Snowball, Frosty and Angel are all white cats. Will they have more health problems or a shorter lifespan than, say, Tigger, Diablo or Smokey (non-white cats)?
White cats don’t necessarily have more health problems than non-white cats but they do have a few special issues. White cats are more prone to certain eye, ear and skin problems. However, there is no reason to believe a white cat would have a shorter lifespan than any other cat.
White Cat Eye Problems
Different Colored Eyes
Heterochromia irides is the term used in veterinary medicine to describe two different colored eyes in the same cat. In white cats, we often see one blue eye and one green eye.
A cat with a white coat may be born with one or two blue eyes due to a genetic variation that causes the cells of the iris to lack pigmentation. The iris ends up appearing blue. If the other eye has normal pigmentation, it may appear to be green, brown, yellow, etc.
Congenital heterochromia itself doesn’t necessarily cause any health problems. However, cats with one or two blue eyes are more likely to be deaf than white cats with no blue eyes.
Nystagmus is the medical term used to describe a sort of twitching/jumping action of the eyes. Congenital nystagmus is something cats are born with and white cats are more likely to have it than average.
Some white cats with blue eyes have a variation in the nerve “wiring” of their eyes. This variation can lead to congenital nystagmus, so-called “crossed eyes,” decreased vision and poor binocular vision.
Breeds more likely to experience these eye changes include Siamese, Himalayan, flame-point Persians and Birmans.
Many cats with congenital nystagmus have no problems with functional vision. But some might have trouble with depth perception, seeing in dark environments and seeing small objects at close range.
Sensorineural Deafness in White Cats
Not all white cats have congenital deafness. But just how many white cats experience deafness is up for debate.
One veterinary specialist estimated that 80% of white cats with two blue eyes show early signs of deafness. (2) And a 2019 study of 132 white cats and their non-white littermates found that 44.4% of cats with one blue eye were deaf and 50% of cats with two blue eyes were deaf. (3) Another group of researchers reported that approximately 43-52% of white cats are affected by deafness in one or both ears. (1)
The same genes that give cats their beautiful white coat can cause abnormal development of their hearing apparatus. Genetic variations in white cats cause degeneration of the “hair cells” located deep within the ear. Without messages from these special cells, auditory signals cannot be transmitted to the cat’s brain.
Congenital sensorineural deafness occurs at an increased rate in white cats and usually develops by five weeks of age.
White cats with one or two blue eyes are more likely to be deaf than white cats without blue eyes. And one researcher found that long-haired white cats seem to have a higher prevalence of blue eyes and deafness than short-haired white cats. (6)
It can be tough to determine whether a cat has complete deafness or not. Besides gauging their reaction to a noise you make when they’re not looking at you, there are more accurate tests for feline hearing.
The Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response (BAER) test reads brain responses to sound. These deafness tests are usually done by a veterinary neurologist on anesthetized cats.
White Cat Skin Problems
According to veterinarian Jarod Bell, the cat coat colors orange and white are genetic mutations from the ancestral color black.
It’s not unusual to see small black “freckles” forming on the anus, nose, eyelids, ears and lips of orange or white-coated cats. These normal dark spots of pigmentation are called lentigo. The phenomenon occurs when the skin pigmentation has “back mutated” to the ancestral color black.
Solar dermatitis is an inflammatory condition that affects cats’ skin as a result of chronic exposure to sunlight. This is worse than a sunburn and it can lead to skin cancer.
The most commonly affected areas are the ear flaps, nose and eyelids. These body parts have little hair and thin skin.
Symptoms of solar dermatitis include a dry appearance, flaking, peeling and crusting of the skin. Later, you may notice ulceration or sores in the area.
Young, adult white and albino cats who spend a lot of time outdoors are most likely to be affected by this skin condition.
Diagnosis usually requires a skin biopsy. Treatment of mild cases often involves topical or oral steroids. Preventing the condition’s progression requires that the cat minimize their exposure to direct sunlight and frequent monitoring by a veterinarian.
A common question is whether sunlight streaming through windows can cause solar dermatitis in white cats. The answer is no. Glass blocks the majority of UV rays, so it’s much less likely for an indoor cat to develop the condition.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a type of skin and oral cancer seen in cats. Like solar dermatitis, this cancer affects the skin of the eyelids, nose and ears.
Solar dermatitis may lead to SCC over a period of time. The symptoms are similar in the two conditions with SCC being more likely to cause non-healing sores.
Older white and albino cats who spend a lot of time outdoors are more likely to develop SCC than younger, dark-colored indoor cats. (4)
Your vet will want to collect a surgical biopsy to make a solid diagnosis. Treatment recommendations may include surgical excision, radiation and chemotherapy.
Summary of White Cats’ Health Problems
White cats have a few health problems that affect them more than non-white cats. The main areas of concern are eye abnormalities, deafness and skin diseases related to sun exposure.
However, many white cats live their entire lives without being affected by any of these problems. As an owner of a white cat, you should monitor your cat for symptoms and consider limiting their exposure to direct/outdoor sunlight.