Since time immemorial, cats have been considered one of the most mysterious domestic animals of all wildlife. The Egyptians revered them, and it’s no wonder: their way of looking, with their penetrating eyes, and their elegant way of moving make them a true rarity in the animal world.
In general, what interests us most is why they behave in certain ways. One of the strangest behaviors is their habit of rubbing their bottom a few inches from their owners’ face, when not rubbing it a short distance from their nose. What do they want to do with this attitude? Some owners think it’s because they want something, like food or affection.
But their physiognomy is also full of unknowns. One of the most common is why there are so many cats with white paws, and there is a scientific explanation.
Pet lovers call this particular color pattern “socks” or “slippers” for obvious reasons. This phenomenon of pigmentation mixed with white spots can occur in pigs, deer, horses, dogs, guinea pigs, birds and, in rare cases, in humans. But it is particularly marked in cats, as evidenced by the fact that Socks is still among the most common names for felines.
But scientists have a specific name for this phenomenon: piebaldism. According to Popular Scienceit results from a mutation in the KIT gene, which results in an unusual distribution of melanocytes, the cells that give pigment to the eyes, skin and hair.
When a cat is still an embryo, all of its available melanocytes are clustered toward the back, where its spinal column will form. As the fetus develops into a meowing kitten, pigment cells spread throughout the developing body. If the melanocytes are evenly distributed, the cat can have a single-colored coat, like the all-black cat from “Sabrina”, Salem or all-white Hello Kitty. But in many animals, cells are distributed unevenly. This is how you get a cat like Sylvester, which is black from back to legs, but white to the toes.
The purpose of the melanocyte group is debated. For a long time, it was thought that cells simply didn’t move at the right speed to completely cover an animal’s body. But more recent research, published in Nature Communications and using a mathematical model of melanocytes, suggest that the pigment cells of quadriplegic animals do not divide often enough, leaving the developing animal without enough biological material for a monochromatic coat.
Other peculiarities of cats
Trapping isn’t the only genetic quirk that can alter an animal’s coat, according to the UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. The characteristic appearance of the tabby cat is served by the agouti gene, which determines the distribution of black pigment.
The same gene is at the origin of “bay” horses, whose bodies are reddish brown, but whose manes and tails are black. Norwegian Forest Cats have two notable mutations: the “orange gene” on the X chromosome can produce a red coat in many cats, but an alteration in the MC1R gene appears to be specific to this breed. Born one color, these felines can become, as adults, another shade of gold or “amber”.
Siamese and Burmese cats have a form of selective albinism that allows them to suppress melanin production depending on temperature. The tyrosinase enzyme explains the shaded appearance of the Siamese, whose sand-colored abdomen (the warmest part of the body) darkens around the limbs, including the ears and legs.
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