COMMON CAT COLOURS
This section is primarily intended to answer the question, "What colour is my cat?" It also explains basic colour terminology and gives some information about how the colours and patterns work together. There are many colours and patterns that are genetically possible in the cat, so this section only covers the colours that you are most likely to see. There are additional colour mutations that are seen only in certain breeds; these colours are covered in the colour genetics section.
Note: Cat fanciers use the term "red" for the colour that is commonly called "orange," "marmalade," or "ginger". We also use the term "blue" for the colour that is commonly called "grey" or "Maltese."
If your cat has stripes, it is a "tabby." (Some people call these "tiger cats.") All tabbies have thin pencil lines on the face, expressive markings around the eyes, and a tabby "M" on the forehead. If you look up close at the light parts of a tabby's coat, you will see that the individual hairs are striped with alternating light and dark bands, like the fur of a rabbit or a squirrel. This banding is called "agouti." Tabby is thought to be the "wild type" (the original colour) of domesticated cats.
There are four different tabby patterns:
A "mackerel tabby" has narrow stripes that run in parallel down its sides. This is what some people refer to as a "tiger."
A "classic tabby" cat has bold, swirling patterns on its sides like marble cake. This colour is called "blotched tabby" in the UK.
A "spotted tabby" has spots all over its sides. Sometimes these are large spots, sometimes small spots, and sometimes they appear to be broken mackerel stripes.
A "ticked tabby" (sometimes called "Abyssinian tabby" or "agouti tabby") does not have stripes or spots on its body. However, like all tabbies, it has tabby markings on the face and agouti hairs on the body. This is the colour of the Abyssinian cat, but it also appears in non-purebreds and does not mean the cat is Abyssinian.
Tabbies come in many different colours. You can tell what colour a tabby is by looking at the colour of its stripes and its tail tip. The colour of the agouti hairs (the "ground colour") may vary tremendously from cat to cat, some cats may have a washed out grey ground colour and others will have rich orange tones.
A "brown tabby" has black stripes on a brownish or greyish ground colour. The black stripes may be coal black, or a little bit brownish.
A "blue tabby" has grey stripes on a greyish or buff ground colour. The grey stripes may be a dark slate grey, or a lighter blue-grey.
A "red tabby" has orange stripes on a cream ground colour. The orange stripes may be dark reddish orange or light "marmalade" orange.
A "cream tabby" has cream stripes on a pale cream ground colour. These stripes look sand-coloured or peach-coloured rather than orange.
A "silver tabby" has black stripes on a white ground colour. The roots of the hairs are white. You can also have a blue silver, cream silver, or red silver tabby (red silver is also known as "cameo tabby") depending on the colour of the stripes. In all cases, silver tabbies have a pale ground colour and white roots. To make sure, part the hairs and look at the roots.
2. Solids and Smokes
If your cat is pretty much the same colour all over, it is a "solid." Some people, especially in the UK, use the word "self" instead of "solid."
A "solid black" is just that: black all over. It may be coal black, greyish black, or brownish black. Black cats can "rust" in the sunlight, the coat turning a lighter brownish shade.
A "solid blue" is blue-grey all over. It may be a dark slate grey, a medium grey, or a pale ash grey. This colour is also sometimes called "Maltese." This is the colour of the Russian Blue, Chartreux, and Korat, but it can appear in almost any other breed as well, and is also seen in non-purebreds. Solid blue does not indicate that a cat is related to any of these breeds.
A "solid white" is white all over. Sometimes white cats have blue eyes, sometimes they have green or gold eyes, and sometimes one eye is blue and one eye is green or gold! This last colour is called "odd-eyed white."
Most solid colored cats are the result of a recessive gene that suppresses the tabby pattern. Sometimes the tabby pattern is not totally suppressed, so you might see indistinct "shadow" tabby markings in certain lights even on a solid black cat. If you look at a black leopard in a zoo, you might also see these shadow markings, because the black leopard has a similar spot-suppressing gene!
The tabby-suppressing gene is not effective on red or cream cats, so you won't see red or cream cats without tabby markings.
Solid white cats are the result of a different gene that suppresses colour completely. Young white cats often have vague smudges of colour on the top of the head where the colour is not completely suppressed. Sometimes this persists even in an older white cat.
If your cat is pretty much solid black or grey, but the roots of the hairs are distinctly white, it is a "smoke." (It's normal for the roots on a solid cat to be greyish; true smokes, on the other hand, have definite white roots.) Smokes are the solid version of silver tabbies. These cats are very dramatic because when they move, the hair parts and the white undercoat can be seen.
A "black smoke" is a solid black cat with white roots.
A "blue smoke" is a solid blue (grey) cat with white roots.
3. Cats with white markings
Clearly delineated white markings (as opposed to shaded points, like the Siamese) can appear on any colour. Just add "and white" to the cat's basic colour to describe the cat. So for example your cat might be a "black and white" or a "cream tabby and white."
Cats with white markings might have larger or smaller areas of white. If you want to describe your cat's colour more precisely, there are different names for the different amounts of white:
A "mitted" cat just has white paws.
A cat with a white spot on its chest has a "locket."
A cat with one or more little white belly spots has "buttons."
A "bi-colour" is about half white.
A "harlequin" is mostly white with several large patches of colour.
A "van" is almost all white with colour patches only on the head and tail.
There are a couple of affectionate, informal terms used for black and white cats:
A "tuxedo cat" is a black and white cat with white paws, chest, and belly. It might have some white on the face as well. Some people call black and white cats "jellicle cats" (after T.S.Eliot)
4. Torties, patched tabbies, and calicos
If your cat is randomly patched with different colours, you probably have a tortie, patched tabby, or calico.
For cats without white markings:
A "tortoiseshell" or "tortie" is randomly patched all over with red, black, and cream. The patches may be very mingled, or they may be more distinct.
A "blue-cream" (also called "blue tortie" or "dilute tortie") is randomly patched all over with blue and cream. This is a soft, pastel colour.
A "brown patched tabby" looks almost like autumn leaves, with patches of brown tabby and patches of red tabby. This colour is also known as "torbie" because it is a tabby tortie.
A "blue patched tabby" is a soft colour with patches of blue tabby and patches of cream tabby.
There is special terminology for tortoiseshells with white markings, depending on how much white they have:
A "tortoiseshell and white" or "blue-cream and white" has only small white areas. The body has mingled colours.
A "calico" has more white. As a rule, the more white there is on the cat, the larger and more distinct the red and black patches will be. You'll notice that the large black patches are solid black, and the large red patches are actually red tabby.
A "dilute calico" has the same amount of white as a calico, but instead of red and black patches, it has blue and cream patches. The blue patches are solid blue, and the cream patches are cream tabby.
A "patched tabby and white" or "tortie and white" may have any amount of white. A patched tabby with a lot of white, like a calico, has large distinct patches of colour, and is sometimes called a "patterned calico," "calico tabby," or "caliby."
5. Pointed ("Siamese") pattern
If your cat has dark "points" (face, paws, and tail) shading to a much lighter colour on the body, it is a "pointed" cat. This is the pattern of the Siamese cat, but many other breeds as well as non-purebreds also come in this pattern, so it does not mean that the cat is a Siamese. This pattern is also sometimes called the "colour point" pattern (not to be confused with the Colour point Shorthair breed) or the "Himalayan" pattern (not to be confused with the Himalayan breed).
Pointed cats are born white and gradually darken with age. A young pointed cat will have a much lighter body colour than an older pointed cat.
Pointed cats can come in many different colours:
A "seal point" has dark brown points and a body colour anywhere between light brown and ivory.
A "blue point" has grey points and a light grey or beige body.
A "lynx point" has tabby points! It might have any of the colours described in the tabby section. For example, you could have a "blue lynx point" or "red lynx point." The body colour may show some shadow tabby markings, especially as the cat gets older.
A "tortie point" has tortoiseshell points, and a "blue-cream point" has blue-cream points. Patched tabby points are also possible.
You can even have a pointed cat with white markings! If the cat has a lot of white, however, it can be hard to see the pointed pattern (especially on the feet). White markings will cover up any other colour where they appear.
6. Frequently Asked Questions
Are tortoiseshell cats always female?
Tortoiseshell and related colours (blue-cream, patched tabby, calico etc.) are the result of a sex-linked gene and require two X chromosomes to appear. Generally speaking, these colours will only appear in females. Very rarely, these colours may appear in male cats, but these males are genetically abnormal (they have XXY instead of the normal XY) and are almost always infertile.
What eye colours are possible?
Eye colour is genetically related to coat colour.
Pointed cats always have blue eyes.
White cats, and cats with a lot of white markings, can have: blue eyes green, gold, or copper eyes or "odd-eyes" (one blue eye and one green or gold eye)!
Other cats can only have green, gold, or copper eyes, not blue eyes.
The most common eye colours are in the middle of the eye colour spectrum (greenish-yellow to gold). The colours at the ends of the eye colour spectrum (deep green or brilliant copper) are usually seen only in purebreds that have been selectively bred for extreme eye colour, but they may sometimes appear in non-purebreds.
Are white cats always deaf?
No. Some white cats are deaf, and some are not. If a white cat has blue eyes, it is more likely to be deaf than a white cat with gold or green eyes. Deaf cats make perfectly good house pets, although they should not be allowed outside because they can't hear cars coming.
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