I’ve always loved ginger tabby cats ever since I was young. They’ve got beautiful, bright, and bold coats, and their personalities are among the most loving and affectionate of all felines.
Out of all the orange tabby cats I’ve known, I discovered another surprising similarity: they were all male! This got me thinking… Are orange tabby cats always male? Or is it just coincidental that every ginger cat I met happened to be?
I did some digging, and it turns out that not all orange tabby cats are male, but most of them are. In fact, only around 20% or all ginger tabbies are female. However, this is only true for entirely orange cats. Interestingly, almost all tortoiseshell cats and calicos, which have a mixture of red and black in the fur, are exclusively female.
The reason behind this is all down to genetics, and the combination of genes is entirely responsible for our cat’s coat colors. In this article, I’ll explain the science behind why most orange tabby cats are male, by most tortoiseshell and calico cats are female, and the different types of tabby cats that exist.
Why Are Most Orange Cats Male?
Although it may appear that all orange tabby cats are male, the truth is that female ginger tabby cats do exist. However, they only exist in much smaller numbers and male cats make up the vast majority of all orange tabbies, accounting for 80%. This gives the impression all orange cats are male when this isn’t actually the case.
So if you can get orange female cats, why is it that orange cats are mostly male? What color your cat’s fur is depends entirely on genetics. However, there isn’t just a simple gene that is needed for an orange -colored coat- genetics is a whole lot more complicated than that!
The Basics of Genetics
Before I go onto exactly how the gene responsible for red fur works, I want to give you a basic overview of genetics to make it easier to understand.
Cats have 38 chromosomes which are arranged in 18 autosomal pairs, with one half of the pair coming from the mother and the other from the father. In female cats, each autosomal pair will be made up of two X chromosomes, one inherited from each parent. On the other hand, males will have one X chromosome from the mother and one Y chromosome from the father. This makes all females XX and males XY.
Arranged on all of these chromosomes are the cat’s genes which determine every feature they have, including the color of their fur. Each gene works slightly differently. Some are recessive and require two copies of the gene – one from each parent – to be expressed. Others are dominant and will mask other recessive genes, being expressed even if only one copy of the gene has been inherited.
The Red Gene
When we are talking about red fur, it is the red gene that is responsible for a ginger coat. There are two versions of this gene, the “O” variant and the “o” variant. The O gene codes for a red pigment called phaeomelanin, which is the same pigment that is produced in red human hair. Comparatively, the o gene does not code for the red pigment.
Both variants of the red gene are carried on the X chromosome. As male cats are XY, they will only inherit one copy of the gene, which comes from the mother. Therefore, a male that inherits the O gene from the mother will have a red coat, whereas a male that inherits the o gene will not be orange.
However, female cats have two X chromosomes and so there are more color possibilities. They could inherit two O genes (OO), two o genes (oo), or one or each (Oo). All female ginger tabby cats are OO and have to have inherited an O gene from both parents. This makes orange female cats much rarer.
On the other hand, if they inherit only one O gene and one o gene (Oo) then they will still express some orange coloring, but they won’t be completely ginger. Instead, they will be tortoiseshell or calico. However, females that have two o genes and are oo will have no orange coloring at all.
Examples of Orange Coat Inheritance
Going from this understanding of genetics, it is not that unlikely for a male to be ginger, but it is much rarer for a female cat to be ginger.
If the mother carries the red gene, there is a good chance her male offspring will have an orange coat. This means an orange male can be born from a red, calico, or tortoiseshell female cat. The coloring of the father is irrelevant – they will inherit the Y chromosome from the father so only their mother’s red gene that matters.
On the other hand, two copies of the O gene are needed for females to be orange, one from each parent. This means that both the mother and the father must carry the O gene. Therefore, for a female orange tabby to be born, their father must be orange and their mother must either be red, calico, or tortoiseshell.
Based on this, it is easy to see why many people think all orange tabby cats are male. There is a much higher chance a male will be ginger as there are fewer variables involved, whereas a red female feline is much rarer. However, it is possible… if the genetics are right!
Are All Orange Cats Tabby Cats?
A tabby is not a breed of cat, but rather refers to the pattern on the coat. Interestingly, all orange cats are tabbies. Some orange cats may obviously be tabbies with distinctive marbled, striped, or spotted markings. However, in other ginger felines, these patterns may not be clear at first glance!
With that being said, upon closer inspection, you will see that every ginger kitty has one of the following tabby patterns:
- Classic Tabby: Also known as the blotched or marbled tabby, this is the most common type of tabby cat and is where there is a target-shaped swirled pattern on the sides of your cat made from whirls, rather than thin stripes.
- Mackerel Tabby: Mackerel tabbies, or “fishbone tabbies” have striped coats similar to a tiger with rings around their tails, legs, and body. An orange striped cat is especially tiger-like! This is another of the more common tabby cats available.
- Spotted Tabby: Instead of having stripes, spotted tabbies have larger oval splodges of darker colors or rosettes on their coat. The size of the spots varies from cat to cat, and some smaller oval spots can appear stripe-like in appearance.
- Patched Tabby: These tabby cats have large patches of color on their coats, usually of reds, browns, and blacks. This patterning is often used to describe a tortoiseshell tabby, such as a female with an Oo genetic profile.
- Ticked Tabby: Ticked tabbies have much subtler marking, usually reserved for an M-shaped marking on their faces and a few soft stripes on their legs. If you look closely at the individual hairs, you will notice slightly different colors.
Why Do Some Orange Cats Not Look Like Tabbies?
As mentioned, some orange cats will have clear tabby markings, whereas others will look as if their coat is one solid red color. This is also due to cat genetics. Alongside genetics determining the color of the cat’s coat, there is also a gene that determines the color dilution. This is called the dense pigment gene, represented by “D” for the dominant and “d” for the recessive variant.
These genes don’t change the color of the pigment produced by the red O gene, but they will determine how the pigment is transported to and deposited on growing hair. Felines with the dominant D gene will have much deeper and bolder orange coats. However, those with two copies of the recessive gene (dd) will have a lighter and creamier red coat.
It is typically harder to see the tabby markings in these diluted orange cats. Not as much pigment will be deposited on the growing hair and so the different colors are less distinctive. It is also worth noting that the dense pigment gene does not only affect the transportation and deposition of the red pigment, but also all other coat color pigments too. For example, a black cat with the dd gene may appear grey or blue rather than black.
Ginger tabby kittens also may have more noticeable markings which fade as they age, which could again explain why the tabby markings are not as prominent. Just as humans, cats will start producing less pigment and getting grey hairs as they age, which makes their colorings change. Alternatively, this could be as the sun is bleaching their fur over time.
Are Tortoiseshell & Calico Cats Always Female?
When researching why most orange tabby cats are male, I came across another question: are all tortoiseshell and calico cats female? As it turns out, they are almost exclusively female, with only 1 in 3,000 being male. This makes males extremely rare, and much rarer than female orange tabby cats! But what is the reason behind this?
Tortoiseshell & Calico Genetics
The fact most tortoiseshell cats or calicos are female is again down to genetics. Like the red gene, the black gene is found only on the X chromosome. As males have only one X chromosome, they can’t be red and black. They only carry one color gene and so can only be one or the other, not both.
However, females which all have two X chromosomes can carry both the red O gene and the black B gene. Both the B and the O gene are dominant, and so rather than one masking the other, cats which possess both forms of the gene express both colors. This creates a beautiful bi-colored tortoiseshell or tri-colored calico coat.
Which pigment – red or black – is expressed by which cell is determined via a process called X-inactivation. Each individual cell will choose one of the X chromosomes in the cell to activate and leave the other in the inactive form. This explains why some hairs are red and some are black.
Whereas some of the X-inactivation is pre-determined based on the function of that cell, some occur randomly through development. Therefore, two genetically identical cats could have completely different coat patterns depending on the X-inactivation and therefore the expression of each cell!
Difference Between Tortoiseshells & Calicos
Tortoiseshell cats and calico cats are both black and orange, but their patterns are completely different. Whereas tortoiseshell cats are typically darker with orange flecks, calico cats tend to have a white coat with distinctive patches of orange and black.
The genes in both tortoiseshell cats and calicos are the same – both have an O red gene on one of the X chromosomes, and a B black gene on the other. However, calicos also have a separate genetic condition that occurring during development called piebalding. This alters the ability of the cells to produce the pigment that the gene codes for.
These areas will be white and are typically on the underside of the cat. During development, the pigment-producing cells should spread throughout the entire embryo, starting from the back and spreading to the belly. However, with piebalding, the pigmented cells don’t move fast enough to make it to the belly to give it color.
It is the same piebalding mutation that also gives black and white cats their markings. These cats will have the B black gene and express this, but the piebalding genetic mutation will mean some of the cat’s coat won’t express any pigment. Piebading creates some of the most striking coats and patterns that are seen in felines.
Male Tortoiseshell & Calico Cats
Although extremely rare, it is possible for there to be male tortoiseshell and calico cats. This is usually down to a genetic condition called Klinefelter Syndrome, which is where there is a genetic mutation during embryonic development which causes the cat to have an additional X chromosome (XXY). As with females, if they carry an O gene and a B gene, they can have bi- or tri-colored coats.
Another possibility is that they fused with their twin in the early stages of development while in their mother’s uterus. These are called chimeric animals. If both embryos had different X chromosome coat color genetics, the fused embryo would carry the gene for black and red coats, again being expressed as tortoiseshell or calico.
Both of these genetic situations are extremely rare, which is why male tortoiseshell and calico cats are very hard to come by. Therefore, if you see a tortoiseshell or calico cat, you can be pretty sure that they are female.
Are Orange Female Cats More Expensive?
Typically, the rarer the cat, the more expensive they are. Unusual cats are seen as luxurious and are sought after across the globe, meaning people will pay a lot more for them than more common varieties. So, are orange female cats expensive?
Unfortunately, you shouldn’t get your hopes up if you’re looking to breed these cats. Whereas 80% of orange tabby cats are male, females are still seen frequently. Around 1 in every 5 ginger cats is female, meaning the price for either sex is pretty much the same. This is great news if you’re looking to buy a female ginger tabby, but not great if you’re a breeder.
Male tortoiseshell cats and calicos are much rarer, with only 1 in every 3,000 being male. So are they more expensive? Unfortunately, once again, these cats are not expensive as they are not sought after. The genetic mutations or fusing of the embryos that give males two X chromosomes and, therefore, the possibility of carrying and expressing the red and black genes, makes them sterile. As this is an undesirable trait for obvious reasons, they are not expensive despite their rarity.
So, are all orange tabby cats male? No – although 80% of ginger cats are, compared to only 20% being female, which explains why many people think this is true!
The reason for this all comes down to genetics. Males can be red so long as their mother carries the O gene. On the other hand, as female cats have two X chromosomes, there are many more variables controlling their coat color. For a female cat to be orange, she must have an orange father and an orange, tortoiseshell, or calico mother. Besides, tortoiseshell cats or calicos are almost always female, and any males tend to be sterile and have an additional X chromosome.
Whichever coat your cat has, orange sure adds some brightness and excitement. Paired with their affectionate personalities and loveable quirks, ginger tabby cats are one of the most special cats around!
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