Domestic cats exhibit a rich variety of coat patterns and colors. The names given to these
colors and patterns are increasingly based on genetic theory. Many people have expressed
confusion over the names that cat fanciers apply to the coat colors and patterns, so this
article has been written to help explain the names given to the possible colors and patterns,
and why these names are applied.
This article attempts to introduce and describe the colors and patterns of domestic cats and
the names that are given to them. It does not attempt to explain the mechanisms of
inheritance nor the formulas for calculating the possible outcomes of particular breedings.
The colors in hair, skin, and eyes are caused by the presence of melanin. Melanin is deposited
in the hair shafts in the form of microscopic granules which vary in shape, size, and
arrangement, giving a variety of colors.
There are two chemically different kinds of melanin: eumelanin and phaeomelanin. Eumelanin
granules are thought to be spherical in shape and absorb almost all light, giving black
pigmentation. Phaeomelanin granules are thought to be elongated "footballs" in shape, and
reflect light in the red-orange-yellow range.
Several genes can cause variation in the density of the the melanin granules, so other colors
can be produced. The most variation is found in the black-based (eumelanistic) colors. :
Mutations of the gene for Black give rise to Chocolate and Cinnamon. These colors are
thought to be due to a smaller number of eumelanin granules in the hair shaft. The Chocolate
color is a medium to dark brown color; it is sometimes called chestnut. Cinnamon is a
terra-cotta or burnt sienna color. These are alleles at the (B) locus; Chocolate is recessive to
Black, and Cinnamon is recessive to Chocolate.
A mutation of the gene for Dense coloration produces Blue, Lilac, and Fawn. These colors are
due to clustering of the particles of pigment in the hair shaft. This is called dilution or
Maltesing. Blue is the dilute form of Black; it is commonly seen as various shades of gray.
Lilac is the dilute form of Chocolate; it is described as dove or light taupe gray, and is
sometimes called frost or lavender. Fawn is the dilute form of Cinnamon; it is described as
"coffee and cream" or caramel color. Dilution is a mutation at the (D) locus; dilution is
recessive to dense coloration.
In comparison, the red-based (phaeomelanistic) colors have much less variation. Red is
usually described as orange or "marmalade", but some red cats have rather pale
pigmentation and so people may describe them as yellow. Cream is the dilute form of Red,
and is described as a buff color. The symbol for the gene for Red/Cream is (O); Black is
recessive to Red.
The Red gene (O) is carried on the X chromosome; for this reason it is sex-linked. Males
normally only have one X chromosome and so if a male carries the Red gene at all, he will be
Red. Females have two X chromosomes; if both X chromosomes carry the Red gene, then
the cat will be Red. However, many females carry the Red gene on only one chromosome,
which allows the black-based pigmentation to show through in patches. This combination of
red and black is called Tortoiseshell.
A typical Tortoiseshell is a patchwork of black and orange, usually in a random pattern. Some
"Torties" have large patches of orange, others are mostly black. The Tortoiseshell can be
modified by dilution, which gives a patchwork of blue and cream rather than black and
orange. Such dilute Torties are usually called Blue-Cream. Finally, the black patches of a
Tortie may actually be any of the black-based colors, so you may see a Chocolate Tortie or a
Cinnamon Tortie, and, if dilution is also present, a Chocolate-Cream Tortie or a Fawn-Cream
The mutations described above have been seen and described in cats in Europe and and the
Western Hemisphere for hundreds of years. Another set of mutations of color has been
introduced with the Siamese and Burmese cats from Asia. The Burmese carries the gene for
Sepia color (cb) and the Siamese carries the gene for Pointed color (cs). These are alleles at
the albino (C) locus; when they are combined (cb/cs), as in the Tonkinese, "mink" colors are
2. White Cats
White fur is the absence of any pigmentation. A solid white coat may be caused by any of
three genetic mechanisms, which are completely different:
Albino white. This is recessive, and has been mentioned in the previous section.
Complete white spotting. The white spotting factor (S) is an incomplete dominant, which
is affected by polygenetic modifiers and usually results in a cat that is only partially
white. However, it can be so complete that it results in a completely white coat. White
spotting will be discussed in a later section.
Dominant white. This mutation overrides all other genes for pigmentation, and produces
a white coat and blue eyes. As its name implies, this is the effect of a dominant gene
In the dominant white, the other genes for color and pattern are still present, but they are
completely hidden. The only way to determine the underlying genotype is by test matings
with colored cats of (reasonably) well-known genotype.
Breeding two dominant whites will mostly produce solid white kittens, but if both of the
parents are heterozygous (W/w), then the underlying colors may appear on a few of the
kittens. Unless the genotypes of the whites are known from pedigree or test breeding, the
results are unpredictable.
Dominant white is found in mixed-breed cats, of course, and notably in Persian and Oriental
Shorthair breeding programs. At one time the dominant white Oriental Shorthair was
considered a separate breed by some associations, called the Foreign White. The dominant
white can produce much deeper blue eye color than the albino, so it is considered desirable. It
is believed that the best blue eyes in solid white Oriental Shorthairs are those that are
Deafness in white cats is associated with the white spotting factor (S), but not with the
dominant white (W) or the albino white (c/c or ca/ca).
3. Ticking and Tabby Patterns
All of the foregoing discussion has described solid colors. However, the solid or "self" colored
cat is not the most common. More cats have ticked fur than solid color, and in most of them,
the ticked fur alternates with the solid color in some sort of pattern, which is called tabbying.
First, ticking is the result of the agouti gene (A) which causes the individual hairs to have
bands of light and heavy pigmentation. The agouti gene allows full pigmentation when the
hair starts to grow, then slows down the synthesis of pigment for a while, and then turns it
on for a while. As the hair approaches its normal length and stops growing, pigment
synthesis stops. The result is a hair shaft that has dense pigment at the tip, then a band of
yellow to orange, then a band of dense pigment, fading to yellow to orange at the root.
The agouti band can be seen in both the eumelanistic (black-based) and phaeomelanistic
(red-based) colors. In both cases, the agouti band marks the period where the production of
melanin has slowed down. It is fairly well accepted that the color in the agouti band of a
eumelanistically-pigmented hair shaft is still eumelanin, not phaeomelanin, but it is the fact
that the granules are sparse and "shredded" that gives them the yellow to orange color. The
agouti band is not an alternation of eumelanin production with phaeomelanin production in
the same hair shaft.
In eumelanistically-pigmented hair shafts, the agouti band is normally a drab yellow-beige
color. However, the color of the agouti band can be a richer orange due to the effect of
"rufousing" factors. These are polygenetic factors that have not been isolated and identified,
but breeders have been able to select for them to produce "warm" background colors in the
tabbies. In particular, the Brown Tabby patterns are genetically Black, but the selection of
individuals with strong rufousing has produced a rich brown color in the ticked hairs.
The mutation that causes solid color is called non-agouti (a/a), and is recessive. The effect of
non-agouti is to suppress the ticking, so the same density of pigment is found all along the
hair shaft, except at the root, where it normally begins to fade in any case.
The tabby pattern is determined by the tabby gene (T), which causes the ticked hairs to
alternate with stripes, blotches, or spots of hairs of solid color. The commonly-recognized
types of tabby patterns have been given descriptive names:
Mackerel Tabby. Ticked hairs alternate with solid hairs in stripes, as on a tiger. This is
the most common tabby pattern.
Classic Tabby. Ticked hairs alternate with solid hairs in a blotched pattern, often with a
circular "bullseye" on the side, or a "butterfly" on the back. This is called a Blotched
Tabby in the UK.
Ticked Tabby. Ticked hairs are found uniformly over the entire coat, giving a flecked or
freckled appearance. This pattern is sometimes called the Agouti Tabby or Abyssinian
Spotted Tabby. Ticked hairs alternate with spots or rosettes of solid color, as on a
leopard or jaguar.
The classic tabby pattern (tb) is recessive to the mackerel tabby pattern (T). The Abyssinian
pattern (Ta) is dominant to the mackerel tabby pattern (T).
The agouti and tabbying genes also apply to all the colors generated by the albino series
(sepia, mink, and pointed colors), but space does not permit them to be listed here.
Associations in the US only recognize Burmese and Tonkinese in non-agouti, eumelanistic
colors, so no tabby patterns should be visible in those breeds. The Singapura is recognized
only in the Sable Agouti Tabby color (seal sepia ticked tabby). Tabby patterns have been
accepted by some associations in Siamese, and they are called "Lynx Point".
Note that there are no true solid Red or Cream colors. Breeders have produced Red and
Cream cats that appear solid by selecting for rufousing polygenes that tend to "wash out"
the contrast in the tabby pattern. A tell-tale 'M' can still be seen on the forehead of most
The Ticked Tabby colors are given different names when applied to Abyssinians and Somalis.
Ruddy Abyssinian = Brown Ticked Tabby
Blue Abyssinian = Blue Ticked Tabby
Sorrel Abyssinian = Cinnamon Ticked Tabby
Fawn Abyssinian = Fawn Ticked Tabby
The Sorrel Abyssinian is sometimes called a "red" Aby, but this is a misnomer. These are all
black-based colors. True Red and Cream Abyssinians and Somalis are not accepted by the US
Note that the spotted tabby pattern is not shown as a separate genotype on the above
chart. It has not been conclusively proven whether the spotted tabby pattern is another
distinct mutation of the tabby gene or is simply an effect of polygenetic modifiers on the
mackerel tabby pattern. Some breeders point to the existance of spotted patterns in various
wild cat species as support for the theory that the spotted pattern is a distinct mutation. In
practice, however, the spotted breeds continue to produce a range of patterns from mackerel
through spotted, and breeders must continually select for well-defined spots or mackerel
tabbies will result.
Although they are not shown on the chart, Tortoiseshell cats can also have tabby patterns.
In a tortoiseshell tabby, or "torbie", the same tabby pattern is applied to both the red
patches and the black patches. The bands of solid and ticked fur in the red patches are
continuous with the bands of solid and ticked fur in the black patches.
In the typical tabby, the ticked hairs have bands of lighter pigmentation, but they are not
devoid of color. Typically, the lighter bands are a drab beige-yellow color, but rufousing can
make them closer to orange.
At the other extreme, shading causes the agouti band to be lighter in color. Shading can also
cause the agouti band to be wider, so that the light color extends all the way to the root. The
effect is to produce a hair shaft that has a colored tip, in whatever color is determined by the
color genes, and then much lighter below the tip. When the light colored portion of the hair
shaft is near-white, it is called Silver, when it is yellow or a warm cream color, it is called
Several genetic theories have been proposed to explain the inheritance of shaded coloration.
The earliest theory proposed a Chinchilla gene (Ch) which was thought to be an allele at the
albino locus. If correct, this would imply that shaded sepia, mink, and pointed colors were
impossible. Breeding experiments have disproved that theory. A more recent theory
proposed another single dominant gene, called the inhibitor gene (I), but this theory was
inadequate to explain the variations of shading and did not correlate with the experiences of
breeders, so current theories propose at least two genes. None of the current theories have
been experimentally proven, however.
All of these theories seek to explain the genetic factors that apparently suppress the
synthesis of pigment after a certain point in the growth of the hair shaft. This effect interacts
with the agouti and tabby patterns to produce varying degrees of shading, which are
commonly called "Chinchilla", "Shaded Silver", "Silver Tabby", and "Smoke".
In the Chinchilla, all of the hairs are tipped with color, and then light-colored below the tip.
Since both the ticked and the solid hairs turn light-colored before the point where the agouti
band would begin, so the tabby pattern is not visible. The tipping is so light that the coat
looks white at a first glance, but sparkles with color on closer inspection.
In the Shaded Silver, all of the hairs are tipped with color at about the point where the agouti
band would normally begin. As in the Chinchilla, both the ticked and the solid hairs turn
light-colored before the point where the agouti band would begin, so the tabby pattern is not
visible. However in the Shaded Silver, the colored tips are long enough that the normal color
is clearly visible, particularly along the head and spine.
In the Silver Tabby, the ticked hairs are tipped with color and then light-colored below the tip,
but the solid hairs have normal coloration. The tabby pattern is actually enhanced by the
greater contrast between the almost-white ticked hairs and the full color of the solid hairs.
The Smoke pattern results from the action of shading on a solid (non-agouti) coat. All of the
hairs have full color well beyond the point at which the agouti band would appear, and then
turn into a near-white undercoat. Such a coat looks like a solid color until you blow on it or
the cat's movement reveals the contrasting white undercoat.
The same range of shadings can be seen with the Golden undercoat. These are called "Golden
Chinchilla", "Shaded Golden", "Golden Tabby", and "Golden Smoke". Rather than the
near-white of the Silvers, these have an undercoat that is described as warm cream or
The shaded patterns are most striking on the eumelanistic colors, because of the contrast,
but they can also be applied to Red and Cream. These colors are sometimes called "cameos",
but the names for the cameo colors can be equated to names commonly used for shaded
Shell Cameo = Red Chinchilla
Shaded Cameo = Red Shaded Silver
Cameo Tabby = Red Silver Tabby
Smoke Cameo = Red Smoke
Since shading can be applied to both black-based and red-based colors, naturally it can be
applied to tortoiseshell, dilute tortoiseshell, torbie, and dilute torbie.
In theory, Golden undercoats can be applied to the red-based colors, but it is debatable
whether breeders will find that combination worthwhile. The lack of contrast in a Red Shaded
Golden would make the effect of shading almost impossible to see. However, Golden can be
seen in the undercoats of the black patches of a Tortoiseshell Shaded Golden or a
Tortoiseshell Golden Chinchilla.
5. White Spotting
White spotting is a very common mutation that causes patches of white in what is called a
"piebald" pattern. The range of variation is quite remarkable: from white toes, to white feet;
a white streak on the nose or a white chin, to a white bib; a white belly and legs, to white
over most of the body, leaving only a few patches of color; or even a completely white coat.
White spotting can be thought of as a mask over the color that the cat naturally carries.
People who have cats with just small patches of tabby markings on the head and tail and
white everywhere else tend to think of them as white cats, but they are really tabbies all
over. The tabby pattern is simply hidden by the white spotting.
White spotting can occur in combination with any of the colors and patterns already
described. The customary way of describing the pattern is to add "and White" to the name of
the color and pattern of the cat. Thus, a "Red Mackerel Tabby" would become a "Red
Mackerel Tabby and White" and a "Lilac" would become a "Lilac and White".
The "Tortoiseshell and White" is given a special name (in the US); it is called "Calico".
Consequently, a "Blue-Cream and White" is sometimes called a "Dilute Calico".
The white spotting factor (S) is a dominant mutation with variable expression. Cats that are
homozygous (S/S) tend to have more white area than cats that are heterozygous (S/s) for
white spotting, but there are other modifying genes that can affect the degree of white
spotting. Non-genetic variations have been noted. Some people have observed that the
white area may increase as the cat gets older.
The white spotting factor can create blue-eyed or odd-eyed cats, if it reaches one or both
eyes. The white spotting factor is associated with deafness, if the white areas reach the ears.
Since it usually covers the eyes if it covers the ears, the deaf cats caused by white spotting
frequently have blue eyes (but not always). The deafness may affect one or both ears. It is
caused by a degeneration of the cochlea (inner ear) which begins a few days after birth. The
deafness is irreversible.
Note that white spotting can be present on a cat that is also a dominant white. Of course,
white spotting on white is invisible.
the preceding information was obtained from newsgroups: alt.rec.cats