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Cat Coat Genetics: The Science Explained

Have you ever wondered how your cat ended up with the coat color that it did? Maybe you know that your cat had a black parent and a white parent but ended up with a brown tabby. How does this happen? What genetic factors determine the color and type of coat your cat has? What determines what types of markings (or lack thereof) your cat has?

The short and sweet answer to any question surrounding why your cat’s coat is the way that it is is specific genes. However, it’s much more complex than that because even scientists have some uncertainty about how specific genes act to impact a cat’s coat color, markings, and length. Let’s talk about the science behind cat coat genetics.

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What Determines a Cat’s Coat Color?

Coat color is a sex-linked trait, so the sex of the kitten almost always plays a role in how coat color is determined by the genes. Male kittens get their coat color genes from their mother, so their mother’s coat color will directly impact a male kitten’s coat colors. Male kittens will almost always have a coat color that is the same as their mother, a dilute form of their mother’s coat color, or the mother’s coat color will be present as one of the colors in multi-colored coats.

Female kittens, on the other hand, can have coat color determined by either parent. This is because females get a gene for coat color from each parent. Female kittens generally will show either a dilute form of the parents’ colors or a combination of both parents’ colors. Some coat colors must be related to genes carried by both parents to express in a kitten. For a female kitten to be cream or red, the male parent must be cream or red, and the female parent must have some form of cream or red in her coat.

Interestingly, a kitten’s color will only be determined by its parents, not by the colors of previous generations. The primary exception to this is color pointed coat colors, which are a specific gene that can carry between generations. Dominant coat colors that will almost never skip generations include bi-color, white, and smoke. Tortoiseshell is a coat color that can only occur with a parent that has that coat color. Two parents with recessive coat colors, like blue, can only create offspring with recessive coat colors.

Black tabby Maine Coon with harness
Image Credit: DenisNata, Shutterstock

Can Certain Coat Colors Only Be Male or Female?

For a long time, many people believed that certain coat colors could only be present specifically in male or female cats. The most common coat color associated exclusively with male cats is an orange or orange tabby, while the most common colors associated exclusively with female cats are tortoiseshell, calico, and blue-cream. We now know that these colors can be expressed in both males and females, but they do more commonly occur in specific sexes. Sometimes, these cats may be sterile, but this is not always the case.

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What Determines a Cat’s Coat Markings?

The genes for markings or patterns can be inherited from either parent, but some patterns are dominant genes that will almost always be expressed in each generation. These include tabby, tortoiseshell, and color pointed coats.

If both parents are color pointed, they can only create color pointed offspring. However, if one parent is color pointed and the other parent is not color pointed and has no color point in its lineage, then none of the offspring will be color pointed.

What Determines a Cat’s Coat Length?

A combination of the parents’ genes pertaining to coat length will determine what coat length the kittens have. If both parents are longhair cats, the kittens cannot be shorthair. Shorthair coats come from a dominant gene, while longhair coats come from a recessive gene. Two shorthair parents can create longhair offspring, but it’s statistically highly unlikely.

a diluted calico cat with collar sitting on cemented path
Image Credit: Raychan, Unsplash

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In Conclusion

The genetics behind cat coats can be extremely complex, and this is not an all-inclusive, deep dive into the genetics. However, this is an overview of how genetics can impact what kind of coat your cat has. There are multiple factors that do impact the coat your cat has, and some of them haven’t been fully understood by science yet. What we do know, though, is that if your cat has a brown tabby coat, then one of its parents might not be the white or black cat you thought they were.

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Featured Image Credit: Light Hound Pictures, Shutterstock