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There are well over a hundred different possible colour/pattern combinations for cats’ coats. You may bring to mind in a flash the farm tabby, T S Elliott’s smart black and white Jellicles, or maybe think of the instantly recognisable Siamese. More recently defined colours, such as caramel, amber or russet have been identified in specific breeds but have a long way to go before any universal recognition, and so may come nowhere in any popularity stakes.

How come there is this spice of variety? The domestic cat’s big and small wild relatives do not have an extensive wardrobe of colour-ranging designs. Sadly, there are no tortoiseshell lions or red tabby (ginger) leopards. The small wild cats vary from each other by species, but family members are alike. They all need to blend into their own environments to hunt prey successfully and avoid the attention of predators, which means the rare variants from the norm do not get successfully established.

Our own felines followed a different path. For thousands of years cats have been farmers’ friends to keep the rodent population down around grain stores. They moved into towns and cities to provide mousing services and were welcomed on board ship by sailors and so travelled the globe. Our ancestors, just like us, preferred choice and found difference intriguing. So new coat colours in pet and working cats were favoured and the genetic mutations that are responsible were encouraged and so became extensive.

With people and their homes or workplaces providing a food supply there was no disadvantage in being visible. In fact, a cat easily picked out could win out over the more mundane and gain the evolutionary desirable pet status. In the earliest known poem about a cat (attributed to a 9th century Irish monk) we learn that he’s a good mouser, he has a name (Pangur Ban) and he’s WHITE, so very distinctive.

So, as people’s choices through the ages have given us CATS IN DESIGNER GENES, let’s find out what is currently in fashion 

Blue

Swinging straight into the very top colour spot is BLUE. Well over one third of the pedigree cats GCCF registered in 2023 (37%) were blue and although not quite such a high proportion in 2017 it still had pride of place (31%).

It’s a colour that has been around since the beginning of registration and cat shows – think of the BLUE PERSIAN, BRITISH BLUE & RUSSIAN BLUE. The pedigree breeds developed from cats in our homes and on farms and some travelled in from around the world.

And blue doesn’t just give us a solid blue cat. Let’s mix and match in some patterns.
There are the delicately coloured BLUE POINT SIAMESE, striking BLUE & WHITE BICOLOURS or BLUE TABBIES in coats that are ticked, stripey, spotted or have whorls and swirls.
They all have the same colour genes, but patterning makes for big changes in appearance.

Black

This is just as true (perhaps even more so) when we consider BLACK, the colour that’s the second favourite according to our registry stats (26% in 2023, falling from 30.6% in 2017.) There are some breeds (BENGAL, EGYTIAN MAU, USUAL ABYSSINIAN,) that mix in their blackness with striking tabby patterns. A BROWN BURMESE and SEALPOINT SIAMESE are black cats with the depth of colour restricted to points, and the black on the beautiful SILVER CHINCHILLA is restricted to the tips of each hair in its coat.

Lilac & Chocolate

LILAC 3RD (9.7%) and CHOCOLATE 4th (6.5%) are both in the same positions now as they were six years earlier, though lilac has pulled ahead a little more. These are not the colours of the traditional British moggy, but relatively latecomers in the mix, coming here from the domestic cats of the far east. They can now be found in all the patterns of blue and black as breeders are familiar with them, but early in the 20th century they were thought to be shades of these colours rather than separate with their own mode of inheritance. By the 1950-60s experimental breeding had proved otherwise, and this was later confirmed by genetic studies.

Red

RED, CREAM and TORTOISHELL (in a variety of colours) take up the other places in the top ten for pedigree cat colours with reds ahead of the torties. These are grouped together as they all depend on the colour gene known as orange (O)and this is found on the X chromosome so is sex-linked.

The RED TABBIES of the pedigree world has a rich warm base colour and beautifully clear markings, but throughout the UK the domestic ginger tomcat is also instantly recognisable, though in a variety of shades and with the red often combined with white.
A cat doesn’t have to be male to be red, though they are far more common as only one red parent is required for a boy and usually it’s two for a girl. Very recent (2023) research in China has shown some red females can be non-visible tortie which could provide a new registration complication, but fortunately a genetic test exists which hopefully will become more widely available.

Tortie

So, can there be TORTIE males? Tortie is the combination of two colours in a female when one X chromosome is O and the other is not (o). Sometimes white is in the mix too, creatin a patched pattern rather than intermingled colours. Basic biology says X x 2 = female, but there are known genetic abnormalities and tortie males exist. GCCF will register them and they can be on the show bench, but they are not for breeding yet.
A cat doesn’t have to be male to be red, though they are far more common as only one red parent is required for a boy and usually it’s two for a girl. Very recent (2023) research in China has shown some red females can be non-visible tortie which could provide a new registration complication, but fortunately a genetic test exists which hopefully will become more widely available.

Cream

CREAM is a more delicate shade (red diluted if you like) and it’s preferred in on the show bench in cool tones to ‘hot’. It is attractive combines with colour restriction in Siamese and Burmese, or as the glorious BLUE-CREAM, long a favourite in the Persian world.

White

So, remembering Pangur Ban, the monastery mouser poetically described over 1000 years ago, what happened to WHITE? It’s an unlucky 13th in the GCCF registration stakes with just 84 cats registered (0.4%) last year. That’s now behind the newer colours of CINNAMON and FAWN and over 50% down on 2017. Unfortunately, some white cats are deaf and GCCF now requires those used for breeding to be tested for no hearing loss to reduce the risk of deaf kittens. So those breeders who specialise in white need a little bit more expertise and dedication. Still, better that than having colour banned as has happened in some parts of Europe!

Green

There are no GREEN mammals so what about the Danish Green Cat? Miss Greeny created a sensation in 1995 when was she was found as a kitten on a farm in Denmark, green from the hair in her ears to the tips of each claw. She didn’t stay that way though. Once in a home she reverted to a typical brown tabby and her amazing colour was thought to be because of the high amount of copper in the water she was drinking from old pipes in the yard.

OK, it’s extremely unlikely that GCCF will ever be registering green, but nature has produced a collection of wonderful colours and patterns for cats. So long as people are around to appreciate ‘difference’, and encourage it by selective breeding, then no doubt there will be more colours and patterns to come.

The favourite colours are noted, but it’s colour and pattern combined that give cats their varied and sometimes multi-coloured appearance, so here are the chart to show how much.

It’s an interesting result: A majority of pedigree cats wear a single-coloured coat and for the small number of Household Pets registered the trend is similar, but more markedly so.
Our records pose the question – IS THE HOUSEHOLD TABBY IN DECLINE? Opinions welcome!

SUMMARY20172023
Colour restriction15761181
Tabby incl with white51674468
Bi-colour22643284
Shaded/smoke7981344
Self1110610374
Total2091120651
SUMMARY20172023
Colour restriction1 1.3%0 0.0%
Tabby incl with white38 49.4%20 26.7%
Bi-colour20 26.0%24 32.0%
Shaded/smoke0 0.0%2 2.7%
Self18 23.4%29 38.7%
Total7775