WHAT COLOUR IS MY CAT - THE INDEFINABLE COLOURS
Copyright 2007-2012, Sarah Hartwell

I'm often sent photos asking "what colour is my cat – I've looked all over the web and he isn't any colour I can find!" Most of these indefinable colours are colours that are simply unfamiliar to the owner. A surprising number of people mistake classic-tabby-and-white (especially lots of white, like the one shown here) for calicos and I have to disappoint them that they haven't found an elusive male calico.

Although it is conceivable that new colours will arise through mutation or hybridisation, most of the apparently indefinable colours can be worked out once you are familiar with the basic patterns and colours.

TRICKY TORTIES

Although most people are familiar with well-patched or well-brindled torties, torties can actually vary from black with a few streaks of orange to orange with a few spots of black.

Most people are familiar with tortoiseshell and tortie-and-white (also known as calico) cats in the black/red and blue/cream varieties, but there are less common torties as well that combine chocolate or cinnamon with red or lavender or fawn with cream. These less common ones are found mainly in pedigree cats, but now and again one turns up in randombred pets and strays.

The photo below from Leva Cygnet shows one of the more unusual colours that can crop up randomly. The mother was a smoke tortie-and-white longhaired female and the presumed father a pale red or dark cream tabby male who is apparently the only free-roaming intact male in the area. The kittens included a chocolate male called Mocha, a black smoke male (who will be longhaired), a ginger female, a ginger male and a chocolate tortie - quite unusual in the randombred population as well as being smokes with a silver undercoat (visible when the fur is parted). This means that one or both of the parents carried the recessive chocolate gene - unusual enough that quite possibly the parents are related. The chocolate gene ultimately traces back to Siamese cats, but has been introduced by cat fanciers into various other cat breeds. It would have entered the random-breeding population through unneutered purebreds and being recessive to black can go unnoticed for may generations. Mocha grew into a large chocolate smoke male whose appearance hinted at Burmese ancestry.

TRICKIER TABBY-TORTIES

Most of the "what colour is this?" queries I receive turn out to be unusual torties, either tabby-torties or colourpoint-torties (either with or without white patches). Most owners think of tortie as black/red or blue/cream (add white patches and you get calico). Even judges may not be familiar with the more uncommon colours for example chocolate tortie or lilac-cream tortie. During this article I will use black/red or blue/cream torties in examples.

Tabby-torties have the tabby pattern overlaid on the tortie pattern. In black/red or blue/cream torties, there is a tabby pattern visible in the red or cream areas. This is normal. Some cats more pronounced markings than others in those areas. In tabby-torties, instead of solid black or blue areas, the cat has brown-tabby or blue-tabby areas. The red or cream areas have much clearer tabby markings which may be swirled (classic), striped (mackerel) or spotted. A combination of swirled tabby markings and tortie can give a multicolour coat of red, cream, brown and black with the mix of colours making it hard to see the tabby markings.

Colourpoint torties have a mix of the tortie colours on a Siamese type coat (black is replaced by dark brown). The colours are darkest on the legs, tail and head. The body may not be completely cream as one might expect, but may have a paler version of those colours, especially as the cat grow older. Again, add tabby to the mix and you get a cat that has red/cream plus several shades of blue or brown on its coat (as with the cat on the left).

Mink torties have less contrast between the body and points. The mink colour range is found in the Tonkinese breed and in Burmese-Siamese crosses, but mink tortie and mink tabby-tortie can also turn up in random-bred cats where colourpoint and Burmese genes have somehow ended up in the mix. If the gene for silver is also present, the background colour is silvery.

Sepia torties are probably more familiar in Britain than in the USA; this is the combination of tortie with the Burmese colour and gives a rather pastel effect. Again, this pattern (and also sepia tabby-tortie) can appear in random-bred cats. If the gene for silver is also present, the background colour is silvery as in the cats below. Any of the tabby patterns can combine with tortie - classic tabby, mackerel tabby, ticked tabby - and any of these can have the silver undercoat.

Sometimes, on a strongly coloured red cat, the coloring can get so dark it looks blue in places. The blue-grey hue shows up especially on the tail and nose, but this effect usually fades when the cat reaches adulthood. These cats are not torties, and it may be due to how the pigment is deposited at the extremities when the embryo is developing.

MORE CONFUSING COLOURPOINTS

In the section above, the longhair colourpoint tortie clearly has a body paler than the legs, head or tail. Sometimes the contrast is less evident and additional clues are needed to properly work out the colour. Raimi Cyan Rayfield is an example of an unusual colourpoint. Looking at her adult colouration, it is not immediately obvious she is colourpoint because her body is only slightly lighter than her legs, tail and face. At first glance, she appears to be a tortie-and-white with some unusual coffee-coloured areas and blue eyes.

As a kitten. she was almost pure white (ruling out mink colouration). She darkened as she grew. Because she lives in a fairly cool climate (Seattle) she was likely to have a darker body than colourpoints in warmer regions. Her blue eyes reflect red, not green, due to the slightly different eye structure found in colourpoint cats. Her tail (and the tails of some littermates) have slight kinks near the end, a trait that was once common in Siamese cats. Normally, the black colour is changed to seal (dark brown) on colourpoints, but in Raimi's case it is fully black, fading to dark brown or coffee-brown in some areas only. For some reason, her colourpoint genes are not being fully expressed and additional clues about her kitten colouration are needed to pin down her true colour! The white markings on her paws, face and chest show she also has a white spotting gene, making her a bicolour tortie-point; a mitted tortie point would lack the white face and chest (mitteds have white chins).

(Photos and information from Amy Russell, a cat foster parent for a non-kill shelter in Seattle, WA USA).

The formation of the colourpoint pattern depends on temperature. If an area of the body is shaved e.g. for surgery, that area may grow back darker than before because the bare skin is cooler. This is why some owners of colourpointed cats ask their vets to do a midline (abdominal) spay rather than spaying via the flank (which could result in a darker patch). The Thai Bluepoint below shows the temperature dependent effect clearly. He suffered an injury to the legs and hind end and needed surgery. Where fur was shaved from the lower back, it has grown back the same colour as the points rather than the same colour as the body. The fur should normally revert to the correct colour following one or two moults.

PERPLEXING SMOKES AND PUZZLING GOLDENS

It can be hard to identify the colour of kittens that inherit the silver gene (Shaded Silver, Chinchilla and Smoke). Many silver colours don't develop fully until the adult coat has grown in. This is particularly true of fluffy-furred smoke kittens. In smokes, the hairshaft closest to the skin is silver. The silver undercoat is most noticeable on the longer, fluffier fur of the body. The actual amount of silver varies from cat to cat; some appear solid colour until the coat is parted, some appear solid colour with a silvery ruff and belly and yet others others appear to have a pointed pattern similar to a Siamese. In general, the shorter fur of the head, limbs and tail will appear darker than the body. Adults that have a high contrast between head, tail, legs and body fur are colloquially termed "masked silvers" though this is not a formally recognised pattern.

This can be seen on these 4 random-bred black smoke and blue smoke kittens owned by Kylie Greshik; they have varying degrees of white undercoat and different fur lengths (one black smoke looks set be longhaired), producing different visual effects!

While the silver gene gives a silver or greyish undercoat, there is "golden" version that brightens the background colour of tabby cats from the usual greyish or brownish ticked colour to a brighter golden shade by changing the width of the individual colour bands on each hair shaft (known as "wide-band" because the golden bands become wider and there is less room on the hair shaft for the darker bands).

These photos from Lisa Wahl (www.blindcougar.org) show golden tabbies. Some have red markings and others have brown markings, but the background colour is bright golden. The cats came from a breeder who had died, leaving behind a line of golden "Maine Coon type" cats she had developed from barn cats, plus extensive breeding records. Some of the 50 cats rescued have very red undersides, and black paw pads.

To add another confusing type of silver-tabby-that-isn't-really-silver, there is the Bengal "charcoal" series due to a gene inherited from Asian leopard Cats. Charcoals resemble silver tabbies, but have white "goggles" around the eyes and a solid "cape" on their back. So far this is only found in the Bengal and the Savannah (due to early Bengal outcrosses). The charcoal Savannah seems to lack the pronounced mask and cape, but has the same background colour.

SPECIAL EFFECTS!

The texture of the fur can add to the difficulty of identifying colours. As well as the wide-band gene, the Tennessee Rex (bred by Frank Whittenburg) has curly fur and the satin gene which gives a mother-of-pearl effect and modifies how the colour appears. The cat in the photo is a black/red tortoiseshell-tabby with the golden gene (tortoiseshell golden). The black areas are brown tabby with black markings. The red areas are red on cream. The breed has the wide-banding gene which affects the ticking of the individual hairs: this gives additional golden tones and golden-tipped blueish tones to black areas. The curly fur makes the undercoat more visible which further disrupts the coat pattern resulting in a multicoloured coat. The golden gene is carried by some cats with the silver gene (in this case the cat's mother was silver tortie-tabby-and-white and the father was a red golden).

Colours are also modified by numerous genes (known as polygenes) which creates warmer or cooler tones. Marjan Boonen, a breeder in The Netherlands, has noticed that red cats sometimes have a bluish hue on their extremities: tail, feet, muzzles and ears. In many cases, kittens with bluish extremities turned fully red as they grew older, but some adult cats still retain the blue/grey hue. Tosca, a solid red female shows really clear bluish hues while the red-and-white bicolour housecat shows the blue tailtip really well and the lighter part of his tabby pattern also looks a bit grey. In black/brown tabby cats, polygenes are known to affect the background colour, sometimes warming (brightening) it and sometimes "cooling" it. In silver cats, there is sometimes a golden "tarnish" on the muzzle. In red or cream cats (the red/cream colour is due to phaeomelanin) the bluish effect may be due to such genes causing some eumelanin to be expressed. Because the bluish hue is retricted to the extremities (points) it may be affected by temperature, as those regions are cooler than the cat's torso.

The marble pattern Bengal can sometimes have an embossed coat where the darker parts of the tabby coat are raised above the remainder. This is known as the "embossed pattern" among Bengal cat breeders. It occurs on the dorsal stripes, towardsthe tail, where the central stripe is pale with a few wispy black hairs. Either side of this pale central area there is a thick dark stripe with noticeably longer fur.

THE X-COLOURS

The ancestors of the domestic cat were nondescript black/brown striped tabbies. Over the centuries, mutation produced a wide array of colours based on 2 different pigments. Eumelanin gives the blacks, browns and blues while phaeomelanin gives the reds, fawns and creams. A few other genes give further variations on those colours such silvers, colourpoints and solids/selfs.

Mutations are still happening and new colours will still appear e.g. the pearlised versions of colours when a satin gene is present. Unexpected colours also turn up due to inbreeding where recessive genes start showing up, but these are genes that have remained hidden for generations rather than new mutations. Crossing domestic cats with wild species can introduce other mutant genes such as "grizzle" (silver-tipped black).

During the 1990s, some purebred Norwegian Forest Cats in Sweden produced chocolate/lilac and cinnamon/fawn offspring. However, those colours are not found in the purebred Norwegian Forest Cat gene pool. Had the gene pool become polluted by someone, perhaps generations ago, breeding their Norwegian Forest Cat to another breed? Was it a spontaneous mutation? Crossing of those cats with known chocolate and cinnamon colour cats of other breeds ruled out chocolate/lilac and cinnamon/fawn genes. These cats were a totally new colour, peculiar to the Norwegian Forest Cat gene pool and now called Amber and Light Amber. The Amber effect is due to the extension gene (also called red factor) which controls the production of red and black pigment. The dominant version of the gene produces normal black pigment in the coat while the recessive version produces red pigment. The name comes from the effect of black or brown pigment not being extended throughout the whole coat, but being restricted to the skin of the extremities and to the eyes (for example in bay horses).

This Norwegian Forest Cat was bred by Yve Hamilton Bruce from a silver mackerel tabby female (imported from Denmark) and a classic red tabby and white male. The result was 1 silver tabbies and 2 silver tabbies with white. At just over 3 months old, this silver and white tabby male developed a large patch of bright red hair on his back which continued to spread. Eventually the whole fur will become amber. The effect of amber during the colour-change stage depends on the original colour - solid black or blue, bicolour or tabby. The cat pictured is not a typical amber as it has the silver gene so the amber effect is overlaid on silver.

Similar to amber is russet, which turned up in a line of seal (brown) European-style Burmese in New Zealand in 2007. It has subsequently occurred found in the related Mandalay (similar to the Asian in Europe) and appears to be a mutation of the extension gene. The first known russet was a pure-bred Burmese called “Molly” in 2007. There is now an experimental programme in NZ to breed Russet Burmese and to investigate dilute russet, russet tabby and solid russet (as opposed to the Burmese sepia form of russet).

The first russet kitten “Molly” was born an "odd-coloured lilac (lavender)" which gradually lightened as she grew, progressing through lilac-caramel and chocolate ticked tabby and then dramatically changing to red. Chocolate ticked tabby and red were both impossible from her pedigree, and in any case, reds are not born as chocolate tabbies! Several more unusually coloured kittens were born in different litters and all went through the same colour/pattern changes. The ancestors of these kittens were seal Burmese and had no silver, tabby or Mandalay (Asian) blood. The pedigree had both dilute and chocolate, there were no reds, creams or torties until 4 generations back. DNA testing showed some kittens to be genetically seal and other genetically chocolate. Hence the new colour is due to a different mutation currently known as russet. Russet appears to be due to a recessive mutation that causes black pigment (eumelanin) to gradually fade to a minimal amount while leaving red pigment (phaeomelanin)unaffected.

Russet kittens resemble tabbies at birth, but have pink noses and paw-pads, pale fur around the pads and genitalia and a pale tail-tip - all of which would be dark in tabbies. The muzzle and fur around the eye is ivory. The back is solidly dark rather than ticked, becoming pale ivory halfway down the flanks. The back becomes more ticked appearance, almost a saddle, as kittens undergo the colour change and the face becomes reddish. By age two, they may resemble a red Burmese. It differs from amber as ambers have dark noses and paw-pads. Non-agouti (solid) amber kittens are very dark with a dark face that is last to go red while russet kittens have off-white faces (possible due to Burmese sepia gene in the mix), which are the first part to go red (rather than the last as in ambers), and pale undersides. The russet colour change appears to be slower than the amber colour change. Russet kittens to date have been larger at birth than their siblings and somewhat on the large side as adults.

Some colours are still debated, for example the different caramels are considered distinct colours by some, while others argue that they are variations on a single "caramel" colour. Indigo, a dark grey, is not currently considered a distinct colour. The effect of polygenes can cause variations, for example some grey cats (called "blue" by cat fanciers) can be more bluish or more pinkish or lighter or darker than other grey cats, but will still be grey! This raises the question of how distinct should the hue be in order to be considered a separate colour? If different caramels are not visually distinct enough and can only be identified by knowing the colours of parents and grandparents, then are they really colours in their own right?

SALT AND PEPPER COLOURS

Salt-and-pepper colours include various unidentified "one-off mutations" as well as cats with the condition vitiligo that causes fur to turn white during their lifetimes.

Pandora (owned by Bill B, Granby, MA, USA) should have turned out a red/black brindled tortie. For some reason, probably a mutant gene, she didn't produce red pigment; the hair that should have been red ended up white giving a black/white brindle effect. A red/white brindle has also been seen; in that case it was the black colour that wasn't produced. These really are X-colours! The black/white brindle was spayed and the red/white brindle was feral, so it's not known if the colour could be inherited to produce a roan cat (in roan, the colour hairs and white hairs should be evenly mixed). In fact "tweed" is a recently noted colour mutation similar to roan in horses where white hairs are evenly intermixed with the solid base colour, such as black, to give a salt and pepper effect. Some ancient descriptions of Thai cat varieties mention a "Saem Sawet" which is a black cat with white speckles. Until now, many of these Thai descriptions were thought to be mythical, but some are turning out to be poetic descriptions of colours that are only now being rediscovered.

The photo above is of a "tweed" kitten are from Claire Jones in Surrey, England. Claire runs a rehoming cattery and took in the tweed kitten for rehoming. "Tweed" or "roan" has only recently been noticed by the modern cat fancy and is not yet a recognised colour. In breeds where it is permitted, TICA currently defines this colour/pattern as black evenly interspersed with amelanistic hairs. In theory, any solid colour could have a roan/tweed version, but only

There are more details of roan/tweed and similar colours on Roan, Tweed and "Salt and Pepper" Colours

Keeley Rochelle Pilling ( Northernpaws) provided these photos of her cat Tedde who has dark speckles on his legs and feet. These were present right from birth and appear to be a mutation where the underlying colour breaks through th white masking. It is unusual to see so much speckling and on all of the limbs.

THE CHIMERA CONUNDRUM

In Japan, there was a "tortie" male whose coat was a mix of black, grey and white patches. Ignoring the white, which is simply due to a white spotting gene, this is genetically impossible because black is non-dilute and blue is dilute; a cat cannot be both dilute and non-dilute at the same time! This cat, Panda, sired many kittens.

The mystery was solved years later when a male red, blue and white Maine Coon tortie, also fertile, was born. Again leaving aside the white spotting, because red is non-dilute and blue is dilute, Pretty Boy Floid was impossible according to normal genetics. The answer was the he was a chimera – two fertilised eggs had become fused in the womb. One had the red colour and one had the blue colour. Pretty Boy Floid was really two cats rolled into one! Although Panda was long gone by this time, it is probably that he was also two cats rolled into one.

Since then, a few other chimeras have been identified where the cat is an impossible mixture of colours. To properly identify a cat as a chimera, genetic tests are needed, so any cat with an impossible mix of colours (once everything else has been ruled out) can only be a "possible chimera". Grace. below, has a coat that is a mix of black, grey and white patches; the black and grey are not arranged in a tabby pattern. One front paw has a black spot on one side and a grey spot on the other. her owner, Roshelle Conner describes it as "when she is sitting, from the side, it almost looks like she has a long gown with a hoop skirt under it, and layers of lace (brindling), on the dress!"

GREEN AND PINK CATS

Some X-colours are due to environmental effects rather than genetics. The famous greenish kitten called "Miss Greeny" born in north-west Denmark in 1995, didn't stay green. The unusual colour turned out to be copper residue on the fur due to copper-contaminated water. When removed from the source of copper (which could eventually have killed her) Miss Greeny lost the green patina and grew up grey. The online article about the genetics of green and olive cats (green tabbies, green torties etc) is an April Fools Joke.

A crimson-and-white cat reported in Britain was also due to contamination. A white cat returned from a daily stroll with bright pink markings. The source of contamination wasn't identified, but was ascertained to be non-toxic – possibly the cat had rolled in a dye used to mark sheep or a pink paintball pellet.

THE HOAX COLOURS

Image editing software has allowed people to create pictures of unusual colours and patterns that are not found in real life e.g. tiger or Dalmation dog markings on a domestic cat. Even so, they fool some people who are unfamiliar with cat colours; from time to time I get queries asking what the colour or breed is and where to get one. Most are obvious jokes e.g. images from a book called "Why Paint Cats" though others do the rounds of email and blogs and are less obvious.

This widely circulated image appears to be of Birman-type or Ragdoll-type kittens with the body colour digitally changed from the normal cream colour to a bright ginger. It is genetically impossible to have colourpoints on a deeply coloured body. The colourpoint gene, which is a form of temperature-dependent albinism, will always produce a pale body while restricting the full colour regions to the points (face, legs and tail). Secondly, if the kittens had the gene for a red colour this would produce tortoiseshell points on a pale (creamy) body or red points on a pale cream body, not dark points on a red body. Show-quality Birmans do not have white facial markings while bicolour Ragdolls do.

WHAT COLOUR IS MY CAT – A PROCESS OF ELIMINATION

First look at the pattern, disregarding any white patches and making sure you know the difference between classic tabby pattern and tortie pattern (a common mistake). Most of the queries I get relate to different types of tortie cat.

Is there a tabby pattern? Is the pattern overlaid on patches of different colours such as black/brown and red? If so, you have a tabby-tortie (torbie).

Is the background silvery or is it a paler version of the marking colour? That gives you the difference between a silver tabby/tortie/torbie and an ordinary tabby/tortie/torbie.

Are the legs, head and tail much darker than the body? That tells you if there is colourpoint in the mix. Mink will produce moderately darker legs, head and tail while sepia produces only slightly darker legs, head and tail. Again, you might also have silver in there, giving a silvery background colour.

Is the cat a mix of impossible colours e.g. patches of grey and patches of black (don't confuse these with black markings on a silver tabby) or patches of orange-red with patches of grey? A mix of patches of dilute colour and non-dilute colour suggests a chimera.

Caramels and Ambers are best left to judges and breeders and usually require the cat's pedigree in order to work out what is going on.

If your cat still doesn't conform to any of the colours and patterns described, it might well be an oddity (or if it's a photo you've been sent, it might be a hoax or joke).

MESSYBEAST : COLOURS, CONFORMATION & FUR TYPES