Cats come in a huge range of cat colors and patterns, which is controlled by genes, gene modifiers, gender and even temperature in pointed cats. This explains why some cat colors and patterns are rare while others are fairly common. Before we look at our beautiful selection of rare cat colors and patterns, let’s review a few interesting facts about cat genetics:
- Cats have 19 pairs of chromosomes, which are inherited from the mother and father.
- Each chromosome DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which contains the instructions an organism needs to develop, live and reproduce.
- Genes come in pairs, one from the mother and one from the father, and can be dominant or recessive. A dominant gene overrides a recessive gene, and two copies of a recessive gene must be present for that trait to develop.
- There are only two true colors in cats, black and red. Every other coat color is a deviation of those two colors. Black and red are dominant, and therefore only one copy of the gene is needed for the cat to show these colors.
12 relatively rare cat colors
First, let’s look at relatively rare colors:
- Pointed (Himalayan)
- Burmese sepia
- Tonkinese mink
- Dilute tortie or calico
Blue (grey) is dilute black, the color is chemically black (eumelanin), but melanin granules clump in the hair shaft resulting in colorless areas which allow more light to pass through the hair and lightening the color. The British Blue, Russian Blue, Korat and Nebelung are the most well-known breeds with blue coats, but the color can also occur in mixed-breed cats.
You can view more beautiful pictures of brown cats in our article “Why are brown cats rare?“. The brown coat color (b) is a variation of black (B) coat color and is caused by a mutation that leads to reduced amounts of black pigment which causes them to appear brown and is recessive to black. Chocolate is frequently referred to as a rare color, but it is quite common in purebred cats, especially Orientals and British Shorthairs.
Two mutations of the B gene have been identified, b (brown or chocolate) and bl (light brown or cinnamon). The chocolate (b) allele is dominant over the cinnamon (bl) allele. Since the B gene is dominant over the locus, cats heterozygous for it ( B/b or B/bl genotype), carry chocolate or cinnamon gene but it cannot be recognized based on phenotype. View pics of the top 6 brown cat breeds.
Lilac is dilute chocolate and bears the same relationship to brown as blue does to black. It is seen most frequently in purebred cats, especially the Burmese, Oriental and British shorthair. The coat color is a pale grey with a rich pink tone.
The cinnamon coat is a warm-brown shade compared to the rich brown of the chocolate color and is produced by a second recessive allele (variation of a gene) of B (black) which causes an elongation of the pigment granule and is denoted by the symbol bl.
Fawn is dilute of cinnamon (above) and resembles the lilac coat color, but is lighter. The non-agouti cinnamon and fawn colors are seen most often in the Oriental and British Shorthair.
Pointed (Himalayan gene)
The Siamese is the most well known of the pointed breeds, with its characteristic dark points on a light background. The pointed colour is also found in other cat breeds as well as mixed-breed cats.
This unusual coat pattern is caused by a gene modifier that prevents the expression of the coat color on warmer parts of the body. The gene responsible for the Siamese coloration is known as cs and is recessive. Therefore both the mother and father must carry the cs gene for it to be passed on. View more Siamese pictures.
Burmese ‘sepia’ gene
The Burmese cat has a slight variation of the pointed gene, they still have points on the extremities, but the body is darker. The gene responsible is known as cb, the lower case letters tell us that it is a recessive gene. This coloration is most prominent on the chocolate (champagne) Burmese and brown (sable) Burmese. View more Burmese cat pictures.
Tonkinese ‘mink’ gene
The Tonkinese is a cross between the Burmese and Siamese and three patterns; seal, mink and solid. Seal has the characteristic appearance of the Siamese coat, solid has no points and mink is a blend of the Burmese/Siamese coat pattern. Once again, this pattern is only found in the Tonkinese which also makes it relatively rare. The genetic code for the Tonkinese is cs/cb
The photo below is my own two Tonkinese cats, Norman on the left is a seal Tonkinese and Calvin on the right is a mink. The fur on his body is a cream color compared to almost white on Norman. View more Tonkinese pictures.
The smoke occurs due to a combination of the inhibitor gene which produces a white undercoat.
The van colouration is most widely recognised in the Turkish van but can be found in mixed breed cats as well. The van coat pattern is essentially a bi-colour, however, the cat is mostly white with splashes of red or black between the ears and on the tail.
The chinchilla coat pattern is exclusive to the Persian cat (sometimes referred to as chinchilla Persian), and is characterized by silver-tipped hairs with a pale base that is caused by the dominant melanin inhibitor gene (I/i) and is a tabby variant. You can have a look at these cute chinchilla pictures.
Dilute tortie or calico cat
The tortoiseshell and calico color/pattern is reasonably common in mixed breed cats as well as some purebreds. What is interesting is that only female cats can be tortoiseshell or calico. This interesting color combination contains both red and black or brown, and white if the cat is calico.
The cream coat colour is a dilution of red and is pale with a slight rusty hue. As with most of the other dilutions, cream is uncommon among mixed-breed cats but is becoming more commonplace among purebred cats.
Dilute selfs are less common than the dominant colours of black and red. Blue (grey) is the most common dilute color and occurs in purebred as well as mixed breed cats. Lilac, fawn and cream are less common dilute colours and mostly found in purebred cats, especially the Burmese, Oriental and British Shorthair, but can include any breed with no coat colour or pattern restrictions including the Persian, Exotic, British Longhair, Oriental Longhair, Devon Rex, Cornish Rex, Munchkin, Sphynx.
The dilute modifier (dm) gene causes a further washing out of dilute colors and caramelises them.
|Chocolate (brown)||Lilac||Lilac-based caramel|
8 extremely rare cat colors
Let’s now review cat colors, cat patterns or types of cats who are extremely rare! This includes:
- Burmese russet
- Burmese cinnamon
- Norwegian Forest cat Amber
- Bengal charcoal
- Bengal melanistic
- Male calico or tortoiseshell
Russet is a relatively new coat color that appeared in a litter of kittens born in New Zealand in 2007 and is thought to be a mutation of the extension gene. The color develops with age and is characterized by progressive amounts of red pigment on the head and dorsal surfaces.
Cat breeder and geneticist Rod Hitchmough identified a different color which was characterized by a warm brown, which differed from the traditional brown (sepia) in the Burmese cat. Check out these pictures of a rare young cinnamon Burmese cat:
In Norwegian Forest Cats, a recessive mutation in the melanocortin 1 receptor gene leads to the gradual replacement of black pigment in the coat with yellow pigment, producing amber coloration.
White is seen relatively often in cats, and can occur in one of three ways.
- The dominant W gene which masks the effect of other colour genes. So, a cat may be genetically black or red, but the inhibits the production of normal pigment cells during embryonic development.
- The white spotting gene which affects the entire coat, the eyes may be blue or non-blue.
- True albinos are extremely rare, and is caused by a complete absence of melanin in the hair and eyes and is recessive to full colour (C/C or C/c) represented as c/c for blue eyed albinos or ca/ca . for pink-eyed albinos.
Calico or tortoiseshell (male)
Calico and tortoiseshell cats are commonplace among both purebred and mixed breed cats, but is almost exclusively found in female cats. That is because the orange gene is only found on the X chromosome. So, if a male inherits the O gene, he will be red. The female has two X chromosomes, and therefore may inherit one O gene and one B (black) gene, in which case she will be red and black. If she also carries the white spotting gene, she will be a calico. You can read more with our article: Male Calico and Tortoiseshell Cats: How Does This Happen?
The incidence of calico or tortoiseshell in male cats is estimated to be in 1 in 3,000 and may be caused by chimerism (two distinct cell lines in the one body), or Kleinfelter syndrome where the male has an extra X chromosome, so he is XXY instead of XY.
The charcoal is found in the Bengal breed and is characterized by a darker face mask and thick dorsal stripe. It is the result of a combination of the domestic cat non-agouti variant and the Asian Leopard Cat agouti variant.
Also known as a black Bengal, the melanistic Bengal has a black coat with black spots or marbles (black on black), that is caused by the recessive non-agouti gene.
Vitiligo isn’t a coat color or pattern, rather it is an extremely rare autoimmune condition that causes the destruction of the pigment-producing melanocytes which causes the skin and fur to lose its pigmentation (called depigmentation) in patches giving the fur a unique dappled pattern. This progressive condition starts at a young age and as the melanocytes are destroyed, the skin and fur turn white. See this example from a vitiligo cat in Germany:
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Beautiful – but not so rare – cat colors and patterns
Let’s look at colors that you may think are rare (and beautiful) but are actually fairly common:
- Black and white
- Brown tabby
- Grey tabby
- Brown or grey tabby and white
- Red and white
- Black and red (tortoiseshell)
- Black, red and white (calico or caliby)
- White (dominant)
The default color and pattern is the mackerel tabby in either brown or grey. This is seen in the cat’s common ancestor, felis silvestris lybica and is widespread among the domestic cat population. Variations of the mackerel pattern are the classic tabby and the spotted tabby.
The tabby is the most common color and pattern to occur in cats.
The selfs (or solid) cats occur in six basic colors, black, blue, chocolate, lilac (also known as lavender), cinnamon and fawn. Clumps of pigmentation are distributed evenly in the hair shaft, which gives the illusion of a black, chocolate or red cat. Dilute cats have pigment granules that are deposited unevenly in the hair shaft resulting in clumps of varying size along the length of the hair shaft which makes the cat appear lighter. Black becomes blue (grey), and red becomes cream.
Dense colors (black, red) are dominant over the recessive dilute colors (blue, lilac and cream) and are therefore much more commonplace as the cat only needs to inherit one gene for the dense color to appear.
Also known as piebald, the bicolor coat consists of one color (black, brown, blue, red) and white and is caused by the white spotting gene. Some cats may only have a few white hairs, others will have a 50-50 mix of color and white, and some are predominantly white with a small amount of the other color. The well-known tuxedo cat (black and white) is a bicolour.
Bicolour cats can be solid and white (most commonly black, brown or blue) or tabby and white.