An albino cat is unable to make pigment anywhere in their body.
Consequently they have white fur, pink skin, and pinkish-blue eyes.
Many cat owners are surprised to learn that most white cats aren’t actually albino though!
What Is An Albino Cat?
Albinism is a type of coloring rather than a breed.
A truly albino cat is unable to make pigment anywhere in their body.
They have pale pink skin and completely white fur.
Their irises appear very light blue or even pinkish, and the reflection from the back of their eyes at night is pink.
Whatever their breed, all albino cats owe their striking lack of color to the same specific genetic mutation.
Albino Cat Genetics
Albinism in cats is caused by a genetic mutation which prevents albino cats making the enzyme tyrosinase.
Cats need tyrosinase in order to make melanins – the pigments which give color to eyes, skin and fur.
Without them, they are albino.
But there’s more to albinism than just white fur.
The Difference Between White Cats And Albino Cats
You might be surprised to hear that the vast majority of white cats are not albino.
Here are the two ways cats can be white.
1. White genes
Most white cats lack pigment in their coat because they carry either the dominant white gene or the white spotting gene.
These genes prevent cats from making melanocytes – the cells which produce pigment.
So they mask other genetic instructions about color and pattern.
These cats usually have bright blue or pale green eyes, and as kittens they might even have smudges of color or shading, which fades as they mature.
Albino cats on the other hand have a normal number of melanocytes, but they cannot use them because they lack tyrosinase.
Or to put it another way:
In white cats the ability to make pigment is present, but masked.
In albino cats the ability to make pigment is completely absent.
It sounds like a very subtle distinction, but in a moment we’ll see why it has important implications for albino cats’ health.
Are Albino Cats Rare?
The albino gene which prevents cats from making pigment is very rare.
In fact the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at University College Davis, who offer a test for it, have only recorded four carriers among nearly ten thousand tested cats.
Those four cats were two Tonkinese cats and two Siamese cats.
Albino cats are also reported among domestic shorthair cats, but the exact frequency of albino domestic shorthair cats is unknown.
This is because genetic testing is usually carried out as part of a screening process before mating, and it’s unusual for non-pedigree cats to go through that process
Anecdotally, it’s also thought that since Asian leopard cats carry the gene for albinism, it is likely to exist in Bengal cats too.
But the albino gene is also recessive, meaning that a kitten must inherit it from both parents in order to appear albino.
A kitten with just one copy will make pigment in the normal way.
Other Types Of Albino Cat
True, or complete, albinism in cats is pretty straight forward. They either have it, or, (more likely) they don’t.
But incomplete albinism is rather more complex, and much more common!
And the most exciting bit is, it is temperature sensitive!
Temperature Sensitive Albinism
That’s right, there are two genes which cause the amount of pigment in cat hair to vary with the surface color of their skin.
These are the burmese color concentration gene and the siamese color concentration gene.
Needless to say, they are named after the Burmese and Siamese cat breeds, which made them famous.
We know that these genes are types of albinism, because they also work by controlling production of tyrosinase.
As the surface temperature of the skin increases, tyrosinase production is inhibited, so that less pigment can be made.
The most pigment is made where the skin’s temperature is coolest – at the nose, ears, paws and tail.
The siamese color gene produces a more dramatic effect than the burmese color gene.
But they have a complex relationship and if a kitten inherits one copy of each, the overall effect is somewhere in the middle too.
Albino Cat Traits
So now we know that incomplete types of albinism gave rise to some of our most recognizable and beloved breeds.
But for the remainder of this article, let’s return to cats with complete albinism, and see how their unusual coat affects their health, temperament, and care needs.
Albino Cat Health
Since albino cats can belong to any breed, many aspects of their overall health will be dictated by their breed.
And an albino Siamese cat will be more prone to respiratory and cardiac diseases than other cats.
But there are a few health problems which albino cats are more vulnerable to specifically because they are albino.
UV damage and skin cancer
Pigment in cells protects them from cancerous mutations, by absorbing dangerous UV rays from the sun.
Without any pigment to protect them, albino cats are more prone to sunburn and skin cancers in the places where the fur isn’t thick enough to protect them.
So, the nose and ears in particular.
Albino cats are also more susceptible to UV damage to their eyesight.
But since this is a cumulative problem over many years, it’s possible that most albino cats won’t experience much in the way of noticeable damage to their eyesight within their normal lifespan.
Problems with their eyesight
Albinism almost certainly affects cats’ vision, but we don’t know for sure exactly how much.
We know that albinism in cats causes abnormal organisation of the nerves which ferry information between the eyes and brain.
But we also know that albino people seem to see the world in the same way as people without albinism, so their brains have adapted to make sense of the information they’re receiving anyway.
We don’t know whether the same is true of albino cats.
But it’s likely that each individual eye has a narrower field of vision than in other cats, and that this causes them to have somewhat reduced depth perception.
Are albino cats deaf?
It’s a common adage that all white cats are deaf.
In fact, that’s not quite true.
White cats do have a higher frequency of deafness than cats with colored coats, because melanocytes cells which make pigment also have an important role in hearing.
And white cats lack melanocytes.
But remember – albino cats are not the same as white cats. They have a normal number of melanocyte cells, so their albinism doesn’t cause deafness.
However, that being said, albino cats’ hearing is less sensitive than that of colored cats.
At the time of writing though, the exact biological reason for that isn’t understood.
Albino Cat Temperament
Just like their health, an albino cat’s temperament will depend very much upon their breed.
It will also be influenced by factors like their upbringing, and how much socialization they received as kittens.
There is no evidence that the gene for albinism directly alters a cat’s personality.
But, some of the physical consequences of being albino might affect the way they behave.
For example, some albino cats are reported as being photophobic. Or in other words, they tend to avoid bright light.
This is likely to be because the absence of pigment in their eyes makes bright light uncomfortable for them.
Albino cats with reduced hearing might also be more easily startled by the appearance of people they didn’t hear approach, and become more nervous generally as a result.
Albino Cat Care
Do albino kittens need any special care due to their lack of pigment?
The answer here will depend very much on the individual cat.
Outdoor albino cats, and indoor albino cats who like to sunbathe near windows need to be protected from sunlight.
Ask your vet about cat safe sunscreens, and monitor their skin frequently for changes in appearance.
Many albino cats will navigate any changes in their eyesight or hearing quite smoothly by relying more heavily on their other senses instead.
Your Albino Cat
A true albino cat is very rare.
Most white cats owe their lack of color to a completely different genetic phenomenon.
But partial albinism is responsible for some of our most admired and sought-after cat breeds.
Do you have an albino cat?
Do tell us about them in the comments box down below!
References and Resources
Imes et al, Albinism in the domestic cat (Felis catus) is associated with a tyrosinase (TYR) mutation, Animal Genetics, 2006.
Abitbol et al, Allelic heterogeneity of albinism in the domestic cat, Animal Genetics, 2016.
Ryugo & Menotti-Raymond, Feline Deafness, Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 2012.
Ferreira, Functional and structural organisation of the visual system in human albinism, Doctoral Thesis at University College London, 2017.
Feline Albino Test, Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, University College Davis, accessed June 2020.
Kaas, Serendipity and the Siamese Cat: The Discovery That Genes for Coat and Eye Pigment Affect the Brain, ILAR Journal, 2005.