Swirled, mackerel, spotted or ticked, enchanting tabby cats have a distinctive, recognizable coat pattern, regardless of breed. Though your cat might appear to be solid orange, it is still a tabby. Like cats themselves, cat genetics are not always simple and straightforward.
Tabby cats are, simply put, cats with stripes of white and some other color. Orange tabbies, also called red or ginger, are white with any shade of orange, from the palest cream to the deepest red. Tabby markings come in four recognized patterns (classic, mackerel, spotted and ticked), but all have the typical tabby “M” on the forehead. A patched tabby is sometimes added to the list -- this is a tortoiseshell cat with patches of tabby stripes.
The Color Orange
The orange gene has two alleles -- dominant (O) and recessive (o). The dominant gene for orange color will actually mask black and brown genes and convert them to orange! If a cat also inherits a tabby gene, it will appear to be an orange tabby. If it doesn’t carry the tabby gene, it will look like a solid orange cat, but look closely -- you will see faint stripes somewhere. Sometimes these faint stripes, called ghosting, will be more apparent in kittens. And you will also see the classic “M” on kitty’s forehead.
Male or Female?
The gene for orange color is carried on the X chromosome, making it sex-linked. This means that males only have to have one copy of it to be orange. Females must have two copies to be orange. So while female orange cats are not rare, females are just as likely to inherit genes for other colors, making them tortoiseshells or patched tabbies. About 75 percent of orange tabbies are males.
The Tabby Gene
The agouti gene is responsible for the tabby pattern. The agouti gene can also be dominant or recessive -- if it’s domiinant, it reveals the tabby pattern, while the recessive allele prevents it. Solid color cats have two recessive genes (aa), hiding the tabby pattern. But the dominant orange color gene (O) suppresses the aa, so there is no such thing as a solid orange cat!
There are three alleles for the tabby gene that control the coat pattern -- mackerel, ticked or classic swirl pattern. The mackerel is thought to be the gene inherited from the wild ancestor of your domestic darling and provides good camouflage in high grasses, thus allowing him to sneak up on his prey.
Leslie Darling has been a writer since 2003, writing regularly for "Mississippi Magazine" and "South Mississippi Living," specializing in food and wine, animals and pets, and all things Southern. She is a graduate of the University of New Orleans.