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Feline Breeds, Domestic Cats, and Color Patterns

They Are Not Interchangable Terms


Coco, beautiful tortie girl

Coco, a beautiful example of a Tortie girl.


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 correspondant 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.

Domestic Cats

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

    Some breed registries include a class in some of their shows for Domestic Cats, so that you and I can show off our beautiful kitties, and perhaps bring home a ribbon.
  • House cat, which is self-explanatory
  • Moggie
    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
Polydactyl cats, also called 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 polydact 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.

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 "marmelade"), black, and white. Common Color Patterns in Cats:
  • Tabbies
    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 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."

  • Solids

    Solid colored cats come in four basic colors, plus "dilute" colors of each. (See more about dilute colors on the next page.)

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