How To Spot The Difference Between Calico and Tortie Cats

34 comments

Calico and tortoiseshell cats are best known for their beautiful multicolored coats of black, orange and white - and their “tortitude”.

Both “calico” and “tortoiseshell” are terms that refer to the color and pattern of a cat’s coat and do not actually refer to the cat’s breed. So a domestic shorthair cat can be a tortoiseshell just as much as a Japanese Bobtail can be a calico cat!

To the untrained eye, these gorgeous mosaic-furred felines can be easily confused for one another.

So, how can you spot the difference between a calico cat and a tortoiseshell cat? Read on!

Tortoiseshell Cats

A longhaired tortoiseshell cat

Tortoiseshell Cats, often called “torties” for short, have a combination of two colors, normally black and orange displaying in a patchwork or mosaic. Their mottled coats are as a result of what genetics call Lyonization.

These colors can come in various shades of dilution, from soft grey to brown, ginger, cream, amber, red, and cinnamon - called dilute torties. A dilute tortie may have blue and cream fur instead of black and orange. 

However, tortoiseshell cats have no white at all.  

 

Calico Cats

Calico cats are also referred to as “tricolor” or “tortie-and-white” - and sometimes even "piebald" cats! Why? Because calico cats have the same black and orange color as a tortoiseshell cat - but with white, too!

A longhaired calico cat sprawled out on an ottoman.

This is the main difference between a calico cat and a tortoiseshell cat. And it all comes down to genetics. Calico cats have an additional genetic condition at work called "piebalding" in which white (i.e. unpigmented) skin and fur is expressed. These patches of white may be rather small and interwoven, or relatively large and cover almost the entire body.

Even a cat with mottled tortoiseshell patches will be considered a calico if she has significant amounts of white in her coloring thanks to her genetics! 

Like torties, calico cats can also come in dilutes.

A dilute calico cat curled up with its cute toe beans showing.A dilute calico with cute pink toe beans.

 

"Torbie" or Tortoiseshell Tabbies

You may have heard the term “torbie” being tossed around, too. Torbie is short for “tortoiseshell tabby”,  and is a patched tabby, or one with brown tabby patterns instead of black fur.

A calico cat with gray tabby stripes looking at the camera.

Did you know that almost ALL calico and tortie cats are born female? Male tortoiseshell or calico cats are possible, but extremely rare. The allele that determines tortoiseshell expression is carried on the X chromosome, of which females have two (XX), one expressing orange and one expressing black, simultaneously.

Males only have one X chromosome (XY), and the allele is not carried on the Y chromosome - so they are normally either all orange, or all black. Rarely, a male can inherit two X chromosomes along with the Y chromosome (XXY), which would then undergo Lyonization just as in a female cat. This is known as Klinefelter Syndrome, which renders the cat sterile and can cause cognitive and developmental issues as well as other medical difficulties. 

Updated 4/21/23

Sources: bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/calico.html, https://letstalkscience.ca/educational-resources/stem-in-context/science-behind-calico-cats-colours

 


34 comments


  • Ann

    I used to have a dilute tortie named Grizabella who kept me company for 18 years. She didn’t have much tortitude, either; she was actually quite shy and hid from visitors. Her brother Bagheera was a solid black cat, and he was literally twice her size: 17 pounds to her 8. The vet speculated that they had had different fathers.


  • Jay Davenport

    Also 99% of them are Female. I have a Male Tortie that has no Tortitude at all. Diver.


  • Kimberly Ingleston

    My husband and I have sister calico/tortie/tabby cats. My Beatrice has calico markings on her front legs, shoulder, and part of her head. The rest of her is tabby coloring. My husband’s little china doll princess Ophelia (yes, that is her Majesty’s full title) is a rare dilute calico/tortie mix. White patches on her head, chest, and shoulders with dilute tortie coloring over the rest of her. Except for her feet. She has four, perfect, little toe socks. Beatrice doesn’t have that legendary calico attitude. However, her sister has enough attitude for both of them!


  • Valarie

    I have one Calico she is 14 , and one Tortie, sadly I lost my other Tortie. They were sisters. I miss her terribly.
    I love calicos and torties.


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