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Cardigan Colours

by Cathy Ochs-Cline ©


This is a very complex subject, but I am going to attempt to explain this in as simple a way as possible. I will use pictures and some genetic information.  Some of this information is accepted as fact, and some is genetic conjecture from my breeding experience. The mode of inheritance is not known on some color combinations,so I have attempted to make a "best guess."


Step 1 -- Colors


Cardigans come in two basic colors:  Red and Black. Red is dominant over black. Cardigans do not have the DOMINANT form of black which causes bi-colors, or pure black and whites. All black Cardigans are tri-color, having either tan or brindle points. Pictured above are the two basic cardigans, one red and one black (tan-point tri-color). These dogs do not have any modifier or dilution factors expressed.



Step 2 -- Modifiers



The Cardigan breed has four modifiers. Modifiers affect coat color, but do not affect pigmentation,so all pigmentation will be the normal black color. Modifiers are inherited independently of color, and independently of each other. Any Cardigan can have no modifiers (a red or tan-point tri-color); one or more modifiers (brindle, merle, chinchilla, sable) or, theoretically, one dog can carry all modifiers (and no, I don't know what it would look like).








These are all red brindles. Their base coat is mostly red, with darker shadings. Genetically, it would be difficult to predict if they are pure for red, or carry black. Dogs #2 and #3 are proven NOT to carry black, and I suspect most dogs this shade of brindle do not carry for black.



These are brown brindles. This is the most prevalent shade of brindle. Their base coat is reddish to chocolatebrown with light and dark shadings. This category is hard to predict for genotype. All of the above dogs carry black, but some brindles the exact same shade do not carry black. Also notice the second dog does not have discernable stripes. He is a "shaded" brindle. 



These are black brindles. Their base coat is dark brown to black-brown with lighter shadings. Black brindles are unusual in the United States, but there have been a good number of them in England. Both of the above dogs carry for black, and I suspect most brindles in this category will carry for black.



These are brindle point tris. Genetically they are black and whites with one or more brindle modifiers. Shown above are two dogs showing the difference in point areas. The dog at left has very little brindle in his point areas, the dog at right has very large extension of her brindle points. These dogs are mother and son. Note:  Brindle point tris can be homozygous for brindle, just like other brindles.





Brindle is a dominant modifier.


Only one gene is necessary to express the brindle color -- in other words, you have to have a brindle parent to get a brindle puppy.


All brindles carry at least one red gene. A black and white Cardigan with the brindle points is a black and white with the brindle modifier. A Cardigan who carries two brindle genes is called homozygous brindle or pre-potent brindle. Brindles are interesting because no two are the same. Brindles can be any shade from almost completely red with afew darker markings, to almost black with a few lightermarkings. Most brindles appear striped, although some onlyhave different shades of brown that seem more patchy.


All shades of brindle are acceptable.


Some examples are below.


Merle is a dominant modifier gene.

This gene modifies the black hairs to turn all affected areas shades of mottled gray. The gray can be light silver to dark gun-metal. Patches of black appear in the coat in varying degrees. Pigmentation is normal black, although areas
affected by the merle gene will appear to lack pigmentation. These areas include the nose, lips, and eyes.


Breeding two merles together may result in a homozygous merle.

These dogs are usually predominantly white.

A large majority of homozygous merles are born deaf, but the occurrence of the other health problems are rare.


All shades of blue merles are acceptable.


Merles other than blues (brindle merle, sable merle, red merle, homozygous merle) are a breed disqualification.




Here are three different shades of blue merles. The first dog is a light silvery-gray, the middle a medium gray, and the end dog a dark gun-metal. All of these shades of blue are acceptable and one shade is not preferred over another. Just for information's sake, these three dogs are siblings.




These two illustrate the difference in black patching that is acceptable. The dog on the left has mostly black patching with very little blue showing (called a cryptic blue) and the dog on the right has very little black patching.




Sable is one of those genes that is controversial, and therefore all the following information is NOT fact. 

The sable gene's behavior in other breeds is clearly understood, but its relationship to brindle and other modifiers in this breed make its behavior a little more difficult.  

Sable is a dominant modifier gene. Sabling causes a pattern of black-tipped red hair on the body. The pigmentation is normal black. The sable pattern typically forms a black cap on the forehead and may include a black shoulder, shawl and saddle on the back.

Most red Cardigans express some amount of random black hairs in their coat. A true sable may have some random black hairs also, but unless the red hair is black tipped and forms apattern, this is not a true sable.

It is theorized that a sable must carry the black gene in order to express its color. I have found this to be true in my breeding program. Since sable is only expressed on red hair, a brindle or black may carry the sable modifier without expressing it.




CLEAR RED (or recessive red)



Puppy #1

Puppy #2

This is a clear red puppy who is genetically a tri-color.

Notice that he is about the same shade of red as the normal red

puppy at the right.  But, he doesn't have one black hair on him.

A normal (or dominant) red puppy at the same age.

Notice how much black hair this puppy still has.


Puppy #1 at maturity

He appears to be a normal red, but look at his nose color.

Even in this picture you can see it is not black.





Puppy #2 at 7 months

The black hair is all gone,but his nose is a dark, shiny black

Clear Red is a RECESSIVE modifier gene.

In order to get a clear red, both parents may be normal colors, but both must carry the clear-red gene. The recessive red gene causes the expression of black hair to be suppressed.

Originally I wrote about this color as chinchilla, but it was discovered in late 2005 to be a form of recessive red. This gene causes all offspring to be yellow, orange or red in their pigmented coat regardless of their genotype. In other words, reds, brindles, blacks and merles will all appear assome shade of red.  

The term "clear red" or "pink" was attached to this color because there is NEVER any black in the coat. Since all "normal" red Cardigan puppies have a camouflaging black overlay on their coats as newborns, this makes the clear reds easy to spot as babies. As the clear reds get older they can often darken to a normal red color, so their identification in the whelping box is important.

Pigmentation appears to be affected by this gene. Although some puppies have normal black pigmentation, as adults their noses, lips and eye rims often fade to darkgrey-black or a bluish-black.

Clear reds are shown as a shade of red and at this time it is an acceptable color, as long as their noses appear black.


Two mature clear reds. 
The dog at left is lighter than the bitch at right, but both were born almost white. 
Both these dogs were proven to be brindles by breeding.


A clear red puppy (in back) at less than
a week of age among normal red (in front)
and brindle puppies.


Melanistic or Black Masking is a DOMINANT modifier gene.

Masking appears as a solid area of individual black hairs on the front of the face, around the eyes, up into the eyebrows, and inside the ears.  Full extension of the black mask can cause a "faux saddle" on the dog's back. This saddle usually remains as a dorsal stripe and is different from the sable saddle that extends down the sides of the dog and is actually caused by black-tipped red hairs.


Masks appear on reds, sables and brindles, but any color can have a black mask. The black masking gene may be partially responsible for the varying amounts of point area showing on blacks. Black dogs who have small or reduced point areas might actually be masked dogs.


Clear red dogs can carry black masking, but it will not show because the gene suppresses the expression of black.

Masked dogs of otherwise acceptable colors are also an acceptable color.  






Varying degrees of black masking on brindles.

Although black masks are possible on any shade of brindle, it is easier to see them on red brindles, so I have used this color to illustrate brindle masks.



Light to heavy masking on reds.  Notice the increasing amount of black on the backs.  The dog on the right has a heavy saddle

Step 3 -- Other factors


The Cardigan breed has two dilute factors -- brown dilute and gray dilute.  Dilutes affect both coat color AND pigmentation.  Dilutes are inherited independently from color, and independently of each other.  Any Cardigan can have no dilutes (normal red, black, brindle, etc.); one dilute (brown merle); or both dilutes (fawn).





The brown dilute is a recessive gene.

In order to have a brown dilute, both parents may be normal colors,

but both must carry the brown dilute gene.

The brown dilute is also called "dudley."

It affects all black on the dog turning it chocolate brown.

This includes coat AND pigmentation. A brown dilute will have a brown nose, lips and paw pads.

Since this gene does not affect red or tan, the point color will be normal.

Brindles and reds with the brown dilute are usually identified by nose color.


A dilute can be inherited along with any of the Cardigan colors and/or modifiers.  Although the blue merle pattern is left intact in brown dilutes, a brindle will not have a normal pattern -- it will either be absent or very faint.

All brown dilutes are breed disqualifications because of their brown noses.



A brown dilute tri-color.  Note the overall chocolate brown, with normal point color.

A brown dilute merle and normal blue merle.  This is an excellent picture to illustrate how the dilute washes out the normal black, both in coat color and pigmentation color.









The gray dilute has all the same characteristics as the brown dilute,

but instead of turning black into brown, this gene turns black into gray.


The gray dilute is a more uncommon factor than the brown dilute,

and after many years of not hearing of one, they started surfacing again


Gray dilutes are more common in Pembrokes, where they are called "bluies."


Pictured is a tri-color gray dilute puppy. These puppies are born with what looks like normal coat color and pigmentation, but they quickly fade to gray, while the rest of the litter remains normal.


The gray dilutes are a breed disqualification because of their off-color noses.

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