color. The colored section of the cat’s body may be orange or black, diluted or not, and tabbied or not.
There are many beautiful bicolor patterns. One of the most common is all-black with a white “bib,” known as a tuxedo cat. It’s also common for a cat to have just one spot of white on their chest. This is called a locket pattern.
As the name suggests, a tricolor cat will have three different colors: white, orange, and black. Just like with bicolor cats, the colored sections of their fur may also be diluted or tabbied.
As we’ve learned, though, only female cats can be both orange and black. That means all tricolor cats are female! They are more commonly known as calico.
It’s easy to get confused between the terms tortoiseshell and calico. A tortoiseshell is any cat with both orange and black, while a calico must have orange, black, and white. So that means all calicos are tortoiseshells, but not all tortoiseshells are calico!
Snowball Cats: Albino vs White
There’s a common misconception that all-white animals must be albino, but in fact they usually aren’t. So what’s the difference between an all-white cat and an albino?
A true albino cat has a disorder which makes its body unable to produce any pigment — regardless of which color genes it has. That means an albino cat may have inherited the genes to be orange or black or any pattern, but because of their cells’ inability to produce pigment, those genes don’t matter.
One way to understand it is to think of a “paint-by-numbers” set. Even if the instructions say to paint it blue or red or green, if you don’t own any paint, it doesn’t matter what color the painting is “supposed” to be!
Cats with albinism may have slightly more health difficulties and are very sensitive to sunlight, but they are otherwise normal cats and still make great pets.
True albinos are extremely rare, which means most white cats are not albinos. So what makes them white? All-white cats have the same masking gene that gives other cats white patches, except that they express it over their entire body. This masking gene overrides any other fur color.
To return to our paint-by-numbers example, imagine a pattern where the instructions tell you to paint the whole thing white. (Maybe it’s a snowy scene).
So with a disorder like albinism, a cat’s body can’t produce the color its genes say to be, while an all-white cat is following its genetic instructions.
So, how do you know if Snowball is an albino or just white? There’s an easy way to tell the difference! If a white cat has any color on their skin (such as black spots on their paw pads) or any color in their eyes (such as yellow or green) then they are not a true albino; they are simply a white cat. A true albino will have entirely pink skin and pink or pale blue eyes.
A Good Point: The Siamese Family
Other than the masking gene, there’s one more way for a cat to have white fur — and this one is almost too weird to believe!
It’s called a “point” pattern when a cat has a light body with dark extremities (face, legs, and tail). This pattern is most common in the “Oriental” cat breeds (Siamese, Tonkinese, Burmese, Himalayan, and others) and the breeds related to them (such as the Ragdoll or Snowshoe).
The white sections of a point pattern don’t come from the usual masking gene; instead, this is technically a type of albinism!
For cats with this pattern, their gene that controls production of pigment is temperature-sensitive. That means warm areas of the cat’s body are unable to produce pigment. That’s why only the cat’s extremities develop any color: because those are the coolest parts of the body! (This gene is also why cats with the point pattern will usually have blue eyes).
Cats with the point pattern are born white and develop their color over a few weeks. This gene is so sensitive to temperature that if kittens who have it are raised in a hot environment for those few weeks, they don’t develop any color and essentially become albinos!
Does Coat Color Affect Personality?
There are many anecdotes and stereotypes about how a cat’s color relates to their personality, such as the perception that orange cats are lovable dopes (see: “all orange cats share one brain cell”) or that tortoiseshells are feisty (see: “tortitude”).
However, these stereotypes may just be human projections. For example, since tortoiseshells are female and orange cats are mostly male, we may expect females to be sassy and males to be dumb!
The truth is that cat coat color has not been linked to personality. Cat breeds can influence personality (most people will agree that Siamese cats are chatty and Maine Coons are chill), but coat color alone won’t tell you if your new kitten will grow up to be frisky or calm, curious or cautious, a cuddle bug or a cool observer. Remember: every cat is an individual!
Cat coat colors are as individual and distinctive as the personalities of our kitties. The patterns and shades available seem to cover the entire rainbow, so it’s crazy to think that all cat colors basically boil down to one of two colors! A few tweaks and genetic “filters” is all it takes to produce the breathtaking variety we see.
The next time you’re petting your purring kitty in your lap, go ahead and take a closer look at the patterns in their fur — and then take a moment to appreciate how many beautiful combinations are possible and how amazing our favorite felines truly are!