7+ Bicolor Pattern Variations in Cats (And Why They Occur)
What Is a Bicolor Cat?
A bicolor cat, also known as a piebald cat, is a cat with a coat consisting of one primary color combined with any amount of white. The amount of white can range from only a tiny streak to nearly the entire coat.
The word piebald is a portmanteau of magpie, a bird with black-and-white coloration, and bald, which denotes white patches. However, the term applies to coats of any solid color alongside white: black, grey, red, cream, brown, etc. Tabby patterns may also be present.
Bicolor patterns can occur in many breeds, including British Shorthair, Cornish Rex, Cymric, Exotic Shorthair, Maine Coon, Manx, Norwegian Forest Cat, Persian, and Turkish Van, as well as in common domestic cats.
The White Spotting Gene and Scale
Cats acquire bicolor patterns from the piebald, or white spotting, gene, which adds varying amounts of white to an otherwise solid-colored coat. The variation of white spotting is typically measured on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest amount of white and 10 being the highest. This scale can be divided into three main grades: low, medium, and high.
White Spotting Scale
- Low-grade: less than 40% of the coat is white
- Medium-grade: 40-60% is white
- High-grade: more than 60% of the coat is white
The white spotting gene, symbolized by S, is incompletely dominant. Generally speaking, if two dominant alleles (SS) are inherited, the white spotting will cover more than half of the cat’s body. If inheriting one dominant and one recessive gene (Ss), the cat will have low-to-medium grade white spotting. Two recessive genes (ss) result in little or no white.
A 2016 study discovered that the piebald gene develops in a randomized process rather than any set sequence. There is, however, a consistency in the order and location of white spotting as the amount increases. The chest and belly are typically the first areas white manifests, followed by the front paws. The white then progresses up the sides of the body, spreading to the legs and face. From here the white’s expansion is more arbitrary, reducing the remaining pigmented areas to small patches or streaks.
Note that due to the diverse nature of bicolor patterns, these categories are more of a general guide than an exact measurement. With any variation of coloring, there may be miscellaneous splotches of white that do not perfectly adhere to the definitions listed.
Low-Grade White Spotting
Coats with low-grade white spotting usually fall between grades 1 and 4 on the 1-10 scale. The most common patterns are the locket and the tuxedo.
A cat with only a single, small patch of white, called a “locket,” on the chest.
Arguably the most well-known bicolor variation, tuxedo cats have a coat that resembles—you guessed it—a tuxedo. White is limited to the chest, belly, and paws, and may show up on the face as well. The term “tuxedo cat” is most often applied to black-and-white cats, but the pattern can appear with any color.
Medium-Grade White Spotting
Medium-grade white spotting includes "true" or "standard" bicolor and mask-and-mantle coats.
True / Standard Bicolor
A “true” or “standard” bicolor cat is one with a relatively equal ratio of white to pigment. In many official contexts, such as cat shows, these coats are simply referred to as bicolor. Outside of official contexts, the "true" and "standard" are there to differentiate this variation from the use of bicolor as an umbrella term.
Cat registry Fédération Internationale Féline (FIFe) defines an acceptable "standard" bicolor coat for cat shows by these conditions:
“The color patches must be clearly separated from each other, even in color and harmoniously distributed. At least ½ should be colored, but not more than ¾; the rest is white.”
The Cat Fancier Organization (CFA) is less specific, simply stating that “cats with no more than a locket and/or button [patch on the abdomen] do not qualify for this color class.”
Mask-and-mantle cats have the appearance of wearing a colored “mask” and cape, or “mantle.” White spotting appears on the legs, underside, shoulders, and most of the face. The mask and mantle may blend together or be separated by a small amount of white.
High-Grade White Spotting
Since the expression of white tends to become more varied as the amount increases, high-grade white spotting encompasses a broader range of patterns. The main types are cap-and-saddle, harlequin, and van.
This is a progression from the mask-and-mantle pattern in which the pigmented “mask” shrinks into a “cap” over the top of the head, and the “mantle” shrinks into a “saddle” on the lower back area. The tail may or may not be white.
A harlequin cat is loosely defined as a predominantly white cat with small, random spots of another color, commonly on the body and legs. They usually have a colored tail as well.
FIFe's cat show guidelines define a harlequin coat as the following:
“The solid colored patches must cover at least ¼, but no more than ½ of the body’s surface. Preferably the colored parts should consist of various patches surrounded by white.”
In a van pattern, color is limited to the head—usually between the ears— and the tail only; everywhere else is white. It is named after the Turkish Van breed of cat who sports the same markings.
The van pattern is actually a specific subset of the Seychellois pattern. The Seychellois pattern is divided into three variants: Septième (7th), Huitième (8th), and Neuvième (9th). The numbered names reflect the patterns’ relative locations on the white spotting scale. In other words, the degree of white in the Seychellois pattern can vary from grade 7 to grade 9.
- Seychellois Septième: white with splashes of color on the head, tail, legs, and body.
- Seychellois Huitième: white with splashes of color on the head, tail, and legs.
- Seychellois Neuvième: white with color on the head and tail only. The traditional van pattern falls under this category.
Unusual bicolor markings that do not fit any of the standard grade descriptions exist as well. Some, like the "skunk stripe" pattern, are rare mutations; others are the result of health-related conditions. Little information about these oddities is available, but Sarah Hartwell has extensive section dedicated to them on her research website Messybeast.