Question of the Day – No Black Cats?

I managed to bang one of my toes in a cat related incident today so I am a little bit distracted from my normal post.  So I’ll do a trial version of those Q & A posts.

The gracious littlemiao asks:

So, I read in my cat calendar (not exactly a highly reliable source) that most black cats are actually brown.  Where on earth would they get this from?  Kemi seems black to me, not brown, and his undercoat is greyish.

Like a lot of popular sources, the calendar is taking a grain of truth and expanding it into a preposterous conclusion.  Cat coats have exactly two pigment colors that are used to produce all the colors and shades we see.  Leaving aside the big technical names, one is “black” and the other is “orange”.  So in reality, there is no brown pigment on any cat.

In some sources, the gene that controls the black pigment is called the ‘browning gene’.  If this is what the calendar meant, then it would have said that all black cats are brown.  So they must mean something different.

At full intensity, the darkest black hairs are fully black. However, if something decreases the tint, the color ‘fades’ to a more brown color.  This can happen in a number of ways – one is that the black gene can take different states besides full black – chocolate and cinnamon.  In these, the black pigment grains are less round than black, making them appear lighter and browner.

Similarly, the colorpoint gene ‘fades’ the black grains to a degree depending on the temperature.  Calpurnia has this gene, so over most of her body the black hairs are faded into dark browns (called seal) and lighter creme shades. Genetically, however, she is still a black cat.

What the article probably means is that exposure to light and weather can also fade the pigment on a black hair, resulting in a brown color.  I believe that competition cats use special hair treatment to avoid the loss of points for not having an entirely black coat.  Hopefully it is less harsh than black dye.

And as littlemiao notes, the pigment is not laid out uniformly on a cat hair.  It tends to fade near the base.  Some genes change how this happens pretty radically from the norm, and produce some striking cats as a result.

Just to confuse things even more, the term “Brown Tabby” is a totally different matter, not referring to the black stripes at all, or even the black pigment  This brown is actually the result of the other pigment, Orange,  laid out on the Agouti hairs. I have read this pigment is laid out ‘shredded’ which results in the hair not appearing fully orange. Some cats have enough to make the overall background appear brownish rather than grey.

Genetically, it would be more accurate to say all cats are black – they all have a gene locus to express a type of black pigment that can be inherited.  Other genes can modify, or even block the expression of this gene on the cat’s coat, but the genetic information is still there waiting for its chance.

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About Oldcat

Engineer with Cats
This entry was posted in Calpurnia, Cats, Genetics. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Question of the Day – No Black Cats?

  1. minlit says:

    What about white ones?

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    • Oldcat says:

      White is not a pigment in cats, its what remains if you don’t place a pigment on a hair for one reason or another.

      There are actually three entirely different means for getting an entirely white cat. Plus all the ones shown in the Pepe Le Peu cartoons for making a lovely lady cat get a stripe down the back so she looks like a skunk.

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  2. littlemiao says:

    Fascinating! Now I am reassured that we did not name Kemi incorrectly. Kemi/Kemet means black in Ancient Egyptian as was actually the name for Egypt. Kemi also has a small handful of long white hairs. He had more when he was a little kitten.

    I had no idea that show cats are allowed to modify their natural coloring. Hmmm.

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  3. Pingback: Is Kemi a Black Bear or a Brown Bear? | the miao chronicles

  4. Sometimes when black kitties are feeling a little under the weather, their black will tend to fade more toward gray. I’ve never been sure if that was just from the coat getting thinner (seeing more of the underlying skin) or if they are actually putting out less pigment. (or something else)

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    • Oldcat says:

      The hair color fades to greyish along the shaft – another explanation is that the ill cat hasn’t taken the time to get all the hairs combed and you are seeing deeper through the coat.

      They might put out less pigment for some reason, but that should only slowly change the coat – if you shave a cat it takes some months to get back to full length.

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  5. SC Amy says:

    My lost my sweet Bast last year at the grand age of 21. She was a beautiful solid black, long haired cat, but as she grew older, she became brownish, almost a dark mink color. In fact, I had one of those faux mink throws on my bed, and she would blend perfectly into it! Her wiskers also all became solid white later in life. In fact, I had her portrait painted after she passed, using earlier photos, but I asked the artist to make all of her whiskers white, since that was how I most remembered her.

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    • Oldcat says:

      With Gus, it seems he looks brownest on his ‘bad hair days’ when he hasn’t kept up his grooming on his back and sides, as he finds it harder to reach those spots. An older cat might sleep in the sun more for comfort and ‘fade’. I can’t rule out a general weakening of tint with age, but I haven’t seen a sign of it in my cat Cassie who lived to 20. She was a blue/creme tortie.

      Sorry about losing Bast. Even when its not ‘too young’, you miss them so.

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