White cats are very beautiful and relatively unusual. This means that if you own a white cat, or are thinking of getting one, it may well be your first experience of these pale coloured felines. So is there anything you need to know about owning a white cat? Will it be in any way different to having a cat of a different colour? The answer is that it will be almost the same...but not quite. There are a few things which are unique to white cats, and which you need to know about. This article will take a look at the special features of white cats.
Cat colours are determined by specific genes, and you might think that this would apply to white cats too. But the white colour is different in that there is no specific gene for whiteness. The white colour is caused by a masking gene, which 'masks' or hides all other colours. What it actually does is prevent the melanin responsible for coat colour from developing. This is not usually of much importance to a cat owner unless they are thinking of breeding from a white cat. If this is going to happen, the problem with a white cat is that the breeder will not know what the underlying colour is. So if you hear a breeder say of a white cat, “I don't know what colours he/she carries”, then this is what they mean.
There are other reasons for a cat being white, although they are rarer. A few cats are albinos, which means the absence of all pigmentation. These cats can usually be recognised as they have pink coloured eyes which are very sensitive to light. And finally, some white cats have the white spotting gene rather than the white masking gene. This gene is responsible for white patches and other markings on bicoloured or tortie cats. However, occasionally the white 'spots' will cover the whole cat, making it indistinguishable from a white cat with the white masking gene. But this does not really matter in practice.
There is a belief quite generally held that all white cats are deaf, and this often prevents people from wanting to own a white cat. This is simply not true. Many white cats can hear perfectly well. However, deafness is more common in white cats than in cats of other colours, and this is particularly the case in blue-eyed white cats. Research results vary, but it seems that approximately 70% of blue-eyed white cats will be deaf, around 35% of cats with only one blue eye, and about 15% of white cats with eyes of some other colour. This is because the melanin responsible for coat colour also affects the development of the cochlea in the inner ear, so if the masking gene prevents coat colour developing, it may also affect inner ear development. If you are concerned, it is possible to test a cat for deafness; you will need to ask your vet for details. But deaf cats can lead perfectly normal lives, so even if your cat does turn out to be deaf, please don't be too concerned.
A more worrying problem in white cats is their sensitivity to the sun. Like pale skinned people who do not have much melanin in the skin, white cats tend to easily get sunburned, and are even prone to squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. So if you have a white cat, you will need to keep her out of the sun, or apply sunblock to her ears and nose before she goes out. But do bear in mind that cats groom themselves and often lick sunblock off their skin, so keeping your cat indoors on sunny days is preferable. Skin cancer in cats shows up as crusty or scabby patches on the nose and/or ears. These can be surgically removed, and it is not unusual for white cats in adoption centres which have been living as strays to need part of their ears removed due to squamous cell carcinoma.
Aside from the skin cancer issue, other aspects of cat care are pretty much the same for white cats. However, if you intend to show your white cat, or even if you just care a great deal about your cat looking good, a white cat will involve you in some extra work. Every bit of dirt shows on a white cat's coat! Even if your white cat is fastidious about grooming herself, her paws are still likely to be rather grey if she goes outside, and she may get food stains around her mouth and tear stains round her eyes. When it comes to showing a white cat, thorough bathing will be necessary, paying special attention to the paws and face. Some owners use a gentle child's toothbrush to clean areas like the end of the nose and around the mouth, and you can buy special wipes for eyes and ears. And of course you will need to take a careful look at your cat's back end before the show too.
Most cat owners get used to the fact that their homes and clothes will get covered in cat hair, particularly if their cat is long haired. But white cat hairs show up rather more than others, particularly on black clothes, and it can be very annoying to find that your smart black skirt or trousers are constantly covered in white fur. So if you get a white cat, and particularly if you like to wear black, you will also need to invest in some good clothes and furniture brushes.
Basically, if you want a white cat, there is no reason at all not to get one. These cats are lovely looking and quite unusual, and your white cat is likely to be a talking point among all those who meet her. She may involve you in a little more work than a cat of another colour, but not a great deal. And she is definitely likely to be worth it!