By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 09 March 2011)
There are several genes that can cause cats to have solid white coats or white fur covering much of their bodies:
- The epistatic white gene (solid white)
- The piebald gene (white patches)
- Albino genes (found in true albinos and certain breeds such as the Siamese and Burmese)
The epistatic gene is dominant, so a kitten must only inherit one copy to be all-white. This means that non-white kittens may be born to white parents, but white kittens must have at least one parent with white fur. The epistatic gene increases the likelihood of deafness.
The piebald gene is dominant, but the amount of white cats with the piebald allele will have in their coats is quite variable. In some cases, it covers most of the coat. The risk of deafness is also increased with this gene if the cat has white ears.
There are a number of different recessive albino alleles, including those that produce all-white albino cats with blue or pink eyes (a rare variant lacking in pigment) and those responsible for the Siamese and Burmese coat patterns. Albino genes are not linked to deafness.
White Cat Breeds
There are a number of cat breeds that can produce solid white individuals, including:
- American Curl
- American Shorthair
- British Shorthair
- Cornish Rex
- Devon Rex
- Japanese Bobtail
- Maine Coon
- Norwegian Forest Cat
- Oriental Shorthair
- Russian White
- Scottish Fold
- Sphynx (a nearly hairless breed that has fine peach-fuzz fur)
- Turkish Angora
- Turkish Van (predominantly white, with just a couple of small patches of colour)
Pointed cats (Siamese, Himalayan, Ragdoll, etc.) are born white or off-white and develop their darker point markings on their tails, faces, ears, and feet in response to temperature later on (warmer environments produce lighter points and colder environments trigger the development of darker points).
White Cats and Deafness
Up to 80% of non-albino white cats with blue eyes are deaf due to a
genetic defect that causes the cochlea (an inner ear organ) to atrophy shortly after white kittens are born. By contrast, only 10-20% of white cats with green or orange eyes are deaf, and deafness is even rarer among non-white cats.
There is a common misconception that white, blue-eyed cats make bad mothers because many don’t hear their kittens calling due to deafness and thus appear to be ignoring their offspring. But most deaf cats compensate well for their disability by learning to hear through their feet via sound vibrations. Their other senses may also be enhanced, enabling them to hunt effectively despite being unable to hear the movements of their prey.
Many white cats are born “odd-eyed,” with one blue eye and one eye of another colour. In such cases, the cat is often deaf on the blue-eyed side but able to hear on the side with the eye of a different colour.
White Cats and Skin Cancer
Because they lack protective pigment, white cats are vulnerable to developing skin cancer, particularly in areas where their fur is sparse such as the ears, eyelids, and nose. When cancerous lesions first appear, they often look crusty or scabby and may resemble pimples or scratches. Over time they become larger and ulcerated (infections, allergies, and other problems can also cause sores or crusty areas on the skin, so don’t automatically assume the worst if your cat develops them – it’s not necessarily cancer).
Treatments for skin cancer in cats include surgery, photodynamic therapy, or radiation therapy. To prevent skin cancer, keep white cats out of intense sunlight (the most dangerous time of the day is between 10 am and 3 pm). Don’t bother with sunblock – cats will usually groom it off and most sunscreens are toxic to them.
White Big Cats
White lions (also known as blond lions) are a rare type of African lion that have been hunted nearly to extinction. The Global White Lion Protection Trust is currently attempting to win protection for white lions by having them classified as an endangered subspecies.
White tigers are Bengal tigers that have inherited two copies of a recessive gene for white fur. They are bred for financial gain, but at great cost to the tigers themselves, because producing white tigers in captivity requires close inbreeding, often causing deformities and health problems.
- Cronin, K., Dr. (2010). “Skin Cancer in Cats.” PetPlace.com.
- Duda, L., VMD. (1 November 2001). “Treatment and Prevention of Skin Cancer in White Cats.” OncoLink.org.
- Hartwell, S. (2007). “White Cats, Eye Colours and Deafness.” MessyBeast.com.
- Imes, D.L.; Geary, L.A.; Grahn, R.A.; & Lyons, L.A. (2006). “Albinism in the Domestic Cat (Felis Catus) is Associated with a Tyrosinase (TYR) Mutation.” Animal Genetics, 37(2): 175-178.
- Morris, D. (1987). Catlore. London, UK: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
- Shelton, L., Featherland Cattery. (30 January 2001). “The Pigment Parade.” Home.Earthlink.net/~Featherland.