While doing research on albino kittens and cats, and on what makes a cat a true albino, I encountered quite a bit of confusion on the part of cat owners and some misinformation on the Internet. Many people labeled photos of white cats as albinos, who were not, and some websites made strange, broad claims about both white cats and albino cats, which were simply untrue. This made the research more purposeful.
There are detailed, explicit scientific differences between cats with white coats and albino cats. Without resorting to too much dry, technical language about alleles, or to unhelpful, sweeping generalizations, we’ll try to explain what makes a white cat’s coat white, and what distinguishes these cats from the extremely rare albinos. We’ll also dispel popular myths about white cats and albinos along the way!
Let’s start with the basics, and make it all as comprehensible as possible. Albinism is a genetic condition in which there is a complete lack of color or pigmentation. For a kitten to be born a true albino, both the mother and father must carry the genetic marker for albinism. Where a white cat has a white coat, the cat is generally, in most other respects, a perfectly normal cat. An albino cat’s coat may appear to be white, but closer inspection, particularly of the eyes and skin, reveals a series of differences.
The first, easiest, and most important distinction between a white cat and an albino can be found in the eyes. White cats tend to have a range of eye colors, including the always-intriguing heterochromia, or “odd-eye,” in which the two eyes are different colors. On the other hand, albino cats’ eyes have a very limited spectrum due to the complete lack of pigmentation. The eyes of a true albino cat are limited to a very pale blue, or may appear pinkish or pinkish-blue.
Here, pink is not itself a color, but an excess of light reflecting back blood vessels within the eye. The same can be said of the skin of the albino cat. Looking even closer, an albino cat’s skin also lacks any pigmentation. The skin, most visibly the nose and inner ears, may appear to be anywhere from pink to pale pink. Again, this is not a color inherent to the skin, but a trick of light reflecting blood flow.
Those are the basics for true albinos, which are rare. Partial albinism, however, is much more common than you might think. One surprising thing I learned was that certain members of the so-called “Oriental” family of cats — including the Siamese, Burmese, and Tonkinese — each gain their distinctive “pointed” coloration from a kind of partial albino genetic heritage.
A color-pointed coat is one in which color tends to concentrate in certain areas. The color concentration depends on heat, with pigmentation developing in cooler areas while warmer areas remain much lighter in comparison. Color-pointed cats, at least those developed from Siamese, including the Thai cat, are born white, and develop their color patterns as they age.
The lack of pigmentation in true albino cats is due to their inability to produce melanin. Melanin does more than contribute to skin tone. In cats, as well as other creatures, including humans, melanin has a number of functions. For cats, melanin gives color to the skin, the coat, and the eyes. In the eyes alone, it also aids in depth perception. On a more holistic level, it assists in the body’s ability to fight off infection and disease.
Most importantly, melanin’s role in giving color to eyes, skin, and coat, and the utter lack of it in albino cats, means that they are highly light-sensitive. Albino cats may not have any other associated health issues, but direct sunlight is harmful to their vision and potentially destructive to their skin with prolonged exposure. Albino cat owners should be very cautious with their cat’s access to direct sunlight.
The only real similarity between cats with white coats and albino cats is the apparent coat color. In albinos, of course, the white is only an appearance attributed to their lack of color. White cats have white coats because the gene for white fur trumps all other potential colors. Over the years, some myths about white-coated cats have been unfairly assigned to albino cats by an association — coat color — that is itself false. One such myth that frequently appears links blue eyes, white cats, and deafness.
In the final edition of The Origin of Species published during his lifetime (1872), Charles Darwin notes that, “some instances of correlation are quite whimsical; thus cats which are entirely white and have blue eyes are generally deaf.” As he says, it was folk nonsense even in the 19th century.
Modern science shows that, while there may be a higher incidence of hearing loss in white cats, the genes that govern white coat, eye color, and hearing are all different, and that it occurs both in male and female cats. Since albino cats are not white to begin with, the notion that there is any causal link between albinism and deafness is equally fallacious.
Have you ever owned or encountered an albino kitten or cat? Share your photos, stories, and experiences with these few-and-far-between felines in the comments!
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