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The Truth About Red Tabby Females… And Other Fun Genetic Cat Facts

Victorian Cat Portrait by TaraFly
While brainstorming ideas for a possible Easter portrait, I settled upon a new series of headshots, depicting cats in fancy Victorian hats.
Easter bonnets!

When I began painting my first cat of the series in acrylics, I went with a bright cheery palate of orange, pinks, and yellow.

I believe wholeheartedly in my decision to paint this beauty as a pale orange/yellow tabby with auburn hair… even though there seems to be a gross misconception that female cats cannot be orange tabbies.

It occurred to me that I might suffer some raised eyebrows, or even scathing comments… such as the remarks made concerning my digital painting of Kittney.
Well, obviously Kittney raised a few brows for other reasons, hehe… but I’m referring to the folks who questioned my sexual orientation and whether she was really a “He” dressed in drag.

I know personally that female orange cats aren’t an oddity, but I went off in search of scientific facts to prove it… spending an entire afternoon reading articles about genetics, and learning a great deal of fascinating info. :)

So here is the gist of what I’ve gathered about the role genes play in cat coloring….

Grey tabby mother cat and kittens including orange

Genes come in pairs of chromosomes (X-chromosomes and Y-chromosomes) … and the dominant or recessive nature of the gene is determined by variations of the alleles (which are shown using alphabetic characters: i.e. AA, Aa, and aa).

The dominant trait is represented by the capital letter, and dominant traits always manifest themselves, unless both alleles are recessive lower-case (aa) forms.

When it comes to cat coloring, the genes are found on the (X) chromosome, and are referred to as “sex based”… since females have two X’s and males only have one.

Females will have the standard AA, Aa, or aa pattern.
Males will have either A or a.

The black and brown colors are known as eumelanin pigments, and the orange color is a phaeomelanin pigment.

Sarah Jane gorgeous white long-hair cat Noelle Clearwater

The “white” color of a cat’s coat is actually a combination of genes that affect cats in a myriad of ways.

For example:
The upper and lower case C, representing the albino trait – a dominant C will result in normal cats, but having two recessive alleles (cc) will create an albino cat.

Dominic the Tuxedo Cat sticking out his tongue

The S gene determines the amount of white spotting a calico or tortoiseshell cat has, and also affects white paws, facial marks, bibs, and tummies.
My Dominic and Lily’s Sammy can thank the S gene for their handsome tuxedos. :)

And the W gene – called “White masking” – creates the pure white cats that we are familiar with.
The W gene actually inhibits any other coloring a cat may be predisposed to have.

A cat with recessive (ww) genes will exhibit normal colors (i.e. orange, black, brown…) but the dominant W allele will suppress any other color pigments from showing, creating a cat that is solid white.

It’s actually a nasty piece of genetic coding, which often causes deafness in white cats – due to degeneration of the inner ear.
It is also responsible for the loss of pigmentation in cats’ irises, resulting in blue eyes.
Cats with one blue eye and one green… like Noelle’s SarahJane who served as my model for Jane Bennet…may likely suffer from deafness in the ear corresponding to their blue eye.

Additionally white cats are sensitive to temperatures, and susceptible to sunburn and skin cancer.

Cream and white cat

The black gene B is pretty unique in the sense that it has two recessive mutations: bb will result in a chocolate-brown colored cat, but there is a recessive allele even MORE recessive than that… which creates a lighter cinnamon coat.

It’s labelled as blbl.

Some color variations are also determined by the color’s density gene, labelled D or dd.
The dominant D means a cat will have bold colors – i.e. black, orange, or brown.
A recessive set of alleles (dd) creates faded colors – i.e. lilac, blue/grey, cream, beige, and caramel.

Now, here’s the part regarding orange female cats…. ;)

The red phaeomelanin pigment is carried on the 0 gene. The dominant 0 gene actually suppresses any black or brown eumelanin pigments that may be present. But if the gene is recessive (oo), the cat will not be red… and any other colors will be free to express themselves.

A fluffy orange tabby cat sleeping

Since these colors are carried on the (X) chromosome, a male cat will be either 0 or o.
Red or non-red.

Aside from genetic defects, wherein a male cat might have an extra X-chromosome (XXY) and become a calico/tortie.
They are rare, occurring in roughly 1 out of 3,000 red toms.

Now female cats can have any of the follow genetic combinations: 00, 0o, or oo.
An 00 gene would result in a red tabby female. 0o would create a partially red calico or tortoiseshell.
And oo would be a non-red female.

Orange and grey tabby kittens

Apparently this is a 1:2:1 ratio… with calicos being twice as likely as red and non-red kittens.
If a red male (dominant 0) mated with a calico (0o)… the likelihood of getting a red tabby female would be 1:4 or 25%.

I wanted to find a table that listed every single genetic piece of code for our domestic house cat, but scientists haven’t completely finished identifying them all.
As of 2007, when this article was published, researchers at the University of Missouri had located over 20,000 individual cat genes… which they claim equals 95% of a cat’s entire genetic make-up.

Girl holding striped grey tabby cat

Humans are roughly the same – with approx. 20,500 genetic bits in all.

I did find this interesting table which breaks down the genetic code for common feline characteristics, including:
fur colors, patterns, fur length/texture, curled ears, bob tails, extra toes (polydactyl), and dwarfism.

Notice “patterns” refer to the tabby, swirl, and ticked markings on a cat’s coat… which are NOT to be confused with colors.
We generally think of tabbies as having “black” stripes or “brown” stripes… so I was really surprised to learn that colors and stripes were entirely separate things.

I hope this makes sense to everyone, and I did some justice to the various articles that I paraphrased. LOL

Most of all, I wanted this post to clear the air regarding female orange cats. They do in fact exist, and in greater numbers that some folks believe. *wink*

They aren’t rare by any means… rather, red females are a minority. Uncommon amongst the garden variety calicos and orange toms.

Which just makes them special. :)

Furry grey and cream kittens sleeping cuddling

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