Give your cat an appropriate toy to play with
Give your cat an appropriate toy to play with by Shutterstock. Photography by Xseon | Shutterstock.

Cat Colors — Get the Fascinating Facts Behind Cat Coats & Patterns

Modifying genes means endless possibilities for cat colors and patterns. From tabby cats to pointed patterns to tricolors like calicos, let’s learn more!
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Cat colors, patterns and fur length are a cat’s calling card. We include these characteristics when referring to specific types of felines. For example, we would call fictional cat Garfield a red tabby Exotic Shorthair.

Note the color, pattern, breed and coat length in the name. The cat fancy — or the community of feline enthusiasts, cat show judges, breed registries, breeders and others who study and adore felines — gave us these designations to make it easier to identify cats.

This may seem hard to believe, but cat colors basically include black, red, white or some combination, dilution or mixture of these. It almost doesn’t seem fair when birds get 15 vivid colors like pink, green, blue, yellow and purple.

“Birds derive their brilliant coloring because of the chemical structure of their feathers and amino acid modifiers, which is different from that of cat coat textures where pigmentation is based on melanin types,” says Joan Miller, the Cat Fanciers’ Association’s outreach and education chair and renowned cat expert.

A white cat with blue eyes.
Cats basically come in black, red, white or some combination, dilution or mixture of these. Photography by Casey Elise Photography.

Cat colors — what coat colors can cats have?

Basically, when it comes to cat colors, cats are black unless they have inherited the sex-linked orange masking gene, in which case, they are red, Miller explains. By red, we mean what is commonly called orange.

“The hundreds of colors and patterns displayed in domestic cat coats come about because of modifying factors that include both genes and polygenes, which change these basic two colors,” she says, giving an example of the dilute gene, which changes cat colors from black to blue (commonly called gray) and red to cream.

Polygenes, genes that require multiple others of their kind for their effects to be observable, then determine whether the coat color tone will be a dark steel gray-blue or a pale powder blue, she explains. These inherited polygenes are controlled through selective breeding in pedigreed breeds. If you’ve studied cats for very long, you probably know that calico and tortoiseshell cats — those with both black and red coat colors — are female. That’s because the orange gene is carried on the sex-linked X chromosome. Because males are XY with only one X chromosome, they can only be black or red (or the variations of each due to modifying factors).

Since females are XX, they can be both black and red. “This is how we obtain the flashy tortoiseshell-colored females, who have black coats with splashes of red. If the dilute factor is inherited, the female cat will be a blue-cream. Should a cat also inherit the piebald white spotting factor, then this female can be a tortie and white bicolor, or calico tricolor cat with large black and red areas on a white coat,” Miller says. Piebalds are spots or patches that are absent of pigmentation, or white.

Read more about cat color and genetics on Paws and Effect >>

A brown tabby cat.
When it comes to coat patterns, here’s a mind-blowing fact: All cats start as tabbies. Photography by Casey Elise Photography.

The tabby pattern

When it comes to cat colors and coat patterns, here’s a mind-blowing fact: All cats are tabbies. “Whether they show their tabby pattern or not depends on whether the cat has inherited the dominant agouti gene or the recessive non-agouti solid color gene,” she explains. “However, even solid-colored red cats will show tabby pattern because the sex-linked chromosome is not affected by the non-agouti gene. Solid-color kittens will sometimes show their underlying tabby pattern when young before their kitten coat sheds and the adult coat grows in. Also, when an adult cat with a solid coat lies in bright sunlight their underlying tabby pattern can often be faintly seen.” The tabby pattern includes the characteristic “M” marking on their foreheads and four basic types:

  • Classic tabbies, also called blotched tabbies, have a combination of stripes, swirls, blotches and what looks like a bull’s-eye on the sides of their bodies.
  • Ticked tabbies have banding on each hair shaft with a lighter color at the base, which creates an iridescent speckled appearance but without stripes on the body. Abyssinians and Somalis are these types of tabbies.
  • Mackerel tabbies have vertical continuous stripes on both sides of their bodies and a dark spine line extending from shoulders to tail.
  • Spotted tabbies are just that. The size of the spots and the spacing between them vary. Ocicats have large thumbprint spots, Egyptian Maus have high-contrast, randomly placed spots of varied shapes and sizes, and Bengals have rosette spotting, according to Miller, “but random-bred cats will often have broken mackerel or classic striping giving a spotted appearance.”
  • There’s also a pattern called patched tabby. These are female cats with any of the four tabby patterns but that also show additional red-colored patches due to their inherited sex-linked orange gene, Miller explains.
A Siamese cat. Photography ©studdio22comua | Thinkstock.
The point-restricted pattern gene gives Siamese and related breeds their pointed pattern, or a light-colored body with darker colors at the extremities. Photography ©studdio22comua | Thinkstock.

The pointed pattern

Here’s another cool point about cat colors: The point-restricted pattern gene gives Siamese and related breeds their pointed pattern, or a light-colored body with darker colors at the extremities. The gene must be carried in both the male and female for any of the kittens to be pointed.

“The gene is temperature sensitive, causing color to be restricted to the cooler extremities of the body — the face, ears, legs, tail and testicles,” Miller explains. “It is part of the albino series and modifies the color tone so that black appears dark seal brown on a light fawn-colored body. The genetic mutation, chocolate color, and its dilute version, lilac, also were seen in the early Siamese cats.” Tonkinese cats, which are a mix of Siamese and Burmese, have a more subtle point contrast called mink coloring.

Siamese cats were named after the ancient kingdom of Siam, where they originated. “These cats were a sensation when first imported to England in the mid-1800s,” Miller says. “When the Siamese first came to America in the early 1900s, they quickly became popular as pets, leading to the spread of the recessive point-restricted pattern throughout the country. It is still hidden in the genotype of many random-bred cats and surfaces in litters when both the sire and dam are carriers of the gene.”

A shaded Persian cat.
Three types of shaded cats include: chinchilla, shaded and smoke, each distinguished by
the extent of the shading on individual hairs. Photography ©Olivia | Thinkstock.

Shading patterns

Another thing to consider when we’re talking cat colors? Shading, which is characterized by color at the tips of the hair with a pure white undercoat. Three types of shaded cats include: chinchilla, shaded and smoke, each distinguished by the extent of the shading on individual hairs.

In chinchillas, only the very tip of the guard hair, or outer coat, is colored. With the shaded pattern, a quarter of the guard hair farthest from the cat’s body exhibits the color. In the smoke pattern, half of the guard hair farthest from the cat’s body displays the color. When a smoke-patterned cat is still, the coat pattern may appear solid, but when the cat is moving or you pet him, you can see the white undercoat.

A tortoiseshell cat.
The tortoiseshell, or tortie, are referred to as particolored. These cats are female, and they’re black with random patches of red. Photography by Casey Elise Photography.

Bicolors and tricolors

With cat colors, people love to talk about bicolored cats, which are white and any other color. The cat can have a little spotting, even only one patch of white, or can be mostly white with a little bit of the other color. The colored area in bicolored cats can also feature any of the tabby patterns.

“The bicolor and tricolor patterns are created by the incomplete dominant piebald white-spotting gene,” Miller says. “Polygenes help determine the amount of white in the cat’s coat. Black bicolored cats with only a small amount of white, such as a ‘bib,’ white paws and perhaps a white facial ‘blaze’ are the ‘tuxedo’ cats. The other extreme is an almost entirely white body with color only on the tail and perhaps a spot or two on the head or body. This is called the ‘Van’ pattern referring to the cats found in the Lake Van area of Turkey centuries ago.”

Calicos are white females with large solid areas of black and red patches as well as other colors like blues and creams thrown in. They can have a little bit of white, a lot of white or anything in between.

Tortoiseshells, or torties, are referred to as particolored in the cat fancy. Like calicos, these cats are female, except they’re black with random patches of red. The black and red can also be the dilute blue and cream. A dilute tortie is a blue female with patches of solid cream or chocolate with red or lilac with cream. The patches on the tortoiseshell can also be tabby patterned.

Cat colors chart:

Cat colors chart. Photography ©Thinkstock Images.
Solid coat colors in cats. Photography ©Thinkstock Images.

Cat colors and cat personalities

A calico cat.
Calico and tortoiseshell cats are female, because the orange gene is carried on the sex-linked “X” chromosome. Photography by Casey Elise Photography.

The University of California, Davis, surveyed 1,200 cat guardians in 2015 and published the results in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. The respondents were asked to choose a color category that best represented their cat and to answer questions about cat colors and their cats’ behaviors. The results seemed to confirm a reputation that calicos and torties are feisty and unpredictable.

In another survey, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University, East Bay, asked 189 cat guardians to assign the terms – active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant and trainable — to five different cat colors — red, tricolored, white, black and bicolored. The results showed that respondents were more likely to attribute friendliness to orange cats, intolerance to tricolored cats and aloofness to white cats.

Keep in mind that these were surveys of human perceptions, not scientific studies that controlled for other possible personality influencers, such as gender and coat length. Calicos and torties are female, which might play a greater role in personality than coat color. Longhaired cats are generally believed to be docile, while shorthaired cats are purported to be energetic.

I have two red tabby domestic longhaired cats who came from the same litter. Some of my friends can’t tell them apart, and one cat could work as a stunt double for the other. But when it comes to personalities, the two couldn’t be more opposite. One greets everyone who comes to our house; the other has enough love only for me and my husband.

More studies are needed before we can conclude that cat colors influence personality. 

An albino cat.
A blue-eyed white cat. Photography by DONOT6_STUDIO / Shutterstock.

Cat eye colors

Another cool point to consider when it comes to cat colors — cat eye colors. All kittens are born with blue eyes. At about 6 to 8 weeks of age, “their potential final eye color begins to become apparent,” Miller says. “Full brilliance is not achieved until a cat reaches maturity.” Full maturity can take one to two years, depending on the cat breed. “There are only three basic eye colors,” Miller says. “However, eye color of domestic cats is striking and greatly varied. Interestingly, the brilliant copper eye color of a Persian, the deep gold eyes of an Abyssinian or Bombay and the emerald green eyes of a Russian Blue are all derived from the same gene. It is through years of selective breeding that this extreme eye color spectrum has been perfected in the breeds. Random-bred cats usually have greenish gold or hazel eye color; however, a colony of free-roaming cats resulting from natural-line breeding will often develop golden or lemon-yellow eye color.”

Some cat eye colors are linked to coat colors or patterns. For example, white cats can have blue, yellow, gold or odd eyes. “Any cats that have inherited the piebald-spotting factor can have odd-eye color — one blue eye and one golden, yellow or greenish eye,” Miller says. Cats with the point-restricted color pattern, like the Siamese, have blue eyes because of a gene that is linked to albinism. Tonkinese often have aqua eyes. “Tonkinese showing the deeper Burmese coat colors (sable, blue, champagne or platinum) will have gold or green eye color,” Miller says.

Thumbnail: Photography by Xseon | Shutterstock.

This piece was originally published in 2017. 

Read Next: 8 Interesting Facts About the Cat Nose and the Cat Sense of Smell

79 thoughts on “Cat Colors — Get the Fascinating Facts Behind Cat Coats & Patterns”

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  10. I have two indoor cats who are terrified of being outdoors and always have been. They ste quite happy to live indoors. Recently, a homeless outdoor cat has adopted me. He would love to come inside, but can’t yet, because the other two are afraid.

    Past cats have always been indoors/outdoors which is definitely hard on the bird population. It was their choice. They have all lived pretty long, happy lives.

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  12. Why is this website randomly inaccessible from outside the United Sates? Aka France and Russia blocked but not Belgium?

    1. Different countries have different internet censorship laws/policies and Russia has an actual firewall designed to keep content in/out.

      These are questions for the countries where you are blocked. Not the site. The site cannot control the firewall/ISP that is blocking them.

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  20. Question. My ragdoll longhair is the usual white with brown points for some of the year, but for the rest of the year the parts, ie back and sides that are normally a stark white, end up a mix of the same dark brown that’s on her points and fawn colouring whatever remains of where the white was. I don’t mean a few hairs I’m talking about everything (that was previously white) but the belly changes to a mix of dark brown and fawn. We originally thought it was a coat change when she shedded during summer (you could make an entire second cat with the amount she sheds) but she seems to occasionally do so during winter too. Then she’ll go back to her usual white with brown points (think similar colouring to a Siamese but longhair. In fact she has often been mistaken for one since ragdolls aren’t common here).

    What would her colouring actually be? I would have to dig up the actual registration papers but I think it said seal-point.

    I’ve also got a longhair Scottish fold that has the triple ear fold so it looks like she’s just one big puff ball. She’s this really odd blue grey colour. She has white but it’s not really in a way that can be defined as either stripes or patches. She’s not at all the colour that shows up as ‘blue Scottish fold’ on google. More a blueberry blue (hence the name) it’s like a more saturated/brighter ‘blue’ rather then that sorta blue/black blue/grey that seems so common.

    I can’t figure out how to add pictures on here

    1. Hi Heather,

      This might add some insight into your Ragdoll’s coloring:
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/facts-about-seal-point-cats
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/cat-facts-genes-siamese-cats-temperature-sensitive-albino

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  22. Lucinda J Dustin

    Your pesky “mouse” is a protected species. My cat catches and releases, usually indoors. No one is going to come and take away you or cat, but since The kangaroo mouse likes scorpions, being a person that has severe arachnophobia I would prefer the kangaroo’s and their delight in eating scorpions. They may not be spiders but they are dangerous and sneaky.

    Sounds to me like your cat is spoiled and loved.

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  32. Hi I have a silver tabby with a half black and pink nose. Was wondering if you knew anything about it’s meaning
    Thanks

    1. Hi there,

      These articles might provide some insight:
      https://www.catster.com/cat-health-care/cats-nose-change-color
      https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/5-remarkable-facts-about-your-cats-nose-freckles

  33. Not ALL Calicos and Tortie & Whites are female, males can have those colors too! Check out Calicos and Kin by Judith Lindley, she has some great photos of Male Calicos in there.
    https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/calicos-and-kin-judith-lindley/1129058964

  34. I have a rescued Maine Coon who is 5 years old. Strictly indoors. Her life is fabulous. I live in a cabin in the woods. She has several great places to sit and watch the outdoor world. She also gets good food and groomed. We have several games we play that she enjoys and gets good exercise from. I have a really hard time believing she is unhappy, feels trapped, or any of the other negative descriptions here. She’s a delightful and happy companion.

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  36. Sebeth C Spilseth

    All the rescues in this area require that you sign a contract that the cat will be indoor only and allowed outside only when supervised and leashed. This is of course not the old way of raising a cat.
    There are other arguments in favor such as the cat killing birds or other small animals that are desirable.

    I live in a desert community so of course scorpions can be a curse. There is however a type of mouse called a Kangaroo Mouse, which is immune to scorpion venom and loves to eat them as a tasty treat. They also have no interest in taking up residence in my home. I know many of the people here are not aware of this and constantly brag what great mousers they are. I have found two dead Kangaroo Mice in my yard and was really not happy about that.

    Also dead song birds, etc. And the topper? Someone decided that the raised garden bed that I had spent much time and money to cultivate as a strawberry patch was an ideal litter box. I finally had to rip them out and was heartbroken.

    And finally there is the cats safety to consider, cars, dogs or what ever. For my area in particular there are coyotes, eagles hawks, rattlesnakes and finally a great horned owl. Since my cats are roughly the size of the large jackrabbits they would definitely be on the menu.

    We actually had an eagle attack a yorkie that was being walked on leash. It came out of nowhere and snatched it right up. The owner was able to hold on and get her dog back but he was so badly injured he had to be put down.

    My family had plenty of barn cats and it was a joy to watch their athleticism. Each situation is unique.

    By the way are you aware that there is now agility training for cats? For breeds with a stronger hunting drive this is a fantastic way to give them some fun and marvel at all the things they are capable of.

    1. Requiring cats to be kept inside is unreasonable. I have done animal rescue for well over 20 years and leave this decision up to the owners however I personally believe cats should be allowed to be outdoors as it is in their nature; I let my cats choose… Some like to be inside more than others but they all like to go outside. I realize that there are risks outside but the issue here is quality of life. A local woman that calls herself a cat rescue took one of my cats that was an inside outside cat and told me that it was unacceptable for her to be outside; She tried to convince me to let her rehome my cat; She made it quite clear that if she saw my cat outside again that I would never see her again.… So, I kept the cat inside she would look out the window in the door she would try to wrap the door every time it was open she would cry often on all day and all night. She had been raised as an indoor outdoor cat end it was cruel to keep her confined indoors.

      1. Have your cat microchipped and or ear tatooed. After that file a police report that this woman intends to steal your cat! Stealing is stealing! After this inform her if your cat goes missing that you have filed the police report and she will be the first person the police visit. Do so very calmly and firmly and say you will take this to court if she does still the cat! Inform her you consider this a threat of theft and leave it at that! PS too many people don’t mind their own business any more Good luck!

    2. Requiring cats to be kept inside is unreasonable. I have done animal rescue for well over 20 years and leave this decision up to the owners however I personally believe cats should be allowed to be outdoors as it is in their nature; I let my cats choose… Some like to be inside more than others but they all like to go outside. I realize that there are risks outside but the issue here is quality of life. A local woman (that calls herself an animal rescue) took one of my cats that was an inside/outside cat and told me that it was unacceptable for her to be outside; She tried to convince me to let her rehome my cat; She made it quite clear that if she saw my cat outside again that I would never see her again.… So, I confined the cat inside; she would look out the window & the door & she would try to run out the door every time it opened crying to go out. Outside she could chase leaves, hide in the bushes, climb trees,
      play with her fellow cats.
      She had been raised as an indoor/outdoor cat & it was cruel to keep her confined indoors. When she went missing I was very sad to think something might’ve happened to her but it makes me even sadder to see her deprived of doing the things that she loves.
      We need to consider if the things that we do to our animals are really for our animals are for ourselves.

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  38. A stray grey long haired stripy cat had five kittens in my yard. One long haired ginger male, one tortoise long haired female, one short haired tri coloured male, one short haired cream colour male. None of them are the colour of the mother is this unusual ?

    1. Jane, having all different colored cats from the mother is not unusual at all, sometimes when female cats become pregnant they can actually have different fathers and if all of those kittens actually have all different fathers then the kittens can be any color their father is. Just because you only know the mother doesn’t mean that’s the only color they get. Hope I helped!

  39. We have a seal tortioiseshell point male cat.
    HE is:
    a tortie
    a colorpoint
    a pedigreed Siberian Cat
    a father (common speculation is that male torties are sterile)
    Skye Blue Humphrey Bogart, “Bogie”

  40. I have a pretty all orange female. She is an out side cat. Has had 3 litters 4 each time and only 2 were not orange or orange and white mixed.

  41. My cat little lamb has stunning odd eyes one blue and one green and yes you can guess he is white and got gray patch on his head and gray tail.. I was told if he had been fully white could probably of been blind

  42. I have heard of tortie males before. There is a picture of one being judged at an ACFA Cat show. It was a Himalayan tortie, very unusual.

  43. Believe it or not I have a male calico!! And “he” is very testy with my other cats. Roo lives on the bed in my bedroom and hates having to share his bed with all the others. My long hair grey is the friendliest with second being a long hair black. My least friendly is a little grey tiger named coco – probably because she was very sick as a kitten and was medicated quite a bit. But I love them all – all 14 of them!

  44. I have a rescue cat Jessie, short,but thick fur black and white. very white underneath. One of my friends says she looks like someone dropped a tin of black paint on her back! this does describe her well. Very stressed. but love her to bits !xxx

    1. My Cat Tigger was black with white underneath. He was a Persian. Father was a blue cream Persian and mother was a blue Persian.

      1. Dilute coats (blue is dilute of black) are recessive. A

        A kitten from 2 dilute coated parents can not be full colour.

        Two blue cats genetically can not have a black kitten. Ergo, the purported father was not the genetic father.

    1. Susan Logan-McCracken

      The best way to keep a cat’s coat shiny and healthy is to feed a healthy protein-based diet and provide plenty of fresh drinking water. Also keep your cat indoors to keep dirt and fleas from getting in the fur. Brush your cat’s coat to keep it from becoming matted. And pet your cat as often as you can. Great question. Thank you for asking!

      1. I cannot understand the emphasis on keeping a cat indoors. Their basic nature surely is one in which hunting , climbing ,chasing are an integral part. I am guardian to a fabulous Maine coon tortie and she follows me around the garden , catches mice , and enjoys life to the full. Of course she is supervised but to deprive her of this outdoor life would to me amount to mistreating her.

        1. That assessment is hardly fair and displays a marked lack of knowledge or thought. It is well documented that cats who live inside live much longer. Plus it is wonderful that (1) you have a garden and (2) your cat is well-behaved and hangs around you when you go outside. These two factors put you squarely in the small minority of cat owners. Most cats would not hang around the owner but would, understandably, take off for an adventure. In heavily populated areas with lots of traffic OR heavily forested, remote areas, this could mean death by misadventure for a domestic cat.

          My sister’s cat was indoor/outdoor in a suburban area but when Jennifer moved to a more forested area, she was concerned for the cat because of raccoons, wild cats, etc. She got out anyway and disappeared. My shy, timid Persian (a rescue) got out a couple of years ago. I found him on a neighbor’s patio the next day (thank goodness!) but he was obviously very frightened and MORE than happy to see me and be taken back inside.

          And incidentally, my cats get plenty of opportunities to hunt since lizards and anoles are always getting into the garage. I find their carcasses quite often.

          1. It is also well documented that wild animals live longer in captivity, but no one in their right mind would think living in a cage is what’s best for them. A closed home can also be a cage for a cat. I agree that certain outdoor areas are extremely dangerous for cats, and I’m not against cats in an apartment (as long as there’s at least another cat or dog as a companion), but I find it extremely ridiculous that people who don’t want to let their cat outside justify that by saying that they live longer indoor. Would you rather spend an extremely long life in a cage with limited distractions or a (possibly) short but full life? And do you think a cat has any concept of time or life expectancy? That kind of reasoning is anthropomorphism, it’s like believe a female must have at least one liter to be happy, or that because a cat comes at you purring and demanding attention means he loves you. A cat doesn’t care if he’s going to die tomorrow or in ten years, what he cares about is the fact that he’s stuck behind a window chirping (which is a sign of frustration by the way) at birds or squirrels he can never hunt. Let’s be real loving being and think about what the cat want, not what the humans want.

          2. I lived in a suburb of D.C., a place with a lot of side streets and a fair amount of traffic. There was a lady who had a lot of animals, looked after them and rescued a lot, let her cats be indoor-outdoor, and never heard of any being hit by a car in the 30 years she was there. There were neighbors who let their cats out, and I let mine out for a couples years. None were ever hit. Yeah, though, it can happen but some neighborhoods are safer spaces with a lot of backyards and front lawns with porches and bushes.

        2. I agree. A mama cat left us four male feral kittens. We tried to tame them but they had too much feral training and would not accept being inside cats. We decided to care for them and accept their way of life. They were fixed, given shots for diseases and rabies. Also they let me put flea meds on their necks monthly. We put warm bed in our basement, water and food. A cat door was added and they accepted living there. We lost one at the age of four from a genetic heart problem, the vet said. The next to go was the Maine Coon because of being overweight. He had a heart attack at the vet. Two are left and they will soon be eight years old. These cats have lived great lives and are so intelligent. They are very devoted to us but no one else can come close to them. They have lived happy lives in our woods, the basement and often visiting in our house.

        3. The only reasons to keep a cat inside are to keep them safe from being attacked by other animals, make it less likely from getting parasites such as fleas, ticks, or tapeworm, and to stop them from killing songbirds. Since many cats are not native to North America, they have caused a significant decrease in the bird population (although not your Maine Coon, they’re one of the oldest natural breeds here!). Also sometimes it’s to make sure they don’t have kits (which is obviously not a problem if they are spayed/neutered). However, I agree with your view; it’s not proper to keep every cat inside all the time! You have the right idea, letting her roam around while still supervised. I bet your cat loves you! You sound like a great guardian for her.

    2. Sprinkle a tiny bit of fish oil or fish oil blend over their food at every feeding – that will make their fur truly luxurious.

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