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.
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 pheomelanin, 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 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.
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.
Cat Genetic Testing
All cats carry certain genes for many different fur patterns, but feline genes provide much more information about your cat than just her coat. If you’re interested in discovering more about the genetics carried by your favorite feline, check out this genetics test kit. 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.
This Cat DNA Test Kit includes: Comparison of 4 main breed groups, 21 individual breeds, a Chromosome Map and the Wild Cat Index.
Cat Fur Patterns
Cats come in solid colors, tabby, pointed, bicolor, and tricolor.
Solid Cat coats
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.
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).
Types of Tabby Cat coat patterns
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 mackerel tabby has many thin stripes that sometimes break into spots and bars. This is the most common tabby pattern.
Spotted tabbies have spots instead of stripes. Their spots may be arranged either horizontally or vertically. The spotted tabby pattern is not carried on the same gene as the ticked, mackerel, or classic tabby fur patterns. Instead, it is caused by its own gene or set of genes. The spotted tabby pattern is dominant over mackerel and classic tabby genes, but recessive to the ticked tabby gene.
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.
Pointed Cat fur pattern
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.
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.
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 is used to describe a coat pattern that is a mixture of black and orange fur. The name derives from the fact that some torties, as they are called, resemble the shells of actual tortoises. The black area of a tortoiseshell cat 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. The cats with distinct patches are sometimes called particolored cats.
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.
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 fur Pattern Genetics
The agouti gene is the basis for the tabby pattern in cats. It is the wild-type gene that determines whether each hair will be a solid color, or will be a banded or striped. The wild-type dominant A gene results 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. This is sometimes referred to as a “hypermelanistic” mutation because each hair is a solid dark color – it has more melanin. Interestingly, a subtle tabby pattern can sometimes be seen on otherwise solid cats, especially young kittens with the dilute color gene variant. This phenomenon is called ghost striping.
In orange colored cats, the orange color overrides the the agouti aa genes. Orange cats will always display tabby stripes. This is in contrast with eumelanistic cats with fur in the black or brown color family, where the agouti gene determines if tabby stripes will be visible or not. In either case, type of tabby stripes (that may or may not be visible) is determined by the tabby gene.
Tabby coat 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
An agouti gene (AA or Aa) can combine with a Ticked Tabby (Ta-) gene, a Mackerel Tabby (Tm-) gene, or a Classic Tabby (tbtb) gene to produce a ticked, mackerel, or classic tabby. This tabby cat will be orange or cream when the cat has the orange fur gene for pheomelanin. If this tabby cat carries the genes for eumelanin, the cat will be a dark tabby (black, gray, chocolate, lilac, cinnamon, or fawn).
A recessive non-agouti gene (aa) can also combine with a Ticked Tabby (Ta-) gene, a Mackerel Tabby (Tm-) gene, or a Classic Tabby (tbtb) gene. However, the encoded tabby pattern will only be displayed if the cat is orange or cream, because the gene for orange fur results in a visible tabby pattern regardless of agouti gene status. If an orange or cream cat has the Ta- gene, he will be a ticked tabby. If he has the Tm– gene, he will be a mackerel tabby; if he has the tbtb recessive genes, he will be a classic tabby. If a cat with black, gray, chocolate, lilac, cinnamon, or fawn fur has the non-agouti gene (aa), he will have solid colored fur. There may be a barely-discernible tabby pattern visible at times that corresponds with the type of tabby gene carried.
The incompatibility between the pheomelanin genes that code for the orange family of feline fur colors (reds, oranges, yellows) and the non-agouti gene means that 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 on these cats, 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.
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.
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.
In tipped cats, only the very tip of each hair is pigmented. Shaded cats have fur with the top 1/4 or so of each hair shaft containing pigment. Smoked cats have hairs with about 1/2 pigmentation. Solid hairs have pigmentation throughout the hair, from tip to base. Ticked hairs have alternating bands of pigment and nonpigment. Depending on the length of the hair, ticked hairs may have up to 20 distinct stripes.
Cat Fur FAQs
Are cat fur patterns genetic?
Yes, cat fur patterns are caused the the inheritance of specific combinations of genes. For example, there are genes that determine whether your cat will be orange or black; whether she will be tabby or solid, and if her coloring will be dilute (lightened) or not. Genes determine which type of tabby pattern will occur, whether it will be visible or not, and if there will be white spotting present. Many more genes play into the appearance of your beautiful feline friend.
What coat colors are dominant in cats?
The two dominant coat colors in cats are for black fur and orange fur. However, cats come in many other colors too. Colors recessive to the dominant black include blue/gray, chocolate, cinnamon, lilac and fawn. Cream is the diluted version of the dominant orange gene.
What are the two genes that contribute to the color of a cat’s fur?
There are two versions of the main gene that codes for the color of a cat’s fur located on the X chromosome. One of these genes causes the cat to produce eumelanin, which makes fur in the black family (black, gray, chocolate, cinnamon, lilac, and fawn). The other gene codes for pheomelanin, which produces an orange or cream cat. Female cats have 2 X chromosomes, so they can have black and orange fur at the same time (as in a calico or tortoiseshell cat). Other genes can contribute white fur and patterns to the cat’s coat.
Cat fur patterns, colors & genetics
Cat fur genetics are complex and fascinating. A wide spectrum of genetic variation accounts for cat fur color, shading, white spotting, tabby patterning, point coloration, and more. The multitude of cat fur patterns contribute beauty and mystery to our beloved feline companions. Each gene adds a piece to the puzzle that makes up the beautiful patterns we know and love on our feline friends.