Cat Colors FAQ: Common Colors

This FAQ covers common cat colors, basic color terminology, and color genetics.

Copyright © 1994-1999
Orca Starbuck
and David Thomas



This section is primarily intended to answer the question, "What color is my cat?" It also explains basic color terminology and gives some information about how the colors and patterns work together. There are many colors and patterns that are genetically possible in the cat, so this section only covers the colors that you are most likely to see. There are additional color mutations that are seen only in certain breeds; these colors are covered in the color genetics section.

Note: Cat fanciers use the term "red" for the color that is commonly called "orange," "marmalade," or "ginger". We also use the term "blue" for the color that is commonly called "gray" or "maltese."

1. Tabbies

If your cat has stripes, it is a "tabby." (Some people call these "tiger cats.") All tabbies have thin pencil lines on the face, expressive markings around the eyes, and a tabby "M" on the forehead. If you look up close at the light parts of a tabby's coat, you will see that the individual hairs are striped with alternating light and dark bands, like the fur of a rabbit or a squirrel. This banding is called "agouti." Tabby is thought to be the "wild type" (the original color) of domesticated cats.

There are four different tabby patterns:

Tabbies come in many different colors. You can tell what color a tabby is by looking at the color of its stripes and its tail tip. The color of the agouti hairs (the "ground color") may vary tremendously from cat to cat, some cats may have a washed out gray ground color and others will have rich orange tones.

2. Solids and Smokes

If your cat is pretty much the same color all over, it is a "solid." Some people, especially in the UK, use the word "self" instead of "solid." Most solid colored cats are the result of a recessive gene that suppresses the tabby pattern. Sometimes the tabby pattern is not totally suppressed, so you might see indistinct "shadow" tabby markings in certain lights even on a solid black cat. If you look at a black leopard in a zoo, you might also see these shadow markings, because the black leopard has a similar spot-suppressing gene!

The tabby-suppressing gene is not effective on red or cream cats, so you won't see red or cream cats without tabby markings.

Solid white cats are the result of a different gene that suppresses color completely. Young white cats often have vague smudges of color on the top of the head where the color is not completely suppressed. Sometimes this persists even in an older white cat.

If your cat is pretty much solid black or gray, but the roots of the hairs are distinctly white, it is a "smoke." (It's normal for the roots on a solid cat to be grayish; true smokes, on the other hand, have definite white roots.) Smokes are the solid version of silver tabbies. These cats are very dramatic because when they move, the hair parts and the white undercoat can be seen.

3. Cats with white markings

Clearly delineated white markings (as opposed to shaded points, like the Siamese) can appear on any color. Just add "and white" to the cat's basic color to describe the cat. So for example your cat might be a "black and white" or a "cream tabby and white."

Cats with white markings might have larger or smaller areas of white. If you want to describe your cat's color more precisely, there are different names for the different amounts of white:

There are a couple of affectionate, informal terms used for black and white cats:

4. Torties, patched tabbies, and calicos

If your cat is randomly patched with different colors, you probably have a tortie, patched tabby, or calico.

For cats without white markings:

There is special terminology for tortoiseshells with white markings, depending on how much white they have:

5. Pointed ("Siamese") pattern

If your cat has dark "points" (face, paws, and tail) shading to a much lighter color on the body, it is a "pointed" cat. This is the pattern of the Siamese cat, but many other breeds as well as non-purebreds also come in this pattern, so it does not mean that the cat is a Siamese. This pattern is also sometimes called the "colorpoint" pattern (not to be confused with the Colorpoint Shorthair breed) or the "himalayan" pattern (not to be confused with the Himalayan breed).

Pointed cats are born white and gradually darken with age. A young pointed cat will have a much lighter body color than an older pointed cat.

Pointed cats can come in many different colors:

You can even have a pointed cat with white markings! If the cat has a lot of white, however, it can be hard to see the pointed pattern (especially on the feet). White markings will cover up any other color where they appear.

6. Frequently Asked Questions

Are tortoiseshell cats always female?

What eye colors are possible? Are white cats always deaf?