When cats have similar colors and patterns, like two gray tabbies, it can seem impossible to tell them apart! That is, until you take note of even the smallest details in their appearance.
Knowledge is power, whether you’re an animal control officer or animal shelter employee who needs to identify cats regularly, or you want to identify your own cat. This guide covers cats’ traits from their overall looks, like coat pattern, to their tiniest features, like whisker color.
As you go through this guide, remember that certain patterns and markings originated with specific breeds. However, these traits now appear in many cats because of random mating.
This guide covers the following features:
- Coat Length
- Coat Color
- Coat Patterns
- Feature Colors
- Unique Identifiers
- Determining Sex
- Hairless cats have no fur.
- Shorthair cats have short fur across the entire body.
- Medium hair cats have longer fur around the mane, tail, and/or rear.
- Longhair cats have long, fluffy fur.
Below you’ll find the most common base coat colors. Coats may be solid color or a combination of colors. Tortoiseshell and calico, while technically coat patterns, are only seen in the specific colors.
- Black is one of the most common colors. Many black cats have golden eyes
- Gray is a diluted black. It is often seen under tabby stripes.
- Pure white cats exist, but the most common way to see white on a cat is in a bicolor pattern—patches of white with another color.
- Buff, or tan, is a diluted orange, often accompanied by dark orange tabby stripes
- Solid brown cats are very rare and usually only seen in specific breeds. Brown is more commonly seen along with tabby stripes.
- Orange, also known as red, is another very common color. About 80 percent of orange cats are male.
- Tortoiseshell (tortie) is a mixed blend of orange and black, or a diluted version with gray and buff. Torties are almost always female.
- Calico is distinct patches of solid orange, black, and white, or a diluted version with buff, gray, and white. They are almost always female.
Patterns can appear in many colors, and cats can have multiple patterns. For example, a cat can be orange and white bicolor with tabby stripes (as seen below left).
- Also called piebald
- Always white and another color
- Can have a lot of white or very little
- Light-colored body
- Darker color on ears, face, tail, and legs
- Fur is white at base and gets darker toward tips
- Typically seen in longhair cats
- M-shape pattern on forehead
- Typically striped, but there are four types
- Can appear in any color or pattern
Four types of tabby pattern
- Classic – Wide stripes in a marbled, circular pattern
- Mackerel – Thin vertical stripes down from the back, with a dark stripe the length of the back
- Ticked – No body stripes (individual hairs have bands of color) and thin stripes on face, legs, and tail
- Spotted – Round spots instead of stripe
Markings are an important factor in identifying cats. They can present themselves in different colors and patterns, and non-white markings can also have patterns. Cats can have several markings at once. These are just a few common markings.
- Locket – Triangular white patch on the chest
- Tail Tip – Different color, usually white, on the tip of the tail
- Socks – Different color, usually white, on paw or leg
- Blaze – White stripe between the eyes
- Eye patch – Colored spot across one eye, on a mostly white face
- Tuxedo – Typically black and white, with a blaze up the nose and a “jacket” on the back
- Snowshoe – Pointed pattern with blue eyes and white markings on the face and body
- Van – All-white body with colored markings on the head and tail only
Did You Know?
Kittens can be born with tabby markings that disappear over time, or be born a solid color and develop markings.
The color of cats’ eyes, paw pads, whiskers, and noses can help in their identification.
- Eye Color
- Typically cats have green, yellow, or blue eyes in a variety of shades.
- All kittens are born with blue eyes, but their true color develops between 6 and 8 weeks old.
- A dichroic eye (not pictured) has patches of different colors.
- Odd-eye cats have different colored eyes.
- Whiskers are typically black, white, or a combination. Even individual whiskers can have both colors.
- Noses are typically black, pink, gray, brown, tan, or a spotted combination of these colors.
- Paw pads
- Paw pads are typically black, pink, mauve, or a spotted combination of these colors. Each paw pad can be a different color.
Did You Know?
The wild ancestor of the domestic cat species had tabby stripes. Through breeding, a variety of different patterns and markings developed over time.
- Eartip – The universal sign that a community cat has been spayed or neutered. Learn more at alleycat.org/Eartip.
- Ear Notch – An alternative to the eartip, but not recommended by Alley Cat Allies.
- Folded Ears – The tips of the ears are folded over, often due to genetics.
- Polydactyl – Also called Hemingway cats, these felines have an extra toe, or toes, on one or more paws.
- Manx – A missing or partial tail, due to genetics or previous injury.
It can be difficult to determine if cats are male or female. The easiest and quickest way to tell is by looking at the space between the anus and the genital opening.
- Females have less than ½ inch between the anus and the genital opening. If she is spayed, you may see a surgery scar on her stomach, but you can’t always tell without a veterinarian’s help.
- Neutered males have more than 1 inch between the anus and the genital opening. Although neutered males no longer have testicles, some cats still have the extra skin and fur in that area.
- Intact males have more than 1 inch between the anus and the genital opening, and have testicles. They also have broader heads and jawlines.
But my cat doesn’t look like any of these cats!
All cats are unique and can have a variety of colors, patterns, and markings. This guide covers the basics of cat identification, but no guide can capture all the distinct characteristics, variations, and combinations of features.
It’s helpful to consider other distinct features:
- Does she have any unique markings, like an orange tail tip or a spot shaped like a heart?
- Does she have old injuries that stand out, like a missing eye or a patch of missing hair?
- Does she have all her teeth?
- Is she declawed? If so, on which paws?
Note: Alley Cat Allies is against the cruel and unnecessary practice of declawing cats. However, if a cat has been declawed, it can help identify her.
- Record your own cat’s colors, markings, and more with our helpful Cat Identification Worksheet. That way, you’ll be able to accurately describe your cat’s appearance if needed.
- Get an at-a-glance version of this guide with our “Look at That Cat! A Quick Guide to Identifying Cats” poster.
- Microchips save lives by helping reunite lost or displaced cats with their human families indoors or community cats with their bonded feline families outdoors, also called colonies. Learn more at alleycat.org/MicrochipsSaveLives.
- Animal shelters and veterinary professionals have an essential part to play in ensuring microchips save cats’ lives. Learn more at alleycat.org/PlanToScan.