Fun facts about orange cats
You’ve probably heard all the myths about orange kitties, which some people call reds, gingers, or marmalades.
You may have heard that all ginger cats are male, or that orange cats are the friendliest cats.
But the facts may surprise you! Read to find out everything you ever wanted to know about orange cats.
But first, get your fill of ginger kittens:
Your orange cat is probably a boy (but could be a girl)
80% of all orange cats are male. But that means that one in every five orange cats is actually female.
To understand why, we’ll have to take a quick trip back to high-school biology class for a short genetics lesson. (Sorry.)
Cat color is a “sex-linked” trait
Cats and people have little packages of genes inside every single cell in our bodies. The packages are called chromosomes. Chromosomes determine a lot of things about us, like our hair or eye color, and how tall we’re going to be.
Chromosomes come in sets of two. We get one from each of our parents to make a set.
Everyone has one special pair of chromosomes that determines whether we’re going to be male or female. We describe the set of two that girls get as XX, and the set of two that boys get as XY.
Everyone gets an X from their mothers, because mothers, being female, only have Xs to give. Dads can give their babies another X, making them female, or a Y, making them male.
The fascinating thing about sex chromosomes is that they do more than determine whether a cat will be a boy or a girl. Cat color is on the X chromosome. Because cat color is on a sex gene, color is considered to be a “sex-linked” trait.
Cats are either orange or black
You’ll never believe this, but cat genetics say that a cat is going to be either orange or black. That’s it. Those are the only two color choices for cats.
Now, I know you’re going to tell me that I’m wrong, because you happen to have a pure-white cat, or a brown cat, or a calico. You’re going to say that you have a gray cat, or a cream-colored cat, or a Siamese cat with points.
But all of those colors come from other genes that “do something” to whatever orange or black genes a cat has, or even hide the orange or black. But all cats, underneath their special colors, are really just orange or black.
It only takes one X to make a boy cat orange
Because a boy only has one X chromosome, he is whatever color is on his X. If it’s orange, he’s orange. If it’s black, he’s black. Easy peasy.
(This is putting aside all the special genes that could alter his black or orange genes, of course.)
But the point is that it only takes one orange gene for a boy cat to be ginger.
It takes two Xs to make a girl cat orange
It’s not so simple with girl cats because they have two Xs.
Girls have color genes on each of their Xs. In order for a girl cat to be orange, both Xs have to carry orange genes.
So, having two color genes, instead of one, just makes it less likely that a girl will turn out orange.
That’s why most ginger cats are male.
(And it’s also why nearly all calicos are female. Read about calico and tortoiseshell cats in this post.)
Every orange cat is a tabby cat
Actually – and this is the second crazy thing you’re going to read in this post – every domestic cat on the planet is a tabby cat. I go into this topic in more detail in this post about tabby cats, but here’s the quick version:
Tabby is not a breed of cat. The word tabby refers to some special markings on a cat’s body and face, usually stripes or swirls, dots, or flecks.
Tabby markings are from a special gene
The stripes and swirls that we associate with tabby cats comes from the agouti gene. The agouti gene gives every strand of fur on a tabby cat horizontal stripes of lighter and darker color. If you have a tabby cat, take a close look at a loose hair. You will be amazed to see the stripes.
Solid-colored cats have “non-agouti” genes. But these genes don’t create non-tabby cats. The non-agouti genes simply hide the tabbiness.
The non-agouti gene prevents the hair from growing in with those stripes of lighter and darker color. But it doesn’t always work perfectly. You can usually see ghost tabby stripes on “solid-colored” cats.
But the "non-tabby" gene doesn't work on ginger cats
There’s one situation in which the non-agouti gene doesn’t work at all: in orange cats.
There’s a phenomenon in genetics called “epistasis.” It means that one gene is disabled by the presence of another.
The non-agouti gene is disabled in the presence of the orange gene. Thus, every ginger cat has visible orange tabby stripes.
Ginger cats and redheads have something in common
Both cats and humans (and dogs and other animals) make a pigment called melanin that determines the color of their skin and hair.
Our bodies can make two different kinds of melanin: eumelanin, which is black, and pheomelanin, which is reddish.
Pheomelanin is the very same pigment that gives a redheaded person red hair and a ginger cat orange fur.
Some orange cats have “freckles”
If you have a ginger cat (or a calico, tortoiseshell, or silver-colored cat), you might notice some little black spots, especially around his nose and mouth.
These cute little spots are called lentigines, and the genetic condition that causes them is called lentigo simplex. Lentigo simplex causes extra pigment cells to grow. It’s perfectly harmless.
But they're not really freckles
They’re not really freckles, however. Although both freckles and lentigines are the result of extra melanin in the skin, they don’t behave in the same way. Freckles tend to darken with sun exposure, and lighten again seasonally. This is not true of lentigines.
Lentigines may get larger, or your cat may develop more of them, but they are not true freckles.
Lentigines usually start to appear when a cat is about a year old. They can form on her lips, gums, nose, eyelids, inside of the ears, and footpads.
Make sure they're really lentigines
The only problem with lentigines is that it can be difficult to tell them apart from another dangerous condition: melanoma. Melanoma is skin cancer that develops in the pigment-producing cells in the skin. Melanoma can also appear as small, dark spots.
Luckily, cancerous melanomas are relatively rare in cats. But you should always have new spots checked out by a veterinarian, especially if your cat has any other concerning symptoms, such as bleeding, drooling, bad breath, or difficultly eating or swallowing.
Orange comes in different colors
I said earlier that cats can either be black or orange, except when other genes take action against the black or orange genes.
There are genes that dilute a cat’s color, like adding white paint to a bucket of orange paint. These are called, appropriately enough, dilute genes.
A cream-colored cat is a kind of orange cat
Dilute genes mess with a protein involved in producing pigment in cat fur. As a result, pigment granules kind of clump up as they’re deposited along a developing hair shaft. Some parts of the hair shaft don’t get full color. A cat with dilute genes appears lighter.
A cream-colored cat, sometimes called buff, is actually a ginger cat with dilute genes.
An apricot-colored cat is a kind of cream-colored cat
To make matters more complicated, there’s a gene that modifies the dilute gene, called, appropriately enough, the dilute modifier gene.
A dilute cat with a dilute modifier gene is called a “double dilute.”
Interestingly, a “double dilute” red cat is darker than a cream but lighter than an orange cat. The color, called “apricot” is similar to the color of dried apricots. These cats may have a metallic sheen to their coats.
Ginger boys are much bigger than ginger girls
This is just a weird little fact about marmalade kitties.
In general, male cats are bigger than female cats, regardless of color or breed. This is true for most mammals: boys tend to be bigger than girls.
But according to an Australian study, there’s an even bigger size difference between orange boys and orange girls than between the sexes of cats of other colors.
There are some theories about why this might be true, but no definitive answers.
What is true in animals, not just cats, is that genes responsible for one trait – such as orange fur – are sometimes inherited along with genes for other attributes – like size. That could be the case with orange kitties.
Science doesn’t currently have answers.
Orange cats might (or might not be) friendlier than other cats
In 2015, scientists published a widely misinterpreted study about the relationship between cat color and cat personality.
They asked 189 people about their cats’ personalities. Were they friendly? Calm? Shy? Stubborn? There were more questions in the survey than that, but you get the idea.
People answering the questionnaire said that their orange cats were “friendlier” and their calicos were “more intolerant,” among other things, and the press ran away with this news. I talk more about this study in this post about calico and tortoiseshell cats.
It might just be confirmation bias
The only thing the study really confirmed was what people think of their cats, not what their cats really are. Humans suffer from a thing called confirmation bias, in which we tend to look for evidence to support beliefs we already have.
In other words, if we think orange cats are friendlier, and we happen to have an orange cat, we unconsciously focus on our cats’ friendly behaviors.
There is a link between color and personality in some animals
Science says there is definitely a link between coat color and personality in other animals, including minks, Norway rats, English cocker spaniels, Korean Jindos, and Labrador retrievers. It could be true of cats, too.
And we already know that orange cats tend to be male, and there is a tiny bit of scientific evidence that suggests that male cats are friendlier than female cats. So maybe it just seems like orange cats are friendlier because more of them are boys.
Science doesn’t have answers yet. The jury is still out on the friendliest cat color, if there is one.
But if you have a friendly orange kitty, enjoy him.
My favorite fun fact about orange cats
Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister who led Great Britain to victory during World War II, had a lifelong love affair with cats of all colors.
A favorite, one he received as a gift for his 88th birthday, was a marmalade cat named Jock.
In 1966, Churchill’s historic family home, called Chartwell, was gifted to the nation along with the request that an orange kitty named Jock would always be in residence.
The current Jock: Jock VII, was rescued by the RSPCA from dire conditions, before being adopted and joining the long line of pampered orange cats who have made their home at Chartwell.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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