6 min read

What Makes Orange Cats so Special?


Written by Wag! Staff

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 08/21/2023, edited: 08/29/2023

Ah, the orange cat. Garfield. Puss in Boots. The domestic tiger. As the man who created Garfield, Jim Davis, said himself, “In my head, the sky is blue, the grass is green, and the cats are orange.” 

Many people think the same as Davis. Why? Because, much like their near-polar opposite, the black cat, orange cats have made an indelible mark on popular culture. Proud, fiery, or, in Garfield’s case, extraordinarily lazy, they are a unique force of nature in the feline world. 

Unlike black cats they don’t conjure up negative connotations; they are a pleasant, friendly breed, imagined to be chatty and impossible to ignore. And there are so many facets of this gorgeous animal which you may never have read about which make it all the more magical. Let’s dive in and discover more about orange cats.

Orange cat pigment

The thing that makes a cat orange – and a ginger person ginger – is a natural melanin pigment called pheomelanin. This yellow-red pigment doesn’t mean everyone who has it boasts the same shade of orange fur (or hair) – there is a spectrum of color from white to red – but it does mean that they all belong to a special pigment club.

Orange cat genetics

The other reason that orange cats are orange is that the color is carried through the X chromosome. Because a female cat has two X chromosomes, they need the color to come through from both their mother and father; because a male cat has an X and a Y chromosome, they need only get the orange chromosome from their mom. So - are orange cats always male? No, but they are in about eight out of ten instances because of how comparatively unlikely it is for a female cat to inherit the necessary genes.

Orange cats are all tabbies

You probably know this, so shut your eyes and move on if so, but a tabby cat is not a breed of cat, it’s simply the name given to a cat that has particular markings on its coat. In fact, every cat on the planet is technically a tabby cat but in many cases the tabby pattern is simply disguised by other more prominent patterns. 

So in the case of our fabled orange cat, the pheomelanin we mentioned earlier doesn’t just give orange cats their color, it also ensures that the stripes on the fur are visible - making all orange cats tabby cats in the most visually obvious way.

Depending on who you ask, there are four types of tabby cat. The first is the classic, which, funnily enough, given the name, isn’t necessarily the most common tabby. On a classic tabby, which can be orange (as can all five of these tabbies), the pattern is thick and swirling, with a pattern on each side of the body which is often likened to a bullseye. 

The other pattern for which they’re known is a butterfly on their shoulders. The next tabby, the mackerel tabby, is the variation you may have seen more than any other. It is often compared to a tiger because its markings are striped and parallel down each side of the body. Some of these lines will meet to form an M on the cat’s forehead - a distinctive characteristic of many tabbies, not just the mackerel. Why mackerel? The lines that branch out from one central stripe on the cat’s spine are said to resemble the skeleton of a fish.

The third tabby, the spotted tabby, has - you guessed it - spots on its body and an M on its forehead; sometimes these spots are visible in breeds like the Bengal and the Maine Coon. Last but not least is the ticked tabby, whose fur comprises hairs (known as agouti hairs) that are alternately light and dark. This tabby doesn’t have bands or stripes as such, but a sandy, salt-and-pepper look instead.

So what are orange cats called? Well, as well as adorable, they’re all called tabby cats. And they could be any of the above. 

No one really knows where they’re from

If you like your origin stories mysterious (and not padded out to eight episodes), you’ll love the orange cat, whose ancestry is something of an enigma. Although people have hazarded a guess over the years, nobody can pinpoint exactly when and where orange cats arrived. 

This is because they were never selectively bred in the same way the ‘fancy cats’ of the mid-20th century were. There is a theory that Egypt may have birthed the first orange cats. Why? We know that one cat that has the gene that gives orange cats their color is from Egypt: the Egyptian Mau. Could it be responsible for giving us the first ever orange cat? We will probably never know.

Orange cats tend to be extremely friendly

We can make no promises, of course, but the orange cat personality is one that is notorious for being fun and friendly. There’s no universal consensus on this, and you’re bound to get some gingers who are grumps, but if you’ve got a big fluffy orange cat, there’s a good chance you’ve got a charmer.

This is partly explicable thanks to research that says that male cats tend to be slightly friendlier than female cats (you may disagree); if around 80% of all orange cats are male, it would stand to reason that there would be a higher chance of orange cats being more sociable than the average cat.

Despite this reputation, orange cats are said to be the second least adopted cat from shelters (after black cats). We encourage you to put your shoes on and do your bit. If you do introduce an orange cat breed into your life, make sure you do the responsible thing and take out pet insurance for your little one. Cats need vaccinations, just like dogs – and a wellness plan can cover yours for routine checkups and boosters.

They are less common in cities and more common in villages

Studying cats must be a pretty wonderful job. And, thanks to a laser-focused ten-year project in France by Pontier et al, we know that the orange cat breed is more likely to crop up (at least in France) in rural areas.

The researchers concluded that in these areas, males mate with multiple females but females tend to stay faithful to one male, but that in urban areas, both females and males reproduce with multiple partners. Researchers believe that in the urban areas orange cats are able to use their size and aggression to their reproductive advantage but that these qualities aren’t as effective in comparatively well-populated urban environments.

The boys are particularly big, the girls are particularly small

What do we mean by this? Well, in every cat breed, the male will be larger than the female. But in orange cats the disparity is larger than in other types of cat. In other words, a male orange cat will be big compared with most other breeds, but the female won’t follow suit - she will be smaller than the female in most other breeds.

However large your cat is, make sure you’re helping them stay big and strong: head over to our trusted friends at Cat Food Advisor to check out some great-quality nom nom noms for your furry friend. If your cat is used to a specific type of food but you want to switch – it’s fine to change your cat’s food.

They were good enough for a prime minister at war

Look up orange cats online and you won’t be able to escape the mention that wartime British prime minister Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill had an orange cat called Tango - a neutered male who was among many purring companions the politician adored.

Not a great deal is known about Tango but Churchill allegedly gave the cat she/her pronouns and let it onto the table to lap at cream. (We wouldn’t necessarily advise that here at Wag! as cats are lactose-intolerant. If you want to ensure your pet remains in peak physical condition, consider taking out a wellness plan with an insurance provider - something Churchill probably did not do.)

Late in his life Churchill received an orange and white cat as a birthday present, and called it Jock. Chartwell, the house in which he and his family lived, is now on its sixth ginger cat called Jock, thanks to the wishes of the late Prime Minister’s relatives.

They attract tall tales

Garfield isn’t the only orange cat with a great story attached. We are certainly not saying that the following tale is true. You can choose to believe it if you like but its value is certainly symbolic.

Remember the M on the tabby cat’s forehead? According to some, the story goes that a fretful baby Jesus was comforted by a ginger tabby cat when he was struggling to sleep. So fond of the cat was the infant Messiah that Mary, his mother, gave the cat a kiss on the forehead, imprinting an ‘M’ in the fur. Or, if you believe other accounts, Mary wanted the ‘M’ from her own name on the cat’s head, so drew the letter on with her finger.

Comments (1)

Suzanne Malone


I've had ,3orange and white cats over the last 35yrs,great cats I'm looking to adopt one.Suzie.i have a chocolate lab,older who was raised with a orange &white her best friend died,a few yrs ago cats like her she's a gentle soul.

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