Coats and Colors:
How Does the Description Work?

by Patricia Jacobberger

So, you are new to the world of cats. Perhaps you have purchased your first cat for showing or breeding. If that is the case, you have already begun your education in the identification of the various coat colors and patterns among our beautiful pedigreed cats. If you have not yet made that purchase, this chapter will help you identify the colors and patterns you may see as you begin to search for that important first cat.

When we describe the cat’s coat, the colors and patterns refer to exactly those elements of the animal – the coat – its color and pattern and length. These descriptors do not suggest the breed (if any) of the kitten or cat. For example, Tabby is a pattern – not a breed. This holds true for the terms Calico and Tortoiseshell as well – both refer to the cat’s pattern. One may, however, have a Tortoiseshell Persian or Cornish Rex or a Tabby Oriental or Maine Coon Cat.

How do we describe a coat color?

Color and pattern are the most common descriptors for the pedigreed show cat. There are two ways to describe color – what it looks like and what the experts call it. For example, geneticists and breeders refer to a cat that is gray as a blue cat. Experts call an orange cat a red cat. We term a yellow or beige cat a cream colored cat. There are many color names for a solid brown cat’s color such as sable, chocolate, chestnut or sepia. And, they may term a lavender-colored cat’s color lilac, lavender, platinum or frost, depending on the breed. Fortunately, a black cat is a black cat and a white cat is a white cat – no matter who is doing the naming – except of course, if you are talking about an ebony Oriental Shorthair, a black cat by any other name!

“Yipes! Stripes!!” What about all those coat patterns?

Often, just a color does not describe a cat. Naming the pattern is also helpful. Many patterns occur in the domesticated cat: solid, tabby, parti-color, bi-color and pointed. Other characteristics that we may also construe as pattern, such as the shaded and the smoke effects, are also useful in descriptions of cats.

Cats with only one color and without a tabby pattern or white spots are called “solid colored” cats. If a cat is a black cat, we may describe him as a “black, solid colored cat.” A cream colored cat is called a “cream, solid color” and so on. There are several solid colors: white, blue, chocolate, cinnamon, lilac or lavender, red, cream, sable or brown and cream.

A striped cat – a ” tabby” – may have one of four different patterns – mackerel, classic, spotted or ticked. (Remember, Tabby is a pattern.) The mackerel pattern, which is the most common, is the pattern where the stripes are narrow and run parallel to one another like the bones of a fish (therefore the term, “mackerel”). The classic tabby pattern (the blotched tabby) is a pattern where there are elaborate swirls on the sides and butterflies over the shoulders. The spotted tabby example is remindful of the mackerel or classic pattern except that the stripes or swirls appear to be broken into spots of color (Ocicats are a good example). Finally, the ticked tabby appears as multiple bands of color on each hair on the body and head with barring on the legs and tail. We sometimes call this pattern the agouti tabby pattern (Abyssinians are a typical example).

If a cat is a brown, silver or blue tabby and she has patches of red or cream, she is a “patched tabby.” Her tabby pattern can be spotted, mackerel, classic or ticked. The patching seen in these cases is related to the sex-linked orange gene so the cat or kitten is most likely a female.

No matter what the tabby pattern of the domesticated cat, there are intricate markings present on the face. We call these mascara markings as they highlight the eyes and trace their way across the face. Additionally, tabby cats have stripes or bars on the legs, buttons down the tummy, a spine line down the center of the back and rings around the tail. Each tabby-patterned cat also has the distinctive marking of an “M” on the forehead. Elaborately marked tabbies also may have bracelets, butterflies across the shoulders and necklaces – all dressed up to party!

Tabby colors are among the most difficult to for people to learn. A brown tabby has a warm brown or bronze tone to his background color and black stripes. A blue tabby has a creamy background color and blue stripes while a cream tabby has a light beige background with darker beige stripes. So why do we not call the brown tabby a black tabby (which is, by the way, the genetic description)? Convention and habit mostly, but also because “brown tabby” better describes the color. Other tabby colors include silver tabby – a silver-white background color with black tabby markings – blue tabby, red tabby, chestnut tabby, cinnamon tabby, cameo tabby, cream tabby and lilac tabby.

Is there life beyond tabbies? I should say so!

There are other pattern designations:

A “parti-colored” cat is a cat with more than one color present. Included in this descriptor group is tortoiseshell, blue cream, lavender cream, calico, (and depending on which breed one is talking about) bi-color, and tabby and white. Many of the colors and patterns in the parti-color classification are related to the sex linked orange gene. A tortoiseshell is a black, chocolate or seal female cat with patches of red throughout her coat. A blue-cream is a blue female cat with patches of cream and a lavender-cream is a lavender female with cream patching. Both the tortoiseshell and the blue or lavender-cream can be augmented with white. The calico cat is a female cat with white and large solid areas of black and red, blue and cream or lilac and cream.

A “bi-color” is a parti-colored cat with solid areas of white and another color and/or pattern (such as the color red or a tabby pattern). The usual colors of the bi-colored cat are blue and white, red and white, cream and white and black and white. The bi-colored cat may also have a tabby pattern and white present such as red tabby and white or brown tabby and white. All these colors that occur in the bi-color cat can occur in male and female cats.

If a bi-colored cat has more white on it than color, we call it a “bi-color van.” The “van” pattern is common and can occur in bi-color cats whose color is solid or tabby patterned. Typically, in a “van” patterned bi-color, the majority of the color is on the ears and the tail.

A cat with a “pointed pattern” is a cat with all of its color and/or pattern at the extremities – the face, ears, feet and tail. We may also describe a cat such as this as a “color point.” Many people automatically describe a cat with such a pattern as a “Siamese Cat.” Genetically, the Siamese gene is responsible for this pattern. While cats of the Siamese breed have such a pattern, not every cat with the pointed pattern is a Siamese cat. This pattern, also called the “Himalayan” pattern, has been introduced into several hybrid and non-hybrid breeds and also into the at-large gene pool.

Cats with a pointed pattern may have the colors of seal point, blue point, chocolate point, lilac point, red point, cream point, seal tabby point, blue tabby point, chocolate tabby point, lilac tabby point, red tabby point, cream tabby point, blue-cream point, tortie point, lilac tortie point or chocolate tabby point. (Tabby points are generally defined as “lynx points.”)

Cats also occur with “shaded and tipped colors.” The hair on these cats is white (silver) at the roots. At the end of each hair is the cat’s primary color – blue, black, red, cream chocolate, lilac, tortoiseshell, blue-cream and so on. Cats with the heaviest amount of pigmentation are called smokes and those with the least are called chinchillas. If a cat is a shaded silver then the amount of pigmentation falls between the amounts on the smoke and the chinchilla.

What’s the long and the short on coats and coat mutations?

We classify coat length into two major categories – long and short. A shorthaired cat may have a plushy, dense coat, a close-lying coat or something in between. In any event, the identification of a shorthaired coat is straightforward. After all, short is short.

A longhaired cat may have a very long and flowing coat – one that drapes and moves with every step. This is the kind of longhaired coat that one finds in the top show Persian. Nevertheless, there is a variation to this type of coat – the intermediate length coat. The intermediate coat is somewhere between long and short, but it is definitely not short. Cats such as the Turkish Angora, the Birman or the Maine Coon Cat have an intermediate length coat.

When referring to the length of a kitten or cat’s coat, it is most common to identify it as either shorthaired or longhaired. Rarely does one hear, “My kitten is an intermediate hair.” Rather, it is usual to say, “My Burmese is a short hair.” or “My Turkish Angora is a long hair.” This may be important as there are breeds with both shorthaired and longhaired divisions (judged separately in shows), such as American Curls, Scottish Folds, Orientals, etc.

Several Rex genes have occurred spontaneously throughout recent years. These genes cause the coat of these cats to become curly. The gene associated with the Cornish Rex, causes the guard hair to be absent; the gene in association with the Devon Rex allows all three hairs (down, awn and guard) to be present; the gene related to the Selkirk Rex allows all three hairs as well but is a dominant gene while the others are recessive.

Another coat gene, the gene allied with the American Wirehair, allows the presence of all three hairs but the hairs are all curled abnormally in a shepherd’s crook fashion. This makes the coat texture stiffer and less soft.

What about eye color – is it linked to the color and pattern of the domesticated cat?

The colors of cats’ eyes have a remarkable range. The main colors of the eyes of cats are orange, copper, yellow, hazel, green, blue-green and blue. The pupil is always black. Eye color can be linked and influenced by the color of the cat’s coat but that is not always the case. Most eye color that occurs with a specific coat color does so because of years and years of “selective breeding.” Only in those breeds influenced by the Burmese or Siamese gene is the eye color genetically controlled – yellow by the Burmese gene and blue by the Siamese gene. “Mink” patterned Tonkinese (hybridized from the Burmese and the Siamese breeds) must aqua eyes.

Many breeds do have specific requirements for eye color. Egyptian Maus must have green eyes (specifically “gooseberry green”), as must Havana Browns and Oriental Shorthairs. White or predominantly white cats can have blue eyes, gold or copper eyes or one eye of each color – a copper eye and a blue eye. When a cat has two, different colored eyes, we term him or her an “odd-eyed” cat.

How does all this description go together?

Typically, when describing a cat, we name its color first, the pattern next and the coat length and special features last, although “and white” is added after the color/pattern description. The breed name is added at the end of the description. For example, someone might say, “Bitsy is a red mackerel tabby and white Maine Coon Cat.” Or, “Buster is a sable Burmese.” Or, “Our cat is a blue-cream spotted short hair American Curl.” Also, “Samantha is a seal tortie lynx point Colorpoint Shorthair.”

“Well, this is all quite confusing!” you may be saying at this point. You know . . . you are perfectly correct! It does take awhile to get it all straight. If you obtained your kitten or cat from a breeder, the color and pattern will be on the registration papers and you can work with your breeder or mentor to understand this naming procedure. Otherwise, trust me, eventually it will all make sense.