The Differences Between Calico and Tortoiseshell Cats

You might have heard a friend or family member refer to their cat as “calico.” Or perhaps your grandmother said she had a “tortoiseshell” cat? What do these names mean? Are the two types of cats different, similar, or both? We will talk about the differences between calico and tortoiseshell cats here.

What is a Calico Cat?

A calico cat may also be known by these names:

  • Tricolor
  • Brindle
  • Tortie-and-white
  • Piebald (for cats who are white with colored spots)
  • Tobi-mi-ke (Japanese, meaning “triple fur”)
  • Calimanco or clouded tiger (for cats with a lighter color scheme)
  • Lapjeskat (Dutch for “patches cat”)
  • Dilute calico (has blue and cream instead of black and orange)
  • Caliby (a calico cat crossed with a tabby cat)

But what, exactly, makes a calico cat calico? The main distinction necessary in order to call a calico cat calico is that he or she must have three main color combinations, of white, orange and black. Calico is a pattern, not a breed of cat. The term “calico” is used most often in the United States, and it hearkens back to printed fabric from the 1780s. Calico cats actually originated in Egypt.

Cat Breeds That May Be Calico

There are many breeds that can manifest the calico pattern in their fur, such as:

  • American curl
  • American shorthair
  • British shorthair
  • Cornish Rex
  • Domestic longhair
  • Domestic shorthair
  • Exotic shorthair
  • Japanese bobtail
  • Maine coon
  • Munchkin
  • Norwegian forest cat
  • Persian
  • Turkish Angora
  • Turkish Van

Famous Calico Cats

  • Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris’ painting “The Courtship of Washington” features a calico cat washing her paws under a table
  • One of French painter Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin’s favorite subjects was cats.
  • Maneki Neko was modeled after a Japanese Bobtail calico cat. It has symbolized good luck in Japan for ages.
  • The calico cat was named the official cat of the state of Maryland in 2001.
  • Inga, a calico cat, is a mouser who lives in the Washington Observatory.
  • Pudge, a calico, is an Instagram star with over 670,000 followers (follow her at @Pudgethecat)
  • Lloyds of London has a calico cat named London in charge of claims.

What is a Tortoiseshell Cat?

Picture of a Tortoiseshell Cat

A tortoiseshell cat has color patterns of black and orange fur. The orange may include patches of cinnamon, red, amber, ginger, cream or brown. Such patches can be bold and mottled, large solid areas of color, or fine and speckled. Tortoiseshell cats look like a tortoise’s shell, with similar colors.

Tortoiseshell cats are also called:

  • Dilute tortie (has blue and cream colors instead of black and orange)
  • Torbie (is a patched tabby, a mixture of tabby and tortoiseshell, with brown tabby patterns in lieu of black fur)

Patterns of tortoiseshell cats include:

  • Mosaic – shows the color mixed in a random pattern
  • Chimera –is one color on one side of the cat’s body and another color on the other side
  • Patched – large patches of color exist all over the cat’s body
  • Bridled – colors look to be woven together

Cat Breeds That May Be Tortoiseshell

The following breeds may display tortoiseshell patterns in their coats:

  • Abyssinian
  • American shorthair
  • Birman
  • British shorthair
  • Burmese
  • Cornish Rex
  • Himalayan
  • Japanese bobtail
  • Maine coon
  • Oriental shorthair
  • Persian
  • Ragamuffin
  • Turkish Van

Famous Tortoiseshell Cats

  • Edgar Allen Poe’s tortoiseshell cat, Cattarina, passed away just after Poe’s death.
  • Sara and Cleo were two tortoiseshell cats who lived in the White House with President Ronald Reagan.
  • An old tortoiseshell cat, named Marzipan, lived in Australia and was 21 when he died.
  • Turkish myth says that the tortoiseshell cat was created by a wizard using smoke, bright stars and fire.

What Are the Differences Between Calico and Tortoiseshell Cats?

  • Their color patterns are different: calico cats are made up of patterns of orange, black and white and are mostly white-based; while tortoiseshell cats have black and orange but not usually white and are mostly black-based

What are Similarities Among Calico and Tortoiseshell Cats?

  • Both calico and tortoiseshell cats are almost always female due to a chromosomal abnormality that causes the color pattern
  • Owners of both calico and tortoiseshell cats say that they have “tortitude,” or an attitude that makes them more independent, confident, vocal and strong-willed. However, researchers have poo-pooed this idea as false.
  • Due to the afore-mentioned chromosomal abnormality, neither calico cats nor tortoiseshell cats can be intentionally bred. They are randomly produced by nature. If you have one, consider yourself lucky!



2 Responses

  1. I have a TORBIE.
    I THINK she may be a Sokoke ( a naturally domesticated breed from E. Kenya.)
    Looking for more info about that.

  2. It isn’t an abnormality. Hair color in cats is on the X sex chromosome. Females have two X chromosomes. If one is red and one black the random pattern happens due to one X being deactivated. White is controlled by a gene on an autosome and is called piebald. It is the absence of color or pigment.

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