Anything but Ordinary
The dazzling spectrum of feline colors and patterns
by Arna Cohen
Platinum, chocolate, champagne, silver, cameo, ebony. Elegant, luxurious words that conjure up visions of sparkling jewels, designer gowns, and cocktails on a custom yacht.
Except, in this case, we’re talking about cats.
Feline genes have created such an impressive spectrum of colors and patterns that simple words won’t suffice. The world of pedigreed cats borrows terms from lifestyles of the rich and famous to express the fascinating variation in feline facades. Even “ordinary” cats inspire their owners to wax eloquent in their descriptions: A striped cat becomes a tiger, an orange cat a ginger or marmalade, a black-and-white cat a tuxedo or a cow kitty.
But all is not as it seems. You may think your cat is white, or brown with black stripes, or gray with streaks of peach. On the outside, yes. Under the skin, however, all cats—be they alley cats or show ring champions; red, white, or blue (the official term for gray)—are the same. They are all black, and they are all tabbies. Everything else is genetic smoke and mirrors.
Explaining these feline magic tricks is a raison d’être for Joan Miller, a longtime show judge for the Cat Fanciers’ Association and chair of its community outreach and education committee. While Miller can easily toss off words like inhibitor, allele, and polygene, her uncomplicated presentation on the genetics of coat colors and patterns decodes even the most mysterious kitty DNA combinations.
Miller is often asked to educate animal shelter staff on the topic in order to help them accurately identify and describe the cats in their care. “A shelter should be able to say … that’s a patched tabby or a mackerel or a classic,” she says; this information can be crucial when trying to reunite a homeless feline with her family. And owners should learn to describe their companions for the same reason, says Miller.
An interesting description can also be an effective marketing tool, says Jane Hoffman, president of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a coalition of more than 150 shelters and rescue groups. “America is a consumer society. Even though our animals are not products … the higher you raise their worth in people’s eyes, the better it is for rescue cats.”
Hoffman says she invited Miller to share her knowledge with Alliance members “because I thought our shelters and groups needed to know what treasures they had.” The participants were fascinated. “I know that people went away saying, ‘This is something I can use.’”
So next time you look at your cow kitty, keep in mind that he’s more than simply white-and-black. Inside he’s a black tabby; outside he’s a bicolor harlequin resulting from non-agouti dominance with medium grade spotting. But you can call him cow kitty.
Coats of Many Colors
Kindergarten painting sessions teach us that the world is made up of red, yellow, and blue. Mix them in different combinations and amounts and you end up with the 2,100 squares on the Pantone color wheel.
So it is with the modern domestic cat. He’s come a long way from the sand-colored ancestor who prowled arid North Africa more than 100,000 years ago. Nature’s paintbrush has created so many variations on a theme, from subtle to dramatic, that at times we are at a loss for words to describe a feline masterpiece.
A cat’s design is all in his genes. You don’t have to be Mendel to understand it; our summary “scratches” the surface with a rough roadmap and some fun facts that prove even the “plainest” of cats is a work of art.
All cats are genetically black, including orange ones. A dominant red (orange) gene, carried on the X chromosome, suppresses the black coloring. Males, with only one X chromosome, are either black or orange—not both.
Like adding milk to coffee,
the dilute factor changes
black to gray and orange to
cream. Another gene called
a polygene can darken
or lighten a color, creating
the variety of shades found
All cats carry the wild
“agouti” gene, making
them all tabbies
under the skin. When
the agouti gene is
dominant, the cats
wear their stripes,
which come in five
MASKING & SPOTTING GENES
Solid white cats result
from a masking gene
that suppresses color. The
spotting gene suppresses
color only in certain areas.
Markings can vary widely,
from high-grade spotting
(like the Van pattern)
to low-grade spotting
(like the tuxedo pattern).
An inhibitor gene suppresses
color at the base of each hair,
resulting in a white undercoat.
The amount of suppression
ranges from nearly all the
hair follicle to just half.
All cats are genetically striped,
even black ones. Their stripes are suppressed by a “non-agouti” gene.
Gray cats are called “blue”
in the cat fancy world.
The typical striped pattern resembles a
fish skeleton when viewed from above.
Some white cats have a faint hue on
their heads revealing their true color.
Bottom half of each
hair follicle is white.
White chest, stomach, and
paws create this pattern.
The stripes form a swirl, or
bull’s-eye, on the cat’s sides.
The “non-agouti” gene doesn’t
work on red, so this color
always has a tabby pattern.
The dilute version of red ranges
from warm cream to pale buff.
Bottom three-quarters of
each hair follicle is white.
Color is on tail with a few
patches on head or body.
Patches of red give this
pattern its name.
Calicos have distinct
solid black and
red spots on white.
A tortoiseshell (tortie)
has a mottled black
and red pattern.
(or torbies) are
tabbies with red
patches mixed in.
Just the very tips of the
hair follicles have color.
Black and orange become blue and cream. Male calicos and torties—the
result of a genetic defect—are very rare and almost always sterile.
in random spots.
Each hair has bands of color,
giving an overall flecked look.
With two X chromosomes, females can
display black and orange together.
A temperature-sensitive albino gene gives
colorpoint cats, such as Siamese, their
blue eyes and distinct pattern. Because the
temperature in the womb is even, colorpoint
kittens are born white, but after birth, they
quickly start developing darker points on
cooler parts of the body. The pointed areas
can show a range of colors and markings.
All tabbies, regardless of pattern,
have an “M” on their foreheads.
BLUE TORBIE & WHITE
TORBIE & WHITE
previous page: INMAGINE. THIS SPREAD: BLACK, TORTOISESHELL, TICKED, SHADED, & TIPPED: MEDIA BAKERY; RED, CALICO, DILUTE CALICO, & BLUECREAM TORTIE: DAVE KING/DORLING KINDERSLEY/GETTY IMAGES; TORBIE AND WHITE & SMOKE: ANDREY KUZMIN/ISTOCKPHOTO; BLUE: MARC HENRIE/DORLING KINDERSLEY/GETTY IMAGES; CREAM: NICK RIDLEY/OXFORD SCIENTIFIC/ GETTY IMAGES; BLUE TORBIE & WHITE: TETSU YAMAZKI/ANIMAL PHOTOGRAPHY; MACKEREL: DORLING KINDERSLEY/GETTY IMAGES; CLASSIC: STEVE SHOTT/GETTY IMAGES; PATCHED: ANNA UTEKHINA/ ISTOCKPHOTO; SPOTTED: GANDEE VASAN/RIDER/GETTY IMAGES; WHITE: CYNOCLUB/ISTOCKPHOTO; TUXEDO: INA PETERS/ISTOCKPHOTO; VAN: LINN CURRIE/SHUTTERSTOCK; HARLEQUIN: VIC PIGULA/ ISTOCKPHOTO; POINTED LONG HAIR: ERIK LAM/SHUTTERSTOCK; SIAMESE: VASILIY KOVAL/ISTOCK PHOTO
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