All in the Fur: A guide to cat coats

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Cats come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colours. As a cat’s fur is their identifying mark, cat owners and enthusiasts may be interested in learning how to distinguish between the many varieties. So, here’s a simple guide to understanding a cat’s fur, from its layers to length to colour.

Layers of fur

A cat’s fur can be is made up of 4 types. They’re often considered layers on the fur coat, each on being of different lengths and serving a specific function. The layers can also differ depending on the breed of the cat.

Guard fur

The outermost layer is known as the guard fur and the strands are usually the longest type to be found on a cat. As the name suggests, this fur acts as a protective coating, providing warmth from the cold and repelling any water. Cat owners will notice that their cats’ fur takes time to get fully soaked; this is a result of a cat’s guard fur. This layer also contributes to the colouring of the cat’s coat.

Down fur

The down on a cat is the undercoat, characterised by its soft, thick texture. Its main job is to act as insulation, especially in colder climates. These hairs get erect in the cold, trapping warm air right next to the skin. Cats living in warmer regions may have little to no down fur at all, while felines in colder areas will have a denser undercoat resulting in a fluffier look.

Awn fur

This fur can be found in between the guard and down layers, acting almost like a ‘glue’ for the two. They’re longer and thinner than down while also being shorter and thicker than guard hair. Awn is denser and coarse with darkened tips, and most of a cat’s colouring and markings are visible in this layer.

Vibrissae

Vibrissae are the whiskers on a cat. These are specialised hairs that are attached to extra sensitive nerve endings in the skin. Cats will use their whiskers to gauge the environment, similar to the antennae on insects. They can sense vibrations in the air and even determine whether they can fit through a space. Their whiskers also play a crucial role in helping them maintain balance. The in-built proprioceptors let them navigate their body and is also able to help them land on their feet after a fall. In addition to whiskers on their muzzles, cats have it on other parts of their body too. These hairs can be found on their eyebrows, cheeks and even on the outer sides of the legs. Each serve a specific function. The eyebrow whiskers, for instance, keep dust and dirt out of a feline’s eye and allow them to sense if an object is too close to their face.

Vellus

This is only found on breeds of hairless cats like Sphynxes. Vellus is a layer of fine and thin hairs, comparable to the texture of a chamois leather cloth. Humans also have similar hair, often known as ‘peach fuzz’.

Fur lengths and textures

A cat’s fur can differ, much like human hair. Depending on the breed and environment, a cat’s fur can vary in length and texture. Future cat owners may find it useful to understand what fur type your cat could be to anticipate the amount of shedding and grooming that will be required.

Short- haired

This is the most common type of fur, with the strands being no more than 1.5 inches in length. Most domestic cats have this variety of fur and there are more types of breeds with short hair. For example, British Shorthairs, Burmese Bengals and most stray cats of mixed breed have short-haired coats. Due the length of the hairs, short-haired cats are low-maintenance for cat owners, with less shedding and grooming involved.

Long- haired

Cats with longer fur will have hairs that are between 1.5 and 6 inches. Some may even have a mane, with tuft on their ears and toes. Popular breeds with this type of fur include Maine Coon and Persian cats. Some long- haired cats may find it difficult to groom themselves and will require human assistance. The nature of their fur will also cause more shedding and more incidence of fur balls.

Hairless 

Contrary to popular belief hairless cats are not technically hairless. Their body is covered in vellus, as mentioned before. The velvety coat is not adept enough to soak up the natural oils of the cat’s skin. As such, hairless cats need frequent bathing to help remove the excess body oil. Their lack of fur can also make them susceptible to sunburn and vulnerable to the cold. Therefore, hairless breeds like Sphynxes and Peterbalds do best in warmer climates.

Curly-haired

Also known as ‘crimped’ fur, this type of coat is curly and wavy. It’s very rare and is a result of a genetic anomaly in cats. Having found it desirable, people have bred cats with for this particular feature, resulting in breeds like LaPerm and Cornish Rex. Much like their long-haired counterparts, curly-haired cats also need extensive grooming and care.

Colours in cats

The colour of a cat depends on genetics. Some colours are sex-linked, more likely to show up in one sex over the other. For cats, two primary colours are involved: black and red. Every other shade is a variation of these two colours. White occurs as a colouring when there is a masking gene present in a cat’s genetics. All of these factors result in a multitude of coloured coats among felines.

Solid

Cats with a solid coat is easiest to identify and are known as ‘self-coloured’ or ‘selfs’. The most commonly occurring shades are grey, black and white. To be categorised as self-coloured, a cat’s coat must be purely one colour, absent of any markings, patterns or any other coloured patches.

Bicolour

When there is a white base with a secondary colour present, a cat is considered to have a bicolour coat. There are even specific names for the coat depending on the placement of the secondary coloured patches. Cats with random patches are known as ‘magpies’, while ‘harlequin’ cats will have random spotting and a coloured tail. A coloured head and back is categorised as a ‘cap and saddle’ coat and ‘van’ coats are characterised by patches in between the ears and a coloured tail.

Tricolour and tortoiseshell

A combination of red, black and white in a cat’s coat will categorise them as tricolour or ‘calico’. A calico’s colours can also blend to form a mixed colouring, usually of a cream or cinnamon hue or with patches of cream or grey. Calico males are quite rare, as the colouring is usually linked to females. While calicos have white in their fur, their equivalents with black are known as tortoiseshells. Known as ‘torties’ , these cats have coats comprised of black, red and orange. They too can have duller variations and mixes, resulting in grey or cream. Much like calicos, torties are mostly female. There are also breeds known as ‘torbies’, which is a mix of tortoiseshells and calicos, who have a distinctive pattern derived from the two breeds.

Tabbies

Tabbies are the most common type, known as ‘tiger’ cats for their recognisable striped and marbled coats. They also have a distinctive ‘M’ on their forehead with white accents on their chest, paws and tail. There are four variations of tabby; classic, spotted, striped and ticked. Classic tabbies have a swirly or marbled pattern while the spotted tabby has patches or dots. Striped or ‘mackerel’ tabbies have vertical striped that go from their belly to spine. Finally, ticked tabbies have striped legs and tails and multicolour individual strands as well.

Colour point

Colourpoints have a darker shade on their face, tail, paws and ears. These dark marking develop as the cats grow older, showing up in areas of the body that emit the least heat. These markings tend to grow even darker as the cat ages.

By Thiyashi Koththigoda