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.
Patterns are combinations of colors in a specific layout. There are six basic varieties : Solid, Tabby, Bicolor, Tortoiseshell, Tricolor, and Colorpoint.
Solid - 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 "selfs." Here are examples of solid coat colors, in black, blue and white (more about these colors later on):
This is the most common coat pattern in the wild and it has four varieties: striped (Mackerel), blotched (marbled), spotted, and ticked (agouti). You can read more about the variations of the tabby coat pattern, and see them in pictures, in our article: Tabby Cats.
Here's a picture of two tabby cats:
The term bicolor refers to a coat of white and one other color. The other color can be a solid or show a tabby pattern. The Bicolor pattern is common among mixed bred 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 "Tuxedo".
Tortoiseshell - 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."
Tricolor or Calico- 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 inter-mixed - 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 calico coat and the genetics of these cats in our article: Calico Cats.
Colorpoint - 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").
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 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 flame-point.
Blue - The blue color is a dilute 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 dilute version of the 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 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.
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