Tuxedos, Tabbies and Torties: How to Tell These Housecats Apart


tabby cats in Greece tabby cats in Greece
A group of tabby cats curl up together at Paleokastritsa in Corfu, Greece. Mixed breed cats, like tabbies, are by far the most common in the world. Tim Graham/Getty Images

You should see Mike Moo. Oh, my is he a handsome lad. He is jet black with an all-boy face. His head is the size of a small grapefruit, and although he is large, he is most certainly the cat's meow. His fur is silky smooth. I don't know how Moo keeps it so manageable.

Farnsworth loves Mike Moo to pieces. They pal around and lick each other's faces. Farnsworth is always dressed in his Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes, a tuxedo cat ready for any ball or cotillion. As for Calvie, she's the matriarch of the family, a brown long-haired tabby with a frisky disposition.

Mike, Farnsworth, and Calvie are by no means purebred cats. Oh, no, all the cats in my house are rescues, everyday housecats, who, when they're not hissing, chasing one another or scratching at the carpet, are rather good company. (As I write, Moo is under the desk snoring.) The three of them are among the most common housecats in the United States.

Housecats come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Some are lazy. Some are frolicsome. Some are smart. Others don't give a hoot. I've had many, alley cats all, each rescued from some sort of hellish life. Pandora was an orange domestic shorthair — daddy's favorite. Batty and D-Day were jet-white boys, although Batty had longer fur. When they knocked down the Christmas tree one year, I had to laugh.

In many ways, ordinary housecats, alley cats, or whatever you want to call them, never seem to get the credit they deserve. Do a quick search on the internet and you will find article after article about the Best Cat Breeds. But since domestic shorthairs and domestic longhairs are not officially recognized as a pedigreed breed, they never make the list. That's too bad. Ninety-five percent of the cat population in the U.S. is domestics, an often-unknowable blend of genes. One in 10 domestics is longhaired, the result of a recessive gene in shorthair cats.

So how best to pick your new domestic shorthair buddy?

Well, all of them have varying personalities. But contrary to some (mostly anecdotal) evidence, there's no reason to believe that a cat's color denotes its personality. So there's a good chance that a black cat will be just as friendly as one that's orange.

However, sterilization definitely impacts behavior, so a cat that's been spayed or neutered will absolutely behave differently than one that hasn't. You'll also note major shifts in behavior depending on a cat's age. Adolescent cats, as any cat lover can attest, tend to be far crazier and energetic than older cats.

Environment is another key influence, says Danielle Bays, senior analyst of cat protection and policy at the Humane Society of the United States. "In the natural world, domestic cats are both predator and prey. Depending on how confident a cat feels in a particular environment or situation, that determines their personality." So, if cats fear people or other animals in the house, they may often hide. Cats that feel secure are more likely to be out and about looking for attention, and of course, treats.

"Cat owners or those looking to adopt a cat should consider a cat's socialization and energy level as well as their training and background as these are all influential variables to animal behavior," says Marny Nofi, senior behavior manager for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team. "It is also important to note that kittens are still developing, and their personalities may change as they age. Socialization is key to increasing the chance your kitten will grow into a more confident cat."

Personality aside, there are a host of genetic factors that go into the color and pattern of domestic shorthairs. In an attempt to celebrate these cats, here are a few types that will make you waggle your whiskers.

Tabby

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This ginger cat has the all markings of a tabby, including an M on its forehead.
Qi Yang/Getty Images

"Tabby cat" is a term often mistakenly used to describe all female cats. In reality, "tabby" refers to the cat's coat pattern. A tabby's fur can appear in a plethora of colors, from orange to gray to yellow to brown. But regardless of hue, they have familiar slashed stripes on their faces, necks, and bodies, as well as an "M" pattern on their foreheads.

And here's a crazy cat fact that will really make you flick your tail – genetically-speaking, all cats are tabbies. The striped patterns are a result of the agouti gene, which causes banding on the individual hairs of a cat. The agouti gene is dominant, and the non-agouti gene is recessive. So if you see a solid-colored cat, it simply has modifier genes that are suppressing the genes that express classic tabby coats. But it is, scientists say, still a tabby.

Even in cats that appear to be solid colors, you may see tabby striping in bright sunlight, perhaps on the animal's tail. Sometimes kittens will exhibit stripes when they are very young, and then lose those markings as they age.

Tabby striping tends to circle back around, genetically speaking. Even in families of cats with solid coats, the tabby striping typically returns, although it may take several generations before those markings are evident.

Tabbying markings might take on various forms. Some people divide tabby coat patterns into four subcategories, including mackerel, classic, ticked and spotted.

Mackerel tabbies have the kind of distinct vertical body stripes that often earn the nickname of "tiger" cat. These bold stripes have unbroken lines that typically feature regular spacing. The overall effect is sometimes more reminiscent of a fish skeleton than a tiger, a reason that they're called mackerel tabbies.

Classic tabby cats are sometimes called "blotched" tabbies. Their markings are a blend of both stripes and swirls.

Ticked tabby cats are a bit harder to pinpoint, in part because they don't have the stereotypical body stripes. The face of a ticked tabby, though, is the giveaway, because it sports the same "M" shape that makes tabbies stand out from other cat coats.

Spotted tabby cats, as the name states, have spots all over their sides. Those spots come in all shapes and sizes and may almost seem to blend into stripes.

Each variation of the tabby pattern comes with its own set of traits and cultural history. For example, orange tabbies, like Garfield the famous cartoon cat, are also known as "marmalade or ginger cats." The orange tabby looks like a small basketball, its orange tint the result of a pigment known as pheomelanin.

Just like ginger-haired humans, orange tabbies can develop freckles, especially around their lips or where their fur is short. They're mostly males because males need just one O gene in order to wind up orange; females require two such genes. By some estimates, ginger males outnumber females by about three to one.

Tuxedo

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Tuxedo cats are black with some white patches of fur, which can be anywhere on their bodies.
Pauline Lewis/Getty Images

Tuxedo cats are the da bomb, and it's not because I've had two of them. Hey, what's good for Shakespeare is good for me. No kidding. Shakespeare owned one, or so they say. Tuxedos, with their black and white coats and boots, are mysterious and fun-loving.

Tuxedos get their name from – what else? – their formal attire. Tuxies, as they are sometimes called, come in different black and white patterns. Some are completely black except for the face, chest and paws, not to mention the tip of their tail. A harlequin has patches of black and white. Some tuxedos even sport a little "bowtie."

Tuxedos are categorized by their color and markings. They usually have green eyes and white whiskers. If they are always indoors, they can live up to 20 years. They're pretty easygoing cats, great with kids and fun to play with. Tuxedos can be equally male or female.

Black

You don't have to be Edgar Allan Poe to adore black cats. Halloween would not be complete without them. During the Middle Ages, people associated black cats with bad luck, witches and Satan. Today, they are often overlooked for adoption, either because of this superstition or because they're not seen as attractive as multicolored cats.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says black cats spend 40 percent more time in shelters than orange and white cats. They are also two-thirds less likely to get adopted than white cats and only half as likely to be adopted as tabbies. It's too bad. Although, people often think of black cats as being mono-colored, they come in various hues. Some are onyx while others tend to skew more on the blue side. Their fur is often silky. The gene for black fur is a dominant one in cats, which explains why there are so many of them.

Tortoiseshell and Calico

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This Persian cat has the markings of a calico. Calico refers to the type of coat a cat has, rather than its breed.
Kryssia Campos/Getty Images

We've lumped these two together because they are related. True tortoiseshell cats are black and brown, with splotches of orange breaking up the brown or black. Their coat patterns are diverse. Like all the other cats listed here, they are not a specific breed, but are identified by their fur color pattern.

If torties also have white markings, then they are calico cats. The vast majority of calicos and torties are females and carry two X chromosomes in every cell. Their black and orange colors are carried by their X chromosomes. The white color is expressed by a separate gene.

Only 1 in 3,000 calicos are males. Male calicos have three sex chromosomes: two X, one Y (male), rather than the usual X and Y chromosomes. A male calico will be either orange or black, but not both. However, they could still have white coloring. Calicos generally live between 12 and 16 years.

White and Albino

White cats and albino cats are not one and the same. White cats simply have white fur. Albino cats are white, too, but their coloring results from a genetic trait that results in a lack of melanin, a condition called albinism.

You can often pick the two apart by observing eye color. True white cats exhibit a wide variety of eye colors. Albino cats, though, always have light pink, blue or blue-pink eyes and are very sensitive to light. Albino cats also have pink skin around their ears and paws and are sensitive to sunburn so they must be kept out of direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day. White cats are pretty common, while albinos are much rarer.

In some cases, white cats with blue eyes have a genetic predisposition toward deafness because the gene that makes a cat have a white coat may also give it blue eyes and deafness. But not every white cat with blue eyes will be deaf. Often a cat may have one blue eye and be deaf in the ear on the same side of the head. But it may have learned to compensate so well, the owner may not even be aware that her cat has a hearing problem.

Colorpoint

British shorthair lilac colorpoint kitten. British shorthair lilac colorpoint kitten.
This cat has the darker ears and nose of a colorpoint cat.
Feng Wei Photography/Getty Images

Siamese cats are those most strongly associated with colorpoint patterns – that is, when darker colors are expressed in the ears, face, ears, tail and feet. But regular shorthair cats may exhibit similar colorpoint patterns, too. "Seal" points are those with dark brown, "blue" points are those featuring dark grays, and "red" points have orange tips. Regardless of the color, the points transition into a lighter body hue, giving these cats an air of regal sophistication.

Nathan Chandler contributed to this article.