Members of the order Felidae, which includes big cats like lions and tigers, as well as the domestic cat, tend to have markings – spots, stripes, or blotches – on their coats.
These markings act as camouflage.
The North African wildcat, the direct ancestor of the domestic cat, has spots that sometimes merge to form stripes. These stripes are often on the cat’s legs and tail.
The stripes on the North African wildcat resemble the stripes on that of domestic tabby cats.
Today, most domestic cats have some form of a tabby coat pattern.
Because of selective breeding, cat’s coats now come in many different lengths, colors, patterns and textures.
Cats such as the Cornish Rex and the Devon Rex have wavy hair. The Sphynx has no hair other than a fine downy covering.
A cat’s coat color can be dense or dilute.
When color is distributed evenly along the length of the hair, it appears dense.
If the color is distributed unevenly, it appears to be dilute.
There are four dense coat colors:
- Black – the most common color of solid-colored cats.
- Red – a dark orange that is common in Western cat breeds
- Chocolate – a dark brown that is common in Eastern cat breeds
- Cinnamon – a lighter brown, also common in Eastern breeds.
There are four dilute coat colors that correspond to these four dense colors:
- Blue – the dilute version of black. It appears blue-grey.
- Cream – the dilute version of red
- Lilac (also known as lavender) – the dilute version of chocolate.
- Fawn – the dilute version of cinnamon.
Some cats have white coats. A white coat has a dominant gene that causes the other colors to be masked. This gene is associated with deafness. 85 percent of white, blue-eyed cats are deaf.
A cat with a tabby pattern has dark stripes, swirls or spots on a lighter-colored background.
These markings helped the wildcat ancestors of the domestic cat to blend into the background.
The background hairs on a tabby cat, which are known as agouti hairs, have bands of color along the length. The base of the hair is usually light and the tip is usually dark.
An agouti is a rodent that has the same type of hair.
Agouti hairs create a speckled effect that also aids camouflage.
The word “agouti” is sometimes used to refer to the light areas of a tabby’s coat.
All tabby cats have an “M”-shaped pattern on their foreheads. Various legends explain how the “M” got there. One says it was placed there by the Virgin Mary; another says that it was placed there by the Prophet Muhammad.
There four types of tabbies:
- Classic – has broad swirls on its sides, which surround a blotch in the center, and a pattern that looks like a butterfly across its shoulders.
- Mackerel – often called a tiger cat, because it has stripes, rather than swirls. Narrow stripes run downward from the spine, like the bones on a fish skeleton. The mackerel tabby does not have a butterfly pattern.
- Spotted – has spots instead of lines. A spotted tabby is a classic or mackerel tabby with breaks in its stripes or swirls.
- Ticked – most of the coat is made up of agouti hairs. You can see a speckles if you look very closely. There are stripes on the head. Sometimes, stripes appear on the head and tail. The rest of the hairs are agouti hairs.
A silver tabby is a tabby cat in which the color of the agouti hairs is masked, so the cat has dark stripes, swirls or spots on a whitish background.
A solid pattern is also known as a self pattern.
A cat that appears to be all one color has a coat that consists mostly of non-agouti hairs. Self-colored cats carry the tabby gene. If you look at a self-colored cat in a bright light, you may be able to see very faint tabby markings, also known as ghost markings.
A tortoiseshell cat combines red coloring with black, cinnamon or chocolate coloring. Tortoiseshell cats are almost always female.
A calico cat is a tortoiseshell cat with large white patches.
Pointed cats have coats with heat-sensitive pigment. The most well known pointed cat breed is the Siamese. The hair on the cooler parts of the body – the nose, ears, feet and tail – is dark, while the rest of the hair is a lighter color. The darker extremities are known as the cat’s points.
When cats from pointed breeds are born, they are light-colored all over, because heat is distributed evenly over their bodies when they are in their mother’s womb.
In older pointed cats, the darkened areas become larger as the cats’ metabolism slows and their bodies become cooler.
Types of pointed cats are:
- Colorpoint – the points are a solid color.
- Tabby Point – also known as lynx point. There are tabby stripes on the points.
- Tortie Point – The cooler areas have a tortoiseshell pattern.
A cat with a smoke pattern has a solid colored coat in which the base of the hairs are lighter then the tips. When the cat moves, the undercoat appears to shimmer.
Shaded cats are mostly covered in agouti hairs with narrow dark-colored bands and wide light-colored bands.
Also known as tipped. The hairs on a chinchilla cat are mostly white with colored tips.
A piebald cat has large white areas with patches of color.