Thursday, 20 December 2018

Why do cats come in so many different colours?

The cats that share our homes and gardens come in a whole rainbow of colours, from black, white and grey to orange, brown and even blue, but have you ever wondered why they have so many different hues and patterns?


Our domestic moggies all share one common ancestor, the African wildcat, which has been around for millions of years. In the wild, they have no need for variations in coat colour, as it’s important for them to blend in with their surroundings to avoid detection from predators and prey. It wasn’t until these cats started to become domesticated in Ancient Egypt around 4000-2000 BC that camouflage became less crucial and different colours began to develop. For the last 200 years, selective breeding in cats, mostly for appearance, has become more common, leading to the wide range of cat colours we see today.

These changes in coat colour occur from gene mutations that happens naturally in the cat’s cells, and this has led to some interesting cat colour quirks…

Most ginger cats are male 

ginger cat with blue eyes

Roughly two thirds of ginger cats are male, and a third are female. The ginger colour comes from a gene mutation on the X chromosome and because female cats have two X chromosomes it’s more unlikely that they would have the ginger gene mutation on both, although it’s not impossible. Male cats have one X and one Y chromosome (the Y chromosome doesn’t carry information about coat colour), so only need one gene mutation to become ginger.

Nearly all tortoiseshell cats are female 

tortoiseshell cat

Female cats with a tortoiseshell pattern will have a ginger gene mutation on one X chromosome, and their other X chromosome will dictate the rest of their coat colour. Because males only have one X chromosome, they can usually only be either ginger or not ginger, not a tortoiseshell pattern with patches of ginger. For a male cat to have a tortoiseshell pattern they would need to have an additional chromosome; two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome, which is extremely rare.

Deaf cats are more likely to be white 

white cat with blue eyes

Congenital deafness predominantly occurs in white cats because the gene that causes a white coat can also be responsible for blue eyes and deafness. However, there are other factors that can influence these variations so while not all white cats will be deaf, most cats that are congenitally deaf will be white and have two blue eyes.

All cats are tabbies 

tabby cat

The original cat coat is the striped or ‘mackerel’ tabby, with the ‘blotched’ tabby pattern appearing later. Whether a cat shows their tabby pattern depends on whether they have inherited the recessive solid colour gene or not. Even kittens with this gene will sometimes show their tabby pattern when they’re young, before shedding their kitten coat when they become adults, and often an adult solid colour cat in bright sunshine will have a faintly visible tabby pattern.

A mother cat can have kittens of different colours 

tabby cat and kittens

One litter of kittens can contain cats of all different colours, particularly if the mother has mated with more than one male. Male kittens will always inherit their colour from their mother, whereas female kittens will be a combination of the colours of each parent.

Of course, here at Cats Protection, we believe that a cat’s personality is more important than its colour, which is why we encourage those looking for a new feline friend not to overlook the monochrome moggies who still have so much to give.

What colour is your cat? Let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter

If you would like to adopt a cat, visit www.cats.org.uk/adopt-a-cat to find kitties of all shades waiting for homes in your area. 

For lots more cat-related information, visit the Cats Protection website.

2 comments:

  1. We had a tortoiseshell cat who had 4 kittens: 1 white, 1 ginger and 2 black - all male, in the proportions of the colours in her coat!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've had cats of all colours, all of them rescue cats. I currently have a huge mess of tabby and white fur named Bagpuss (he has maine coon or Norwegian forest cat in his ancestry) he arrived as a stray 10 years ago and his current girlfriend is Rosie, a little 4yr old ginger and white house wrecker, who was found with her tiny siblings in a disused barn and rescued before coming to me. ����

    ReplyDelete