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Topics in Coton Breeding & Genetics

Here, we'll post your email questions and observations about breeding and genetics and, when appropriate, our expert's answers.  This is the place to discuss Coton inheritance, whelping problems, litter socialization, neonatal diseases, and a host of topic areas important to preserving the breed's soundness and to raising healthy happy litters.

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1: The Colors of Cotons de Tulear, Part 1

(This article first appeared 12/8/96 on K9GENES, an online mailing list devoted to canine genetics.)

by R.J. Russell, Ph.D., former mCTCA President

The Coton de Tulear (Coton) is a rare breed of Bichon that developed on the island of Madagascar during the past three centuries.  The breed is distinguished by its dry, fly-away hair which resembles cotton.  The word "Tulear" is the name of a pirate/slave-trading port city in southwestern Madagascar where legend has it the first of this breed appeared.

There are three principal color varieties of Coton: White, Black & White, and Tri-Color.  Color may be seen in either topcoat or undercoat hair or both.  All three color varieties may be born in litters in Madagascar, North America, and Europe and all three color varieties may give birth to one another.  The mCTCA Standard has always strongly supported all three color varieties.  In marked contrast, the FCI standard supports only pure white dogs and has very little toleration in its standard for pups that are not pure white.  However, in the show ring, when the FCI standard is used, well-marked, colored Coton pups are shown and sometimes win, even though the FCI standard has no provisions for brown, black, and white,(Tri-Color), in pups nor is it at all clear at what age such a colored pup would be disqualified by an FCI judge because it has retained its color.  In fact, many, perhaps most shows that use the FCI standard seem to judge Cotons of color by a de facto, unwritten standard.

WHITE (approximately 57% of the 515 CTCA Cotons registered)

White Cotons are all-white.  Like some other Bichon breeds, a White Coton often has "champagne", (cream-biscuit/light tan color), patches on its ears, and may even have a body patch or saddle of champagne faintly visible.  These patches may persist throughout a Coton's lifetime, but most often they fade.  However, in almost every case, the coloration will become visible if the coat is wetted,(soaked), even in Cotons greater than 14 years old.

We have never observed the color yellow, per se, on a Coton.  However, the FCI standard has used this term, (jaune). We suspect it is the same as "Champagne/cream biscuit/light tan" described above.

Some Malagasy Cotons, (diverse bloodlines from Madagascar exclusively), will exhibit russet, (light reddish-tan, chestnut-colored; often termed "liver" in other breeds), patches that persist in maturity.  These White Cotons have only the color White and the russet patches; no black hairs are present.  In older Cotons, these russet patches fade considerably, but they do not disappear completely even in Cotons greater than 14 years old.  We have not seen this persistent russet patch coloration in European bloodlines, but it may exist there as well.

NOT A GENE: the term "fade" here means one of three things: (1) the color in the hair shaft is replaced gradually with white beginning at the base of the hair, (e.g., brown hair fading to white in a Tri-color Coton), or (2) the colored hair is lost and replaced completely by a hair shaft of another color, (usually whitetop coat hair replacing brown or tan), or (3) the colored top-coat hair remains but becomes overwhelmed by a profusion of white undercoat hairs in maturity or old age, (e.g., black coloration fading to gray or silver in some Cotons).  Note, too, that some people in the fancy have used the term "mutate" to describe pelage color changes through development; this is not the correct use of this term.

BLACK & WHITE (approximately 14% of the Cotons registered)

Black and White Cotons are distinguished at birth by having pure black patches and pure white hair.  There may be only one or two small back patches or the dog may be mostly black.  There is no limit within the standard regarding the percentage of coloration on a colored Coton's coat.  At birth, some Black & White pups exhibit brown hairs in areas immediately adjacent to the black patches, often on the face and ears.  These brown hairs invariably fade, (disappear completely), by about 18 months old.  The black hairs, however, DO NOT disappear.

Many but by no means all Black and White Cotons show a gradual fading of some of their black patches in maturity or in probable response to hormonal changes, (e.g., testosterone production during estrus for the male or post-parturition restoration of the normal hormone balance for the primiparous female).  This change to either a gray or silver appearance of the pure black patch occurs NOT through the loss of black hairs, but through the increased production of white undercoat hairs that surround a single, thicker, black topcoat hair follicle.  We are studying this curently and have counted from 4:1 to as many as 8:1 white undercoat to black topcoat hairs per folicle within a "graying" black patch.  In our experience, a black patch, whether on the ears or body, never naturally fades to white and no Black & White pup could ever be mistaken for anything but a Black & White adult.

TRI-COLOR (approximately 29% of the Cotons registered)

In 1973, I created the designation "Tri-color Coton" to refer to Cotons that are born with three colors: white, brown, and black, (e.g., as shown on the Malagasy postage stamp of 11/74, which depicts a mature, well-marked Tri-color Coton).

A Tri-Color neonate may appear with colored patches over some or much of its body (80%).  The patches appear brown, (or tan), with a regular scattering of black hairs, or largely brown, (or tan), with a ring of black hairs.  These are strikingly beautiful puppies and juveniles, but their color appears to fade as they mature.  The fading process can take 18 months.  But, Tri-color Cotons are ALWAYS identifiable as Tri-colors, (NOT White Cotons), even as very old individuals.  Patches of tan/cream biscuit color remain as does adusting of black guard hairs.  These are readily apparent when the dog's coat is wetted.  From a distance, an adult Tri-color will usually appear "off-white" or slightly cream colored when viewed next to a pure White Coton.  [NB: percontra the mCTCA's Standard, some owners employ bleaches to reduce the off-white caste to a Tri-color's coat].  There are a number of mCTCA breeders, (including us, Alika Cotons), who would like to see adult Cotons sporting the beautiful colors of a Tri-color juvenile.


As the years have passed, we are now seeing ever-more breeding and, as a logical consequence, new combinations of alleles. Not surprisingly, then, we are seeing color patterns unlike those seen before. Here are just a few:

We have noted a new brown color pattern that first appeared perhaps two or three years ago in Europe.  It is becoming more common in the pups of some bloodlines of European-only Cotons both in Europe and in the United States.  We have no official name for this pattern yet, but we are calling it unofficially "mountain lion" or "honey bear," or, most recently, "toasted marshmallow".  These brown pups are born almost wholly medium brown with emergent black hairs sprinkled evenly throughout their coat, (not unlike a mountain lion cub).  They may have a black dorsal streak.  As they mature, some apparently turn into White/Apricot adults.  We are following this development with great interest.

Recently, a Black Coton was born with tan highlights above its eyes and a white blaze from its stop and muzzle.  This Coton has a white ventrum.  Overall, its coloration resembles a Black and Tan color pattern as seen on a Bernese or Swiss Mountain Dog.  This Coton's parents hail from a long line of European Cotons, (sire), and Malagasy Cotons, (dam).  We hope to have a photo of this interesting pup, now 4 months old, in the Winter issue (2/97) of the Coton de Tulear News.  As far as we know, this Coton's coloration is unique.

Recently, a Coton was born in a litter produced by a long line of Malagasy Cotons that appeared at first glance to be a "gunmetal Gray and White" pup.  The "gray" patches, (80% of its body), are in fact a combination of black hairs and brown/tan hairs, so this is very likely an unusual variant of the Tri-Color variety.  This pup has not yet matured.  Presently, it closely resembles a tiny, Tri-color Rough Collie puppy.  As far as we know, this Coton's coloration is unique.

We anticipate additional, interesting, color combinations to appear as the Effective Breeding Population size increases and the gene pool expands.  We view these colorful developments as very healthy for the breed.

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