Why Do Cats Have Black Lips? How This Trait Evolved

5 min read

Cats are fascinating animals, not only because of their silly antics but also how close they are to their wild counterparts. Domestication has only influenced 13 genes in our pets. Selective breeding has had a greater impact, yielding the 73 breeds accepted by The International Cat Association (TICA). They come in a broad spectrum of colors, patterns, and sizes, from the relatively enormous Maine Coon to the regal Persian.

Among the apparent differences are the variations in the color of the animals’ noses, ears, and lips. Have you ever noticed that your cat has pure black lips and wondered why? Again, selective breeding is at work, with official standards for each one. However, cats with black lips can trace their origin back 130,000 years to a wild common ancestor with the African Wild Cat (Felis silvestris lybica). Therein lies the fascinating answer to this question. Come with me as I explain more!

What Is Melanism in Animals?

Melanism describes the condition of a high concentration of the pigment melanin that accounts for the dark coloration of scales, fur, and hair in the animal kingdom. It also applies to a cat’s lips. Melanism isn’t always an all-or-nothing thing. Think about the color variations you see in many species, such as coyotes, chinchillas, and cats. Scientists refer to this trait as polymorphism for melanism or multiple variations.

The benefit is clearly demonstrated by the evolution of the so-called peppered moth. Environmental pressures caused by the Industrial Revolution led to a novel adaptation in these insects that allowed them to survive. The reason was camouflage. The change in coloration made it more challenging for predators to find their prey. That also explains polymorphism for melanism in cats.

Image credit: Slava Dumchev, Shutterstock

Melanism in Felines

Cats are obligate carnivores and must hunt for food to survive. Many felines stalk their prey and rely on stealth. Most are either active during dusk and dawn or crepuscular or come out at night and are nocturnal. Camouflage comes in handy for these lifestyles. It also explains the range of melanism, from the spotted leopard to the tabby coloration of the African Wild Cat.

The takeaway message from the peppered moth case is that white makes you visible to your cohorts and prey. A cat with light-colored mucous membranes will similarly stand out when they open their mouth to yawn. It doesn’t take much to put a prey species on high alert. It’s worth noting that felines aren’t always successful hunters, with many only prevailing 60% of the time or less. Black lips can be advantageous.

We must also put melanism in context with feline communication. Felines rely heavily on smell for a good reason. Your kitty has 200 million olfactory receptors to your 5 million. That ability allows them to detect prey from over 650 feet away. However, remember the typical cat’s activity period. They are hunting during low-light conditions. And felines don’t see distance well compared to our vision.

Why Aren’t All Cats Black?

That means a dilemma exists of being an all-black feline. Visual communication is essential, especially between conspecifics and offspring. Many species have white or light-colored fur on the backs of their ears to make it easy to be seen when it’s important, such as bringing food to their kittens. It’s also a distinguishing feature of the African Wild Cat.

The placement of the light coloration is significant. It allows the animal to communicate visually with cohorts while preventing prey or other predators from detecting their presence. It also explains polymorphism in melanism with its varying degrees.

Interestingly, research has shown being an all-black feline is a limiting factor to evolutionary success because it interferes with necessary visual communication. That’s true for wild felines, but it’s a different story with domestic cats. The same study suggested a decrease in the normal appearance of our pets because the same environmental pressure doesn’t exist.

That’s why you’ll see entirely black cats, including their lips and ears. The chances are your pet follows your household’s activity pattern and is diurnal instead of crepuscular or nocturnal. However, there’s another wrinkle to our tale that we must discuss.

black bombay cat sitting on grass
Image Credit: xiclography, Pixabay

Abnormal Pigmentation

Some cats that have light-colored lips and mucous membranes may develop black spots on these areas, typically occurring under 1 year old. Veterinarians usually see it in orange male felines, referring to this condition as lentigo. This coloration is also similar to the African Wild Cat, supporting a genetic link to its development. The spots are not cancerous nor a cause for concern.

Final Thoughts

Black lips in cats are likely a holdover from the distant past when wild felines hunted the grasslands and steppes of their native land. They may have given them a competitive edge to improve their success and survival. After all, it’s not easy making a living, even if you are an apex predator. Evolution is nature’s selective breeding, with the ultimate goal of passing your genes onto the next generation.

Featured Image Credit: Kaan Yetkin Toprak, Shutterstock

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