Cats have a wide range of coat colors and patterns that are linked to genetics rather than breed. Because there are only subtle differences between some, many people find the whole topic quite confusing. In reality, it’s not as difficult as you might think to distinguish one cat pattern or marking from another.
Cat fur has six main patterns formed from five basic colors. Some patterns can be further sub-divided and certain colors have diluted versions. With other cat markings that can randomly occur in any pattern, it’s no wonder confusion arises.
Cat patterns are simply a result of different fur colors in particular formats. Once you’ve read this guide, you’ll have no trouble telling one from another.
Cat fur colors
Cat’s fur can be one of five colors: white, black, brown, cinnamon, and red. Other than white, these are referred to as dense colors.
White fur is different because a masking gene is present and this masks the color the fur would otherwise show.
Any other color that occurs is a dilute version of one of the dense colors. A cat’s color becomes diluted when they carry a dilution gene.
Here’s a table of cat colors and their diluted versions.
|Cat color (dense)||Dilute version|
|Black||Blue (all shades of grey)|
There are six main cat patterns: solid, tabby, bicolored, tricolored, tortoiseshell, and colorpoint.
1. The Solid Cat Pattern
When a cat is one single shade of color with no visible patterns, it is referred to as having a solid coat. All solid coats except for white would actually have a pattern but this is suppressed by a masking gene.
White cats are slightly different as though they are also the result of a masking gene, it is a single color that is masked and not a pattern.
It is rare to see a solid red cat as there is usually a hint of tabby pattern somewhere, particularly on the face.
2. Tabby Cat Markings
The most common cat pattern is the mackerel tabby (sometimes referred to as a tiger cat), followed by the classic tabby. It occurs in many purebred and crossbred cats alike. Often, people don’t realize there are 4 distinct tabby patterns, let alone how to tell them apart.
The four tabby patterns can be distinguished as follows:
- Mackerel, where parallel stripes lead from a cat’s spine towards its belly, resembling a fish skeleton.
- Classic, where a cat has swirls and whorls of patterns across its shoulders, a bit like butterfly patterns.
- Spotted, where a clear spotted pattern is obvious all over a cat’s body.
- Ticked or agouti, where each individual cat hair shows bands of different colors.
White areas may appear in tabby coats and you’ll see how these markings are labeled further down.
3. Bicolor Cat Markings
People refer to any cat with a coat of two colors as bicolored or piebald. There are a range of bicolored coats, many of them involving black and white. However, bicolored can inlude any two distinct colors.
Harlequin Cat Markings
If you’ve ever thought a cat looks like it has the markings of a cow, you’ve probably seen a Harlequin pattern.
Harlequin cats are predominantly white with large blotches of color, and these are usually black. However, Harlequin patterns can be any cat colors or patterns.
Tuxedo Cat Markings
A cat that’s predominantly black with a white chest, belly, and paws is known as a tuxedo cat because it appears to be wearing a black dinner jacket over a white shirt. You could say these cats are mitted too.
Van Pattern Cat Markings
The Van cat breed originated in the Van region of Turkey where they always had solid white coats. Nowadays, cats of many breeds are said to have a van cat pattern if they are predominantly white with colored fur on just their heads and tails.
Mask-and-Mantle Cat Markings
Bicolored cats are considered to have a mask and mantle when they have black mask-like markings around their eyes and ears continuing along their back like a cape. This can sometimes run along the cat’s tail.
Cap-and-Saddle Cat Markings
Cap-and-saddle markings are similar to mask-and-mantle markings, but the mantle is broken from the mantle by a white patch. The mask is also separated by a white central stripe.
4. Tricolor Cat patterns (also known as Calico cats)
A calico cat has a distinct tricolored coat. The most common calico has red, black, and white patterns but there are possible 8 variations:
- Dense calico, where a cat is white with patches of red and black.
- Dilute calico, where a cat is white with patches of blue and cream.
- Dense calico smoke, as for dense calico but with each colored hair having paler roots.
- Dilute calico smoke, as for dilute calico but with each colored hair having paler roots.
- Dense shell calico, where a cat is white with patches of black and various shades of red. Each hair shaft on the cat’s back, sides, and tail, is lightly tipped with black and shades of red.
- Dilute shell calico, where a cat is white patches of blue and various shades of cream. Each hair shaft on the cat’s back, sides, and tail, is lightly tipped with blue and shades of cream.
- Dense shaded calico, where a cat is white with patches of black and shades of red. It has a mantle of black and red shading along its sides, face, and tail.
- Dilute shaded calico, where a cat is white with patches of blue and shades of cream. It has a mantle of blue and cream shading along its sides, face, and tail.
4. Tortoiseshell Cat Markings
Tortoiseshell cats are bi-colored, often black and red, and rather than having a distinct pattern, their flecked markings resemble those of a tortoises shell. Their faces are often distinctive, with each side having different colors. Tortoiseshells can actually have four colorations:
- Dense tortoiseshell, where a cat has black and red fur.
- Dilute tortoiseshell, where a cat has blue and cream fur.
- Dense smoke tortoiseshell, as for dense tortie but the roots of each hair are paler than the tips.
- Dilute smoke tortoiseshell, as for dilute tortie but the roots of each hair are paler than the tips.
White areas may appear in tortie coats and you’ll see how these marking are labeled further down.
For genetic reasons, nearly all tortoiseshell cats are female.
5. Color Point Cat Markings
Certain cats have colored points and by points, we mean their extremities. A perfect example is the Siamese cat. It has darker fur on its face ear tips, toes, and tail tip. This pattern can occur on mixed breeds but is prevalent in the Siamese.
Point markings are caused by a cat’s fur growing darker on cooler areas of its body.
Examples of color point cats are:
- Flame point
- Lynx point
- Seal point
- Tabby point
Markings that can occur in any cat pattern
Locket Cat Markings
If a cat has a small white marking on its upper chest, this is referred to as a locket. Lockets can be many shapes, including circular, oval, heart-shaped, and diamond. They can vary in size, be symmetrical, asymmetrical, central, or off-center.
Lockets just occur and are not a feature that breeders can control. This is unfortunate for those who like to enter their cats into shows as many cat clubs will not allow cats with a locket marking.
Button Cat Markings
Cats are described as having buttons when they are one color or have a tabby pattern, and also have a row of white spots along their chests, or bellies.
These white marks resemble tiny buttons, hence their name. If a buttons start high enough up the first one could be considered a locket.
Mitted Cat Markings
If a cat is predominantly one color or tabby pattern but has white paws, it is said to be mitted simply because it looks like they are wearing mittens. Mitted cats are often referred to as having socks or boots. All cat colors and patterns can be mitted.
Cat fur patterns, colors and markings: Conclusion
Coming to terms with the intricacies of cat coat genetics is not an easy task. It takes an expert to fully understand the complexities of color-coding to fully explain how so many colors and patterns can occur.
However, it is possible for owners to gain a better understanding of the various patterns and colors that adorn these popular pets and we hop this guide has done just that.