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What Kind of Cat Is That?

There are lots of color patterns in cats; here are some of the most common ones, including two that people often get wrong.

JaneA Kelley  |  Nov 2nd 2016


Not every cat can be a purebred, but even your beloved moggie can come in a dazzling array of colors and patterns. I’ve written about the genetics behind feline coat colors before, but I’ve never written about the proper names for the different fur patterns. Here are the terms used to describe common cat color patterns and their descriptions, along with some photos to show you what I mean.

1. Self

My Belladonna is a self-colored black cat.

My Belladonna is a self-colored black cat.

A self-colored cat has a solid-colored coat with no tabby markings, patching, smoke, or other color patterns. Self-colored cats come in all colors.

2. Dilute

This gray cat is a dilute version of a black cat. Photo CC-BY Heather McLaughlin

This gray cat is a dilute version of a black cat. Photo CC-BY Heather McLaughlin

A dilute-colored cat is a lighter version of one of the standard cat colors. A gray cat is a dilute black cat, a cream-colored cat is a dilute orange cat, and so on. Dilute colors can occur in any feline color pattern.

3. Bicolor

My lovely Tara is a bicolor black and white with a pattern referred to as "tuxedo."

My lovely Tara is a tuxedo cat.

A bicolor cat is any color plus white. A tuxedo cat is a classic bicolor kitty, but bicolor cats can come in every color on the feline spectrum.

4. Van

An orange van pattern cat. Photo CC-BY-SA Chris

An orange van pattern cat. Photo CC-BY-SA Chris

A cat with a van color pattern is almost entirely white with small patches of color. This color pattern is named after the Turkish Van cat, which is white with a red or black tail and perhaps a few other small patches of color on the head and shoulders.

5. Calico

A calico cat is white with patches of red and black. Calico cats can be dilute colored, with gray and cream-colored spots.

6. Tortoiseshell

A tortiseshell cat, as opposed to a calico, is covered with small splotches of black and red. CC-BY-NC Augie Ray

A tortiseshell cat, as opposed to a calico, is covered with small splotches of black and red. Photo CC-BY-NC Augie Ray

A tortoiseshell, or tortie, cat is distinguished from a calico because a tortie is entirely red and black. The red and black is in a randomly patched, rather than spotted, pattern. Dilute torties are covered in gray and cream-colored fur.

7. Tabby

A classic tabby and white cat. Notice the large splotches of black in almost a target shape. Photo CC-BY Helena Jacoba

A classic tabby and white cat. Notice the large splotches of black in almost a target shape. Photo CC-BY Helena Jacoba

Tabbies are the famous striped cats. There are three tabby patterns: A classic tabby has a more marbled and blotchy pattern; a mackerel tabby has narrow stripes; and a ticked tabby has black-tipped fur with a lighter color underneath. A Somali cat is a ticked tabby. It’s rare to see ticked tabby patterns in mixed-breed cats, but it does happen.

My Thomas is a perfect mackerel tabby and white cat. Notice the narrow stripes that go vertically down the flanks.

My Thomas is a perfect mackerel tabby and white cat. Notice the narrow stripes that go vertically down the flanks.

What kind of cat do you have? Share your photos in the comments!