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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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TOPICS on-line in this issue:

  1. The Colors of Cotons, Part 1
  2. Keeping the Whelping Box Warm (updated 5/20/99)

1: The Colors of Cotons de Tulear, Part 1

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

by R.J. Russell, Ph.D.,
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 principle color varieties of Coton: White, Black & White, and Tri-Color.  Color may be seen in either top coat 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 tancolor), 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 which 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 fadingto gray or silver in a 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 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 primaparous 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 top coat hair follicle.  We are studying this curently and have counted from 4:1 to as many as 8:1 white undercoat to black top coathairs 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-colorCoton" 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 mountainlion 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 theCoton 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 varient 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.


In the next K9GENES posting, (Colors of Cotons,Part 2), I will briefly discuss the mCTCA's working hypotheses about the inheritance of color in this breed, the relationship between pelage coloration and pigmentation in this breed, possible pleiotropic effects of color alleles in Cotons, and possible exogenous factors influencing color in Cotons.

REFERENCES (illustrations of the color varieties of Cotons)

Robert Jay Russell, Ph.D., and Laurie Spalding(1996) "The Official Coton de TulearBook", Preston & Lewis Publishers,Longwood, FL, 413pp.; 102 photographs of Cotons, (available through the CTCA and Dog Lovers Bookshop, NYC).

Bonnie Wilcox, D.V.M., and Chris Walkowitz(1989) "The Atlas of Dog Breeds of theWorld", TFH Publications Inc., Neptune, NJ, 912pp.; an adult Black and White Coton was chosen to represent the breed, see page 312, (the book is now in its 5th edition, so this page number might be different now).

The CTCA's Coton News & Information Network web site, see Pictures ofCotons.

2: Keeping the Whelping Box Warm

(from the Fall 1996 Coton de Tulear News)

UPDATED May 20th, 1999

by R.J. Russell, Ph.D.,
CTCA President and Coton breeder for 20 years

The first two weeks of a puppy's life are critical weeks for maintaining optimal temperature conditions in the whelping box area.  During this time, a puppy has no ability to thermoregulate.  If exposed to ambient (air) temperatures that are above or below a certain range . A puppy that is too hot will lose water and dehydrate, causing acute and rapidly fatal kidney failure.  A pup that is chilled just one time may die within 24 hours despite your best efforts to reheat and nurture it.  Regulating the temperature of the whelping area is one of the most critical aspects of breeding.

A Coton mother, cuddling her new born pups, will exhibit a skin temperature of about 85 degrees F, (about 29 degrees C).  This is just slightly too warm, but it will encourage a pup to be active and to nurse.  Pups, when satiated, push away from the nipple and cuddle with each other or in the mother's slightly cooler hair.  Coton pups seem to do best when maintained at a temperature of about 80 degrees, (about 27 degrees C), for the first ten days of life.

After the first day, the mother Coton will leave the whelping box forever-longer periods of time.  It is then that the pups face a serious danger from cooling, (or, under warm air temperature conditions, overheating). We suggest that the whelping box and its environs should be maintained at no less than 79 degrees F, (about 26 degrees C), and no more than 83 degrees, (about 28 degrees C), for at least the first 10 days of a puppy's life.  If the litter has more than two pups, the cooler part of the range is best since pups should clump together when resting . If you notice that the pups climb into a tight ball, the air temperature is probably too cool; if they disperse and stretch out, their pink skin rather reddish, then the air temperature is too warm.  Note: ALL healthy pups will twitch while sleeping--sometimes jerking around like bacon on a hot griddle.  This is normal puppy development behavior and has nothing whatsoever to do with thermoregulation.

The first problem the breeder faces is determining the temperature of the whelping area accurately.  How does one monitor the temperature to know if the temperature suddenly and unexpectedly increases or decreases?  For our litters, we had to set the alarm clock throughout the night to arise and check on the temperature conditions of the whelping area.  Not only did this result in less than optimal human sleep, it still could not guard against a sudden loss or increase of heat that might be due to a failure of the heater.  And finally, how does a breeder keep the whelping area within the proper temperature range?

A Great New Temperature Alert Thermometer

The Tandy Corporation (Radio Shack) has just introduced a great new product that sounds an alarm if the ambient(air) temperature rise above a maximum set point or goes below aminimum set point.  It also records the maximum and minimum temperatures as well as the current temperature.  The product is:"Radio Shack Temperature Alert Thermometerwith Remote Sensor, Catalogue Number 63-1011", and it is a tremendous bargain at less than $24 US.  We priced other units from various scientific supply houses -- all cost more than three times as much as the Radio Shack product and none worked as well.

The alarm sounds for one minute, then it sounds for several seconds every hour for the next 12 hours.  It sounds much like a very large digital watch alarm, so we recommend that you place a baby crib monitor next to the alarm, then carry the baby crib speaker with you.  Fischer-Price supposedly makes a good remote crib monitor, but we haven't tested it yet.

Keeping the Whelping Area Warm

In the summertime, when most people run air conditioners, and in the winter, when most people set the thermostat to about 70 degrees F, (21 degrees C), you will need to provide your whelping area/box with supplemental heat.  Heating pads, adjusted low and placed beneath a towel, provide radiant heat to warm the litter, but many problems may plague such a system.  For example, it is difficult to regulate most pads, even those designed for dog areas.  Also, puppies can displace the pad's cover and come into contact with a pad that is too hot.  Finally, even a day-old pup can easily wander off the pad and chill.  It is best, therefore, to provide a proper air temperature for the whelping box area, not just its floor.

Local area electric heat is the best way to warm the air.  You can effectively isolate the whelping area by creating a tent, (of sheets,chairs, gates, etc.), over and around the whelping box.  This "tented" area will retain the heat and allow you to warm just one area of your home or kennel.  We have tested many, many electric heaters.  Most cycle on and off, providing the poor pups with a rush of far too much heat, followed by a long period of far too little heat.  Most electric heaters offer abysmally inaccurate and inconstant temperature control.

Some electric heaters offer mostly radiant heat which fries one side of the pup while the leeward side of the pup gets as cold as the farside of the moon, (figuratively speaking).  Other electric heaters feature a gale-force fan which only serves to overheat or chill the pup via an overzealous blast of air.

We have found and used what we think is the ideal whelping area electric heater: the Vornado EVH VortexHeat, ($99 to $119; there may be newerproduct models available from the company today).  Vornado is acompany based in Witchita, Kansas, whose hi-tech fans and heaters are sold in many retail stores.  We purchased two of these EVH heaters in 1994 and have used them intensively, even in the summer.  Each can keep a room warm, or can efficiently and inobtrusively heat just as mall area such as a whelping area or under a desk in a cool office.

The heater has many unique and valuable features.  First, its thermostat is accurate.  It will maintain a set temperature to within 0.2 degrees F, (0.1 degrees C).  Its operation is continuously variable, so the fan will run faster when it must heat and more slowly when the desired heat level is being maintained.  Likewise, the heat coil output varies from just a few watts to more than 1000 watts when necessary -- all automatically.  The heat coils are far removed from any curious pup or adult, and the coils never become hot enough to start a fire, (or scorch paper), even if the heater is accidently tipped over.  Finally, the fan's action is gentle, virtually inaudible, and thorough.  There is scarcely a draft that can be detected while no area within the whelping area becomes too warm or too cool.  Its all quite uncanny.

In conclusion, the Radio Shack Temperature Alert Thermometer with Remote Sensor combined with the Vornado EVH heater creates a very stable and secure temperature environment for whelping Cotons.  It can be used whenever you need to keep a Coton, whether a pup or a convalescent adult, at a constant temperature.

UPDATE, May 20th, 1999...

We've tested and successfully used the Fischer-Price Baby Monitor.  It has an adequate range and good sensitivity.  But many other, competent crib monitors are available.

On 5/12/99 9:34 PM, an alert CotonNews web site visitor, Mr. Stan Ono, emailed us:

For your information, the RadioShack Temperature Alert Thermometer Catalogue Number 63-1011 referenced in "Keeping the Whelping Box Warm" is no longer available.  It is a discontinued item.  The closest product carried by Radio Shack is a weather station at a cost of $ 299.00.  There is another item 63-1012 that only alerts when temperature exceeds 100 degrees and 32 degrees, and will announce temperature on the hour, (but not from 9pm - 7am, the times you really need it).  If you have any other ideas for monitoring temperature, we would greatly appreciate knowing as we are expecting Coton pups in two weeks.  Thanks

Dear Mr. Ono,

I think we may have some good news for you and I hope it is in time.  We have found a rather super remote sensing thermometer with alarm that continuously transmits both temperature readings and sounds an alarm about 100 feet from the sensing unit.  It is dirt cheap and available, (when last we checked), from Sam's Club stores for under $30, (with one sensor probe, AAA and AA batteries not included).  We bought two and are in the process of testing them now.  Here's the product information:

Springfield Precise Temp Indoor/outdoor Wireless

Multi-Zone Thermometer. Model 90723. Springfield

Precision Instruments, Inc., PO Box 4003, 76 Passaic

Street, Wood-Ridge, NJ 07075

Let us know how you make out and how it works for you. Our very best wishes to your prospective mother!

Jay Russell, Ph.D.

mCTCA President