What is the Difference Between Cat Hair and Fur?

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What is the difference between cat fur and cat hair?

Question: Is there any difference between cat hair and cat fur? I've seen references to both phrases on your site and other cat sites, but no one has ever explained the difference if any.

Answer: Excellent question and one many people wonder about, apparently, but are afraid to ask.

All Fur is Hair

Actually, all mammals have hair, from humans to whales, to pigs and elephants, to cats, dogs, and monkeys. But the hair has a different appearance, feel, and purpose, depending on the development of the individual species.

But Not All Hair is Fur

Technically speaking, however, the term fur is generally confined to mammals with very thick body hair. (Humans lost ours through evolution if one believes Darwin.) With cats, the terms are almost always used interchangeably, although, with some "hairless" breeds, the Sphynx, in particular, the short, downy stuff that is almost invisible is usually called "hair."

But with most cats, we use terms like "hairballs" to describe the fur cats swallow and then hack up, while we affectionately refer to our cats themselves as furballs or furkids.

Personally, I think of "cat hair" as individual and "cat fur" as collective, e.g., a cat hair is what I find on my black sweater. There may be many of them, but they are not all massed together like fur is on my cat. When grooming my cat I may either "comb his hair" or "brush his fur."

To complicate things further, breeders often describe the overall appearance of a cat's fur as its ​coat. You will see this term used almost exclusively in breed standards, but you will also see "hair" mentioned, as in longhair or shorthair breeds or divisions.

Different Types of Cat Hair and Coats

Like all hair, cat hair originates in the epidermis (under the skin), and the type of hair determines the structure. There is a muscle next to the root, just under the skin, that is extremely sensitive to temperature. In cold weather, or when a cat is frightened or alarmed this muscle contracts, causing the attendant hair to "stand straight up," causing that "Halloween cat" look that is so familiar. Cats may have from one to three types of hair in their coats, referenced sometimes as "double coat," or "triple coat," plus those distinctive whiskers, which are also hairs.

  • Whiskers (Vibrissae)
    Long, thick, tactile hairs extending from the sides of the muzzle, above the eyes, the cheeks, and at the outside of the lower legs on cats. Whiskers are extremely sensitive and play an important role in cats' ability to gauge openings, find their way around in total darkness, and they may even contain a scent-sensing ability. Whiskers are also an important factor in revealing cats' body language.
  • Guard Hairs
    The longer, stiffer hairs that extend out past the "base coat" (awn hairs). These are the hairs that usually determine the basic color of the cat. Guard hairs help in retarding water to keep a cat dry.
  • Undercoat also called "Down"
    Softer, fluffier hair that provides warmth. This is the hair that tends to mat if a cat is not groomed regularly.
  • Awn Hairs
    There are several different definitions of awn hairs, depending on the breed of cat, but awn hairs usually form the basic coat. In some breeds, the (finer) awn hairs may be the same length as the guard hairs, while in other breeds, such as the Manx, the guard hairs are longer.
  • Vellus
    Sparse, baby-fine hairs, such as those found on the Sphynx cat. (Humans also have vellus on all but a few body parts.)
  • Curly Hair vs Straight Hair
    As in humans, curly hair in cats has flattened shafts while straight hair has round shafts.

Cat Hair and Allergies

The allergen cats carry is a tiny protein particle called Feld1, which is found in cats' saliva. They transfer it to their hair when grooming, where it dries into microscopic flakes, commonly called dander. Very long or thick cat hair will hold more dander, which is where the misconception that the "hair" is the allergen arises. Dander can also be found all over the house: in the air, in bedding, and in carpets and drapes. The good news is that in many cases, allergies to cat dander can be controlled.

This may be more information than you asked for. The bottom line is that you will be correct whether you call the fluffy, fuzzy stuff that covers your cat hair, fur, or coat. So use the term that is most comfortable for you, and I, for one, will not split any hairs over your choice of words.