As a species, cats manage to be so magnificently gorgeous in a huge variety of coat colors and patterns. Calicos, tabbies, bi-colors and color prints—feeling confused yet?
If you're wondering about the right names and classifications, you've reached the right page.
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By the time you finish reading this article, you'll know what these terms actually mean and be able to show off your new expertise!
Cat Colors and Patterns: Let's dive right in!
Careful breeding programs and the introduction of new breeds from all over the world have brought about a multitude of coat colors and patterns that adorn modern-day cats.
In order to discuss these differences and varieties, it is necessary to understand the terms used to describe them. Let us first make a distinction between color and pattern.
Cat Coat Patterns
Patterns are combinations of colors in a specific layout. There are six basic varieties: Solid, Tabby, Bicolor, Tortoiseshell, Tricolor, and Colorpoint.
Solid Coat Pattern in Cats
The easiest one to recognize is a coat of one color that is evenly distributed all over the body. Interestingly, when they are very young kittens, some solids may display a few hairs of a secondary color. As the cat matures, the odd hairs disappear and the cat becomes solid colored all over.
If the cat retains any spot of another color on the coat, he is no longer considered a solid. In the UK, solids are known as "self-colored" or "selves."
Tabby Coat Pattern in Cats
This is the most common coat pattern in the wild and it has four varieties: Striped (Mackerel), blotched (marbled), spotted, and ticked (agouti).
There's so much more to be said about tabby cats! You can read more about the variations of the tabby coat pattern and see them in pictures in the full guide: Tabby Cats.
Bicolor Coat Patterns in Cats
The term bicolor refers to a coat of white and one other color. The other color can be solid or show a tabby pattern.
The Bicolor pattern is common among mixed-breed cats but it is also acceptable in many breeds.
The term Harlequin is sometimes used to describe a cat with a mostly white coat.
Van is the term for a specific variation, in which the cat is mostly white, with patches of color on the head and tail only.
When a bicolor cat is mostly colored, the patches of white may have names that describe their location: locket (chest), mittens (paws), and buttons (patches on the abdomen). A black cat with white paws, belly, and sometimes face, is often referred to as a "Tuxedo."
Tricolor or Calico Cats
The tricolor pattern comes in white, black, and red (orange), or their diluted versions of cream and blue. Basically, the ratio between white and color determines the number and distribution of the patches of the other two colors.
Where there is little white, the other two colors will be intermixed—a pattern that can also be referred to as a "tortoiseshell and white." As the amount of white increases, the patches of red and black become more clearly defined—this patched pattern is known as calico.
You can read more about the calico coat and the genetics of these cats in our article: Calico Cats Guide.
Tortoiseshell Pattern in Cats
A consistent mix of orange and black (or their diluted versions of cream and blue) creates this unique coat pattern. Being a mix of black and orange, this coat pattern (like the tricolor) can be seen almost exclusively in females.
Tortoiseshell males are rare and probably always sterile. Torties (a favorite abbreviation) can also display an underlying tabby pattern - this is sometimes referred to as "torbie."
In this pattern, the face, paws, and tail (tips/points) are of a darker color than the rest of the body. This pattern is actually temperature-related—the cooler parts of the body develop a darker color.
The contrast between the points and the main body color can vary, but this is usually one of the most easily recognized coat patterns.
The points can be in various colors and shades, including dark brown (seal), red (flame), blue, and lilac. In fact, in some breeds, the points can be in a tricolor pattern or in a tabby pattern in any of these colors (tabby colorpoints are sometimes called "lynx").
Cat Coat Colors
So much for the patterns. Now let's have a look at the various colors that create them. Remember that most of these colors can be either solid or in a tabby pattern. They can also be part of a bicolor combination. There are often differences between different professional cat associations regarding color definitions and terminology. Different breeds can also have different terms for similar colors.
White - This is the only color that is always solid without any underlying tabby markings. There are several genetic varieties of white, some of which create an all-over solid white cat, others bicolor or tricolor cats. One genetic variety of solid white can sometimes cause deafness; however, not all white cats are deaf (just as not all deaf cats are necessarily white).
Black - Although true solid black is often desired in breeding programs, black cats sometimes have underlying tabby markings. When exposed to sunshine, some black coats develop a rusty tinge. In the colorpoint pattern, the black gene is manifested as dark brown and is referred to as a seal-point.
Red - Red is the professional term for the coat color otherwise known as orange or ginger. The gene for red color is sex-linked, which is why red cats are usually males. This color is strongly connected with the tabby pattern, so a true solid red is very hard to achieve. In the colorpoint pattern, red is often referred to as a flame-point.
Blue - The blue color is a diluted version of black and is in fact deep bluish-gray. Some breeds are more associated with this color, but it can be seen in many breeds or with mixed-breed cats.
Cream - The cream color is a diluted version of red. In combination with the blue, it can create dilute calicos and tortoiseshells.
Brown - Solid brown cats are not very common. The breed associated with this color is the Havana Brown. In some breeds, brown variations are also called chocolate. Lavender/Lilac - Lilac or Lavender are interchangeable names for a shade of light gray-brown with pink overtones. Some associations and breed clubs use one while others use the other. In the colorpoint pattern, lilac is referred to as frost- point.
Cinnamon - A variety of solid light brown with distinct red overtones. Fawn - A dilute version of cinnamon.
Some cats' coats present quite spectacular "special effects," achieved by a change from a light color to dark color along the shaft of each hair. The lighter shade is usually white or cream and the darker can be of various colors. These can come in one of three versions:
Tipped - only the tips of the hair are dark. This gives the effect of the Chinchilla coat, where the cat appears almost white, with an all-over silvery shimmer. This is sometimes referred to as "Shell."
Shaded - Roughly half of the hair is light and half is dark.
Smoked - Most of the hair is dark, with a light undercoat that shows through as the cat is moving.
What are the most common cat colors and patterns?
With such a wide array of coat colors in cats, you may wonder which is the most common. Technically all cats are colored with a variation of black, red, or white.
Since there are so many different colors, patterns and shades made created by these colors, it is hard to pinpoint which one is most common. There is no overall Kitty Census listing all cats in the world in a single database, so the exact actual numbers are anyone's guess.
A while ago, we looked for data regarding black cats in shelters. The only organization that tracked cats by color and could help us out was the RSPCA in Britain. According to their data, most of the cats that end up in shelters are actually black and white kitties, followed closely by black cats. Tabbies are in third place with about half as many cats as black ones.
What are some of the rarest cat colors?
Some breeders of cats strive toward creating unique coat colors and patterns. As described above, Smoked cats have fur strands that are darker at the tips and lighter at the base. This color effect makes the cat appear hazy as the lighter undercoat is seen when the cat is in motion. When half of the hair shaft is dark and the other light—the cat is considered "shaded".
On the opposite spectrum, a cat with lighter tips and darker shafts is considered a chinchilla in color.
Here's a sweet cat color: chocolate!
Chocolate-colored cats are usually pedigree species such as the Havana Brown or Persian varieties. These cats have black color genes that were genetically mutated to achieve the chocolate hue.
Cat Coat Length
The length of the cat's hair and its shape can affect how colors and patterns look. Some coat effects can show up best—or even only—in longhair cats.
Cat fur length varies tremendously, from completely hairless to several inches of fur that requires constant grooming. Cat fur length however is broken down as either short-hair or long-hair.
According to some experts, a quick look at the area between the toes is an indicative measure to determine whether a cat is short or long-hair. If fur is seen protruding from between the toes, the cat is most likely of a long-haired type. Short hairs have uniform fur length in this area, without any visible patches growing.
Persians, Ragdolls, and Maine Coons are all long-haired cats. Cats with fur lengths over an inch and a half upwards to over five inches belong to this category. These cats require frequent grooming as failure to keep fur combed and brushed can easily lead to matted and snarled portions.
Domestic Short-haired cats have strands of fur shorter than an inch and a half in length. These cats do not require a lot of grooming as their fur is short enough for them to maintain it well themselves. This is the most common type of cat, in both domestic and purebred varieties. Some short-hair types include the Manx, Savannah, and Burmese.
What about bald cats?
Bambinos, Sphynxes, and Peterbalds are all cats that are considered "bald". They are actually a variation of short-haired cats as they have a very fine coat of barely visible fur on their bodies. The lack of thicker fur allows all their skin's wrinkles, lumps, and bumps to show.
Bald cats come in the same variety of cat colors and patterns. They can be black, white, blue, calico, bi-colors, tabby, or even color-pointed. The difference is that the overall pink skin tone is mixed into the cat's "coat" color, creating a very unique look. This is why white sphynx cats usually look pink.
These cats require frequent grooming since they do not have the benefit of thick fur to soak up oils that form on the skin naturally. In addition, the lack of fur puts them at risk for extreme temperature exposure, making them feel very cold during freezing times of the year. When warmer temperatures arise, these bald cats need protection against sunburn since their skin is not covered.
And some cats actually have curls!
Some cats have strands of fur that twist and curl. They are missing one of the three genes present in a standard strand of fur, giving them a curious appearance. While their fur may seem unruly, they don't shed all that much. In addition, curly varieties like the Selkirk Rex, Devon Rex, Cornish Rex, and LaPerm often have whiskers that curl as well.
Curly cats come in all patterns and coat colors, including color points. The exact "allowed" look varies by breed.
Want to learn more about cat colors and patterns?
Here's the link to the Cat Coat Color quiz:
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