Cat lovers who are not actively involved in the cat fancy, often are confused about identifying terms of cats, such as purebred, DSH, and tabby. Hardly a day passes that I don't receive at least one email with an attached photo, asking me to help identify the "breed" of cat. The correspondent is often disappointed when my reply is, "Your cat is a beautiful example of a tuxedo DSH," or "What a lovely dilute calico domestic shorthair cat."
Because there seems to be such a general fixation on breeds, the purpose of this article is to clarify the difference in semantics, so that the uninitiated cat lover will have a better understanding of these terms.
Breeds, "Purebred," and Pedigree
There are currently over 70 breeds of cats recognized by one cat registry or another. The IPCBA (International Progressive Cat Breeders Alliance) recognizes 73 feline breeds, while the more conservative CFA (Cat Fanciers' Association) gives the nod to only 41. Developing and registering a new breed of cats is a long, involved progress, and not every attempt is successful. For example, the CFA steadfastly refused to admit cats bred from "wild stock," such as the Bengal or the Savannah, although these breeds are both accepted by TICA and IPCBA.
A cat must have a traceable lineage going back several generations to be registered as a pedigreed cat. The term "purebred" is not used by breeders or the cat fancy in general but is a popular term among the general public.
Each breed registry determines which color patterns are allowed for each of the breeds, in order to be shown. You'll learn more about various color patterns later in this article.
Your every-day non-pedigreed cat may be described by various terms:
- Domestic cat
This is the term used in veterinary offices on charts to identify cats not known to be of any particular breed. It is usually broken down as
- DSH - Domestic Shorthair
- DLH - Domestic Longhair
- DMH - Domestic Medium length hair
- House cat, which is self-explanatory
This term was first used in the U.K. as an affectionate description, and many cat lovers in the U.S. and Canada now use it to refer to their cats. It's one of my favorites.
- Alley cat
Thanks to the educational efforts of groups such as ACA (Alley Cat Allies), this term has fallen out of use, as cats are taken out of alleys and brought into loving, permanent homes.
- Mixed Breed
This term is most often used when a cat has identifiable features which might indicate a "purebred" cat is somewhere in its background. Commonly seen mixed breeds in shelters include Maine Coon mix, Persian mix, and Siamese mix.
Polydactyl cats, also called "polydacts" or Hemingway Cats," are sometimes confused as a "breed," however they fall under the domestic cat category. Truthfully, most registries do not accept polydact cats in their standards. Polydactyl means "many toes," and is considered a genetic defect. Ernest Hemingway had a number of polydactyl cats at his estate, and he allowed them to breed indiscriminately, so, many years after his death, the descendants of his original cats still live there. Polydacts may come in any variety of colors and color patterns.
Cats, both pedigreed and domestic, come in a rainbow of colors and patterns. These are all a matter of genetics, so a calico mother might give birth in one litter to calico, tabby, and solid or bi-colored kittens, depending on her genetic background and the background of the male cat(s) that fathered the litter. Cats, come in three basic colors (called "self" by geneticists): red (commonly called "orange," or sometimes affectionately referred to as "ginger," or "marmalade"), black, and white.
Common Color Patterns in Cats:
Tabby cats constitute the oldest and most common pattern seen, and are one of the most popular. They are easily differentiated by their stripes, whorls, and spots ( the latter generally found on their tummies). Striped tabbies are often referred to as "tiger," for obvious reasons. They are also known as "mackerel tabbies." The round bulls-eye marking on the sides of a tabby, identifies it as a "classic" tabby. While spotted tabbies sometimes crop up in "barn cats," they are also found in breeds, such as the Ocicat and the American Bobtail.
Tabbies may also wear white "accessories," such as a bib, vest, or "boots." Thus, they could be described as "tabby with white."
Solid colored cats come in four basic colors, plus "dilute" colors of each. (See more about dilute colors on the next page.)
Color Patterns Continued
- Tri-color Cats
Because of the associated genetic factors that create their color patterns, tri-color cats almost always are females, although occasional males crop up (about one in 3,000, according to this excellent article by Barbara French) Those rare males are almost always sterile, also for reasons of genetics, so don't expect to gain a fortune by selling your male calico cat.
Separate solid blocks of color, which must include red (orange), black, and white. They also may have blocks of tabby pattern, which produces an extremely colorful and beautiful cat. Dilute calicos, have the same separate blocks of color, only the colors are "diluted," i.e. "faded" shades of the original, which gives them an ethereal appearance. A dilute calico will have pale orange or buff for the red, and gray (or "blue") for the black.
- Tortoiseshell AKA "Tortie"
Torties are not true tri-color cats because they do not all contain white. Instead of solid blocks, torties' coats weave the black and red throughout, creating a tapestry of color. A forum member described torties beautifully, "they are cloaked in the lovely colors of Fall." Tortoiseshell cats may also be dilute, with softer versions of the colors. Like the tabby, some torties may also have white accent markings, creating a "tortie with white." They also sometimes have an interesting mix of tortoiseshell, with a bonus of tabby patterning mixed throughout. These cats are referred to as torbies. It should be noted that white plays a very small role in the tortoiseshell pattern - most of the color weaving is done with the red and black components.
Tuxedo cats were so named for their glossy black coats, enhanced with white bibs and "spats," (less flamboyantly described as white feet).
Bi-colored cats may include tuxedos, as well as other configurations on one color plus white. A black and white cat might be better described as bi-color if the colors are present in large blocks on the cat's body rather than the "bib and boots" pattern. Other bi-colors might include gray and white, brown and white, or red and white.
- Points or Pointed Markings
"Points," or darker shades of the body color, generally include the ears, muzzle, tail, and feet of the cat. The original pointed cat was the Siamese, and many years later, the Himalayan was developed by crossing Siamese with Persian cats. Many other breeds of pointed cats are now accepted by cat registries, including Ragdoll, Ragamuffin, Birman, Exotic, Balinese, and Javanese. Breed registries disallow pointed patterns in most other breeds. Many mixed breed cats display these distinctive points, which may be found in various colors.
I hope this information has been helpful in identifying your own cat's color pattern and background. It has been my experience and that of the vast majority of readers and About Cats forum members that our "moggies" are no less loved or cared for than the most expensive and exotic of the pedigreed cats.
And that's as it should be.