My family and I recently adopted a tuxedo kitten from the Houston SPCA. And while I’m in love with so many things about him, his white paws that resemble little booties might top my list of favorite physical attributes. Often times, black cats with white paws and an underbelly (which we know as “tuxedo” cats), have markings that resemble white socks or boots. There are many tabby cats that also have these adorable white accents on their legs/paws, like Marmalade, for one purrfect example:
But have you ever wondered to yourself why cats have these markings? Popular Science recently covered this interesting phenomenon of why cats have white boots on the bodies, and the answer is quite interesting. Let’s dive in!
For starters, cats are not the only mammals that have “socks” like this.
In fact, these white splotches of pigment can occur in pigs, deer, horses, dogs, guinea pigs, birds, and, in rare cases, humans. But according to research, this white pigmentation is most commonly found in felines. And it comes as no surprise that “Socks” tops the list of tuxedo cat names.
Fun tuxedo cat fact: Although ginger tabbies are almost always male (just as calico cats are most always female), a tuxedo cat is not gender specific. There are roughly just as many male tuxedo (black and white coat pattern only) cats as there are female tuxedo cats.
So, what is the scientific term that causes these white boot markings we adore?
Piebaldism is why. Wondering what exactly that means? Keep reading!
Piebaldism comes as a result of a mutation in the KIT gene, which causes an unusual distribution of melanocytes—the cells that give eyes, skin, and hair or fur pigment. This condition usually manifests as white areas of fur, hair or skin due to the absence of pigment-producing cells in those regions. These areas usually arise on the front of an animal, commonly on the belly and the forehead.
So, when exactly does science work its magic to give cats those white socks markings?
When a cat is still an embryo, all of its available melanocytes are bunched up toward its back, where its spinal column will eventually form. As the fetus develops into a mewling kitten, pigment cells spread throughout the developing body. If the melanocytes are evenly distributed, the cat could have a unicolor coat, like Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s all-black cat, Salem, or the all-white Hello Kitty. But in many animals, the cells spread irregularly. That’s how you get a cat like Sylvester, who’s black from his back to his legs, but white down to his toes.
Another interesting coat fact is about the famous markings of Siamese cats which have “points” on certain areas of their body: Siamese cats have a form of selective albinism that allows them to suppress melanin production based on temperature.
Celebrity tuxedo cats: The legendary Cat in The Hat from Dr. Seuss was based off of a tuxedo cat, as were Sylvester from Looney Tunes’ Tweety and Sylvester and Felix the Cat.
Cats are incredible little beings that always amaze us, aren’t they? Share these fun little facts about white socks, or “boots” with your cat lover friends. After all, you can never have to many cat facts at your disposal!