WHAT COLOUR IS MY CAT - THE INDEFINABLE COLOURS
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 those with 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 new colours pop up from time to time due to mutation or hybridisation, most of the apparently indefinable colours can be worked out once you are familiar with the basic patterns and colours. Those that are completely new are termed X-colours until the mutation is better understood and the colour gets a proper name in the cat fancy.
Although most people are familiar with well-patched or well-brindled torties, torties can actually vary from almost completely black with just a few streaks of orange, through to orange with just a few spots of black. Some breeders may not realise they have a tortie cat until she has "genetically impossible kittens." This sort of tortie is known as a cryptic tortie (hidden tortie). One thing you'll notice is that as the amount of white increases, the tortie colours separate into more distinct patches. Little or no white = more brindling. Lots of white = more distinct patches.
Most people are familiar with tortoiseshell and tortie-and-white cats (known as calico in North America) 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 combine 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. I've called these "unexpected colours."
To confuse matters further, tortoiseshell cats can have a silver undercoat, making them smoke torties/calicos. More on silver later, but here's an unusual tortie smoke example:
This photo 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.
Most of my "what colour is this?" queries turn out to be unusual tortie cats - either tabby-torties or colourpoint-torties - with or without white patches. Most owners are familiar with black/red tortoiseshell/calico and with blue/cream tortoiseshell/calico but there are a number of other colour combinations. Even judges may not be familiar with the more uncommon tortie colours for example chocolate tortie or lilac-cream tortie. In this this article I often use black/red or blue/cream torties in examples because these are the most esily recognisable colourways.
Tabby-torties have the tabby pattern overlaid on the tortie pattern. In ordinary black/red or blue/cream torties, there is a tabby pattern visible in the red or cream areas. This is normal and some cats more pronounced markings than others in those areas. In tabby-torties, instead of solid black or solid blue areas, the cat has brown-tabby or blue-tabby areas. The red or cream areas have much clearer tabby markings which may be ticked (Abyssinian), swirled (classic), striped (mackerel) or spotted. A combination of swirled tabby markings and random tortie patches can give a multicolour coat of red, cream, brown and black with the mix of colours making it hard to see the tabby markings (tip: if you set your camera to monochrome mode and take a photo, you will see the tabby markings more clearly.).
Now lets add colourpoint into the tortie mix! Colourpoint means those patterns where the body is paler than the head, tail and legs. In these cats, pure black is replaced by dark brown ("seal"). Here I have used "colourpoint" for Siamese pattern, "mink" for Tonkinese pattern and the last is "Burmese pattern". Colourpoint torties have a mix of the tortie colours on a Siamese type coat . The colours are darkest on the legs, tail and head. The body may not be completely cream as you might expect, but instead it has a paler version of the those tortie colours. The body tends to darken as the cat grows older. Once again, if you 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 shown by the cat in this photo).
Mink torties have less contrast between the body and points. It's a halfway stage between Siamese pattern and Burmese pattern. The mink colour range is found in the Tonkinese breed, but mink torties and mink tabby-torties can turn up in random-bred cats where those Siamese and Burmese genes have somehow both ended up in the mix. If the gene for silver is also present, the cat has a silvery undercoat/background colour.
Burmese torties are probably more familiar in Britain than in the USA. This colourway is recognised in the European Burmese breed. These cats have a combination of tortie with the Burmese (low contrast) colourpointing and this gives a rather pastel effect (hence the other name "sepia"). Burmese-type torties and tabby-torties sometimes appear in random-bred cats. Once again, if the gene for silver is also present, the background/undercoat colour is silvery as in the cats below. Any of the tabby patterns can combine with tortie - ticked, classic, mackerel or spotted - and any of these can have the silver undercoat.
Sometimes, on a strongly coloured red cat, the colouring gets so dark it looks blue or chocolate 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 aren't torties, and this colour is being investigated. It may be due to how the pigment is deposited at the extremities when the embryo is developing or it may be an additional mutation that affects the red pigment. Right now it's one of the X-colours and there are some photos further down the page.
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 more unusual colourpoint. Looking at her adult colours, 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. Luckily we have some photos of her as a kitten and this gives more clues (Photos and information from Amy Russell, a cat foster parent for a non-kill shelter in Seattle, WA USA)..
As a kitten. she was almost pure white - this rules out mink colouration. She darkened as she grew - this rules in Siamese-type colourpoint. Because she lives in a fairly cool climate (Seattle) she was likely to develop a darker body colour than colourpoints growing up in warmer regions. Her blue eyes reflect red, not green, due to the slightly different eye structure found in colourpoint cats - once more, this means colourpoint. Her tail, and the tails of some of her littermates, have slight kinks near the end - this 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. This is unusual, but not unknown in colourpointed cats that also have the white spotting gene - bicolour pointed (this pattern is familiar in Ragdolls). We know she has the white spotting gene because she has white markings on her paws, face and chest. Adding this up, it makes her a bicolour tortie-point. We can rule out mitted tortie point because she has a white face and chest (mitteds have white chins only).
Below is another worked example from February 2017 (photos credited to umagatazen (Instagram). This cat is only a year old and her body colour may darken with age. She was one of three kittens that were found alone, so they could have different fathers. The body colour is very broken up for a bicolour – the seal shows up as a coffee colour (normal), but what has happened to the red pigment on the body? It is visible on the nose and paws where the colour isn’t diluted by the colourpointing gene, but seems to have vanished entirely on the body. With colourpoints, the colour can take a while to develop especially red series colours. Throw in white spotting and it could appear to take even longer. By a process of elimination:
Tortie point is shown by point colours and eye colour. As for the body, colourpointing might be working unequally on the black (seal) colour and on the red colour. As she gets older and the body temperature cools, she will probably develop clearer tortie markings on the body, with both the black/seal and the red showing through. She also has white spotting (visible on the face and paws) and may have quite a bit of white brindled into the body colour, which isn't unknown in torties.
We also know that the silver gene can take the brightness out of red, turning it into a creamish colour. The fact that the siblings aren’t smoke doesn’t mean a lot when the parents are unknown (and they may have different fathers). The best place to look for silver is behind the elbows, at the base of the ears, on the forehead and sometimes on the shoulders. The sides and back are the least clear places for silver to show clearly. Seal-tortie bicolour pointed (possible seal-tortie-smoke bicolour pointed) seems the most logical explanation for the pattern on this cat, but personally I believe the body colour can be explained without the silver gene being present and simply due to the effect of the colourpoint gene.
The formation of the Siamese pattern depends on temperature. That's why Siamese from hot climates have paler bodies and less colour at the points. Siamese from coller climates have more pigment on the points and darker bodies. If an area of the body is shaved e.g. for surgery, that area may grow back darker than ity was before. This is because the bare skin is cooler. This is also why some owners of exhibition colourpointed cats ask their vets to do a midline (abdominal) spay rather than flank-spaying - the flank-spay could cause a darker patch until the next moult. This Thai Bluepoint shows the temperature dependent effect clearly. He suffered an injury to his legs and hind end and needed surgery. Where fur was shaved from his 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.
Emma Wiechmann, who runs a small cat shelter in North Queensland Australia, sent me these photos of an unusual coloured 2-year-old female cat in 2019. She is a Ragdoll cross and has had a female kitten with the same colour and pattern. She appears to be a seal tortie point or seal tortie mink with very little red marking on the legs and tail, but with a red chin. On the body, the colours are more intermixed so that the red colour is more “bleached out” pointing gene(s) than the black colour. The black markings the chest are unusual though. She also has green eyes, rather than blue eyes, which also points to mink. The fact she has had female kittens of similar colour also suggests tortie. Mink pattern occurs when a cat inherits one colourpoint gene and one sepia (Burmese-point pattern) gene and these interact to give a low-contrast pointed pattern with aqua or greenish eyes.
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, producing different visual effects!
Not all silvery kittens will stay that way. In the photo, the "masked silver" kitten is due to "fever coat" suppressing the black pigment. Fever coat occurs when the mother runs a temperature during pregnancy and this affects the pigment development in her kittens. This kittens coat will turn its normal colour at the first moult and it may turn out solid black.
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 dark "cape" on their back. So far this is only found in the Bengal and Savannah breeds. Charcoal Savannahs don't have the pronounced mask and cape, but they have the same background colour. Genes imported from wild species interact with the domestic cat's genes to produce new colours and patterns.
SPECIAL EFFECTS - TEXTURE AND LIGHTING
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).
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.
Some colours are simply unexpected in random bred cats as they involve recessive genes. There's an example near the top of the page showing a chocolate smoke kitten. Anastasia Thormahlen sent me this photo of Jaylin and Jamie. They are female mackerel tabby kittens from a litter of five kittens at Abandoned Animal Rescue in Tomball, Texas. Two other kittens were red-and-white and the fifth was white. Jaylin and Jamie appear to be either cinnamon or cinnamon-silver (any undercoat is hard to determine from photos alone), colours found in several pure breeds, but rarely seen in random-bred cats.
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).
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?
AMBER & RUSSET
See Amber and Russet - late Colour Change genesDuring 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. These cats were a totally new colour, peculiar to the Norwegian Forest Cat gene pool and now called Amber and Light Amber. 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).
RED-ON-BLUE TABBIES & PSEUDO-CINNAMON
Click on the image for a page describing genetically red cats where red pigment turns bluish or brown. Some look a though they have red tabby markings on a blue background colours. Others look like ginger cats with dirty grey markings on their paws, tails and face.
SALT AND PEPPER
See Karpati and Colours for details of salt-and-pepper patterns present from birth. For cats that develop white speckles and white patches in their lifetime see Depigmentation Conditions - Vitiligo, Leukotrichia, Leukoderma.
The example above is Pandora (owned by Bill B, Granby, MA, USA) who 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! "Tweed" and "roan" are recently noted colour mutations 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.
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 and 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 changed from the normal cream colour to a bright ginger. It is genetically impossible to have such dark points colourpoints on this body colour. The colourpoint gene, is a form of temperature-dependent albinism and always produce a pale body while restricting the full colour regions to the points (face, legs and tail) resulting in the "Siamese" pattern. Being temperature dependent, the amount of colour also depends on the environmental temperature. 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. There is a video of one such kitten (Marigold) from a pet market at Beijing, China, which indicates the kitten was probably bleached or dyed to resemble a more exotic animal, such as a red panda. Dyeing dogs - and now possibly cats - seems to be a common practice in urban China where chows painted to resemble giant pandas have been photographed with surprising regularity!
In 2018, I found more information from a Russian source. About 20-25 years ago, when the Moscow Bird Market was still at its old location, there were often “designer” kittens such as these sold there. Needless to say that most of these kittens died of poisoning from the substances used to lighten their fur. After 2 or 3 days their organs failed, but they were novelties and were, unfortunately, popular.
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).