* Differences Between Tortoiseshell and Calico Cats

Tortoiseshell and Calico Color Patterns

A tortie cat named Chewy.
A tortie cat named Chewy. | Source

Tortoiseshell and calico cats come in a great variety of the colors, including black, red, and white. Unlike what some people think, they're not different breeds. Their differences lie in their special color patterns. In this article I'll explain how the tortoiseshell pattern compares to calico. Both have the same colors (white, orange, and black) but the patterns are different. While a tortie coat might not include any white at all (like the cat on the above photo), calico coats always include white.

At home, we have one tortoiseshell cat (Chewy) and two calico cats, one with plain colored patches (Lilo) and one with tabby colored patches (Red). It was when I did my research for this article that I discovered that Red is a calico. She has quite a lot of of white in her coat and her colored spots are not plain, but brindled. She is what's called a tabby calico.

In The Netherlands, we use only one word for these cats: lapjeskat. In English this means "patched cat."

Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly.

— Arnold Edinborough

Tortisshell and Calico Color Patternn

The color patterns of tortoiseshell and callico cats
The color patterns of tortoiseshell and callico cats | Source

Why Tortoiseshell and Calico Patterns Are Different

Most tortoiseshell and calico cats are females. They have two X chromosomes, one for orange (XO), one for black (XB). They only pass one on to the next generation. Males, however, have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome, which is either orange (XO) or black (XB).

Here is more detail about how this works:

Female XO + Male XO = orange

Female XO + Male XB = mixed orange+black pattern

Female XB + Male XO = mixed orange+black pattern

Female XB + Male XB = black

Whenever a male tortoiseshell or calico cat is born, the father most likely had an extra X chromosome, XXO or XXB, which is a rarity.

Pigment Genes in Cats

Pigment genes are expressed in what we call melanocytes. When there is a mixed pattern, these genes surface to the skin and the colors mingle randomly, giving the cat that special brindled look. In tri-colored cats, there's a second gene interacting, which has no pigment at all. This results in either small or large white spots. This is why some cats look completely white but are not albino. Genetically, they have a brindle pattern, with a dominant white which won't let the orange and black surface to the skin.

  • The only difference between a tortoiseshell and a calico is the absence or presence of white spots. The calico pattern has an extra spotting gene, which produces white, unpigmented spots. Those white spots can be either small or very big. The spotting gene overrules the color gene, so you can have an almost white cat with a few colored patches, or a colored cat with a few white spots. Most of the time the colored patches are in the same color range as tortoiseshell cats: orange (red), black, and white.
  • Tortoiseshell cats (torties) very often have only two colors, red and black, with no white at all, but color include black, orange (red), brown, black, cream, cinnamon, and blue. These cats often have a mottled or brindled coat. They can either be short haired or long haired and the color patterns can vary from very dark to very light.

Photos of Lilo the Calico Cat

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Lilo belongs to my daughter. She is a typical example of a calico patched color pattern.
Lilo belongs to my daughter. She is a typical example of a calico patched color pattern. | Source

Poll about the Tortie and Calico

Which color pattern has your cat

  • I own a Tortoiseshell cat
  • I own a Calico Cat
  • I own both
  • My cat is not a tortie or a calico
  • I don't have cats
See results without voting
Calico cat with an attitude.
Calico cat with an attitude.
A calico tabby cat.
A calico tabby cat.

My Calico Was a Stray Cat

One evening in 2002, I went into the barn and there she was: A cute, but skinny, teenage kitten with very big eyes. She was shy, but also hungry, and she ate until her belly was full. She may have come from a farm in the neighbourhood. They often have cats to keep the mice away. Or maybe she was just thrown out of some car. Who knows?

That's how Red came to live with us. It took a lot of begging and spoiling before she allowed me to pet her, but she never allowed me to pick her up and hold her in my arms.

Photos of "Red"

Click thumbnail to view full-size

When Red came into the house, we quite soon discovered that she must have had a difficult life before she ended up in our barn. She must have had some very bad experience with human encounters.

She comes to sit on your lap, purrs a lot, and actually loves to be petted, but when you pet her too much or you stroke her right to the end of her body, she suddenly will grab you with her claws. Her ears go back to her neck and she turns into a wild animal. You'd better get her off your lap by then. You can't pick her up, so the best way to do it is to stand up and she'll jump off. She has always been like that, all nine years long, so we keep her away from visitors.

Cats with an Attitude

Would you hang on to a cat with an nasty attitude or would you get rid of them

  • I will hang on to the cat whatever attitude he/she has
  • I will get rid of a cat with a nasty attitude
  • I would call for professional help for my cat with a nasty attitude
See results without voting

© 2011 Titia Geertman

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You can leave your footprint here 49 comments

Titia profile image

Titia 6 weeks ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands Author

Hi CrystalDragon3568. I'm so sorry I didn't see your post earlier. I haven't been around HP much due to busy busy times with my sheep. I'm glad you found my article useful. I think your cat would've been a Callico, but that's a guess. Without a photo it's not easy to say.

CrystalDragon3568 2 months ago

Thank you so much for this! I was planning on making a Warriors fanfic with alot of tortoiseshells (they're so fun to draw, along with calicos!) and I thought that the only difference was that tortoiseshells have one main colour and two splotches of colours, whereas calicos are just tricoloured. This helped me learn alot, so thank you!!! I shall use this knowledge when creating semi-realistic cats, and if anyone asks me for a article on the difference between these two amazing colours of cats, then I will link them here! I also rated a 10/10, as this was so helpful!!! Thank you so much! Also, I have (had) two (now I have one) calico cats, and one of them (Tiger) ran away, but she was almost all black and orange with a tiny bit of white on her. We were told she was a calico. Is she a calico or a tortoiseshell? Reading this article made me think about that, so I thought I might ask. Thanks!

Sasha the Cat profile image

Sasha the Cat 5 months ago

Kittys! 13 months ago

Thank you for wonderful article (lens?) about calicos/torties, with beautiful personal pics and antidotes, and simplified genetics for myself!(-; I live in Kansas (KS) with Joey, a black cat with only 3 white hairs on his whole body (not sure what his coloration would be labeled based on your lens). My sister hand raised he and 4 siblings when feral mom birthed them under her deck in a thunderstorm and ran off never to return for them. Family members each took a "little one" at 8 wks., we had them neutered or spayed and I chose the little black fellow (who is now 16 pounds).

I had just returned to KS in 2006 after living in Ohio for 20 yrs because my Multiple Sclerosis had worsened significantly and I needed family support. Where I now live are "independent living" 6-plex apartments. It is in the middle of the city and we are next to a medium sized cemetery. There were feral cats in the area that I began feeding 6 yrs ago with the gratious help of Michelle, my home health aide, who was an animal lover, though not so of cats (until she began developing personal relationships with some of the little guys... and Joey, of course). About 5 years ago with the great assistance of a wonderful feral feline organization that has a TNR program (Trap, Neuter and Retun) they helped stabilize the population and provide rabies shots for "the kids" who now number 9: Sylvester, Tommy, Arlo, Precious, Cleo, Little Yin, Mama, Blackie and Gabby. Six yrs ago a very petite "brownish" tortie(?) maybe 5 mo. old showed up on my tiny porch peering through the bedroom window looking at Joey. She did not seem to be befriended by my colony of cats but she and Joey quickly developed a relationship. Eventually I felt I needed? to bring her in for a number of reasons. I named her "Palette"and she's maybe 7 pounds. She has a huge attachment to Joey and having been feral has slowly developed a bond with me. Her nutrition was poor and she is "slow". She is very shy and needs the protection of Joey and me. I dearly love them both.

I am glad to have found your web site and plan to share it with my friends of cats and feral cats. Thank you.


Virginia Allain profile image

Virginia Allain 20 months ago from Central Florida

We had a calico cat when I was a kid. Not very creative, I called her "Cali."

tricomanagement profile image

tricomanagement 2 years ago

@sierradawn lm: I've had the same experience only with dogs - you are lucky your cat found her way back home - enjoy the love as it is as true as any love can be...

Arachnea profile image

Arachnea 2 years ago from Texas USA

Years ago, when I raised cats, I had a pair of tortoise shell cats (twins) born to a litter. I had no trouble finding homes for them.

delia-delia profile image

delia-delia 2 years ago

Came back for a visit and see your photos again...Red's nose marking is like my Kitty's...they even resemble each the way, I made a wrong button choice on the Debate..sorry about that!

sierradawn lm profile image

sierradawn lm 2 years ago

I can never pass by any lens about cats! And yours was most informative and delightful!

My Calico Paw Print (It is a polydactyl paw print):

Two of my rescue cats have been long haired, polydactyl calicos. They came to me 30 some odd years apart but were both so identical in personality and appearance that I became convinced the second calico was a reincarnation of my first one. I had been catless for quite a while and my dad thought that I needed a kitten for my birthday. He did not know where to get me one. The wind blew a discarded newspaper his way and picking it up he found an ASPCA ad for kittens. I was so excited! But when I got there I wanted every cat and kitten I saw and started crying because I could not pick just one. Then I heard a cat calling and crying loudly from a distant room in the shelter. It sounded just like my Purrsia used to call me. I got my calico Purrsia when I was in the second grade. She was my best friend growing up. She lived to play with my daughter and died after a long life. I felt like somehow Purrsia was calling for me, some 30 years later. When I started through the door to find her, the attendant informed me that there were no cats available for adoption in that part of the shelter. I convinced them that this was my cat calling me. As she was making such a fuss crying and calling, they let me in to her cage. I could not believe my eyes when I saw her. She pressed her nose up to the cage and rubbed up against me and "talked" to me as if telling me all about all of her adventures during our separation. Marked exactly the same, with the same big polydactyl paws, chattering away to me in her same unique voice---I could not believe this was real. The shelter let me adopt her because it was obvious she was my cat. She had been their Mascot Shelter Cat and they were planning to keeping her. I had dreamed about Purrsia the previous night, and I did not know at the time that I was going to be surprised with a birthday kitten.

Titia profile image

Titia 2 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands Author

@norma-holt: Here we have only one word for the tortie/calico too, doesn't matter if they have white or not.

Carol Houle profile image

Carol Houle 2 years ago from Montreal

I learned something new with this lens. Tia, check your first paragraph for a galico :~)

norma-holt profile image

norma-holt 2 years ago

This is a very informative article. I never heard of Calico cats before reading lenses about them. It seems to be an American term. In Australia multi-coloured cats are all tortoise shells. I have one now that is an absolute Gem and that is her name. Her last litter produced 2 beautiful ginger females and one of them is still here. She looks Red and her coat is unbelievably beautiful. Her daddy is a Turkish Angora and she has a wonderful personality. Being ginger and white she is not a tortoise shell but she is certainly unique and 'Red' certainly suites her as a name. Well done.

rbutler21 profile image

rbutler21 3 years ago

I have a calico named Precious, she is a very sweet cat.

anonymous 3 years ago

nice lens

myno1star profile image

myno1star 3 years ago

We have a calico girl, named Calypso. She is quite the character!

Scarlettohairy profile image

Scarlettohairy 3 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

We had a tortoiseshell tabby named Frisky. She was great and so pretty!

lionmom100 3 years ago

I have had a torte who was a wonderful cats. None of the cats I have now are torties though. Very informative lens.

captainj88 profile image

captainj88 3 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

I have a brindled calico. I also have a tortie named Clare and a tortie with some Burmese mixed in (a tortie with extra grey and a Burmese-shaped face). Their markings are so beautiful!

Wednesday-Elf profile image

Wednesday-Elf 3 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

My 'footprint' or 'paw print'...LOL. What a fun story. Love the pictures of your cats. I once had a Calico cat who crawled into a crawl space in the laundry shed in the carport that was covered by the same roof as the house and found herself in the attic space. She proceeded to have 5 kittens up there which we discovered only by hearing tiny 'mews' in the ceiling of the living room! We only had a removable square in the hall ceiling to gain access to this small space above, so put up a ladder and sent our 11-year-old son up with a box and admonishes to make sure he brought back every single kitten (and mama cat). Success.

JoshK47 4 years ago

My favorite coloring of cat! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

potovanja profile image

potovanja 4 years ago

Thank you to share my major subject with great informative lens.

Lady Lorelei profile image

Lady Lorelei 4 years ago from Canada

Your calico cat Red looks like one very happy kitty. I love the photo of Red on the stump overlooking the garden. Great picture for those who love cats.

SteveKaye 4 years ago

Actually, I'm going to leave a paw print. We have a dark brown tiger house cat. Her name is Olivia Felini, and she is a very good cat. Thanks for the beautiful photos and delightful stories. Meow.

jlshernandez profile image

jlshernandez 4 years ago

I think my calico cat, Mali and yours were related in another life. Loved the stories and photos. Blessed ***

Everyday-Miracles profile image

Everyday-Miracles 4 years ago

My sweet Guinevere is a dilute torbie. She's also FIV+. You can see pictures of her on my lens about Quinn, our other FIV kitty.

jolou profile image

jolou 4 years ago

Wonderful lens about one of my favorite subjects........cats!

tricomanagement profile image

tricomanagement 4 years ago

@tricomanagement: Happy International Women's Day to women everywhere!

tricomanagement profile image

tricomanagement 4 years ago

I got so caught up with your Lens that I forgot to wish you Happy International Women's Day - awesome lens - loved it!

tricomanagement profile image

tricomanagement 4 years ago

we have a calico cat, but there are two tortoiseshell females that live at the back of our land and often sleep in the barn. They are welcomed hunters of mice and things. They definitely keep their distance - but once in a while they are hungry and food somehow makes its way to the bowl at the back of the goat's pen...LOL

Ben Reed profile image

Ben Reed 4 years ago

Used to have a cat - miss her terribly...Enjoyed your lense

anonymous 4 years ago

I don't have a cat, but would like to. So, I totally enjoyed this lens. :)

mihgasper profile image

mihgasper 4 years ago from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU

Nice lens. I am not really a cat person, but they are cute and you presented some very useful info

Gayle Dowell profile image

Gayle Dowell 4 years ago from Kansas

Great lens. We got a tortie from the shelter years ago. She was one of the best cats we've owned.

Lady Lorelei profile image

Lady Lorelei 4 years ago from Canada

I took a trip to our local SPCA to drop off some cat treats just recently and of course fell madly in love with an old cat who gave me the "eye". So after 3 days of begging my husband to allow me to have another cat I am still receiving a firm NO! I so envy you your wonderful cats. I used to have a tortoiseshell cat and she was absolutely the most charming creature that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I sure miss her.

SandyMertens profile image

SandyMertens 4 years ago from Frozen Tundra

Blessed! Please add this to my Christmas Gifts and Blessings lens.

fugeecat lm profile image

fugeecat lm 4 years ago

The best cat I ever had was a tortie. She was beautiful and she knew it and she was very loving actually she was an attention hog.

anonymous 4 years ago

I LOVE this - what a gorgeous cat - great pictures

anonymous 4 years ago

Great lens! Anything about cats gets a thumbs up from me. I love tortoiseshells and calicos. The pattern is so great :)

jseven lm 4 years ago

Pretty cats and I used to have all different ones, but live in an apartment now. Nice lens.

Elsie Hagley profile image

Elsie Hagley 4 years ago from New Zealand

Great lens, I love cats, but I do not have any now. Protecting the Kiwi (bird) as we live in the high bush country in east Taranaki New Zealand. Enjoy the call of the kiwi instead which they must be protected from dogs, cats and rodents. But I did have a calico cats as you have already found out. Blessed.

BeyondRoses 5 years ago

Your Tortoiseshell and Calico Cats are delightful. Sweet photos! My cat is a tuxedo girl ...

termit_bronx 5 years ago

Very nice lens! :) I also have cats at home and they are very adorable=)

anonymous 5 years ago

Wonderful lens. The information on the various colors was magnificent. Blessed :)

delia-delia profile image

delia-delia 5 years ago

Love your very informative lens with great images...thanks for sharing! if you can, check out "my feral cat named Kitty" lens

Lady Lorelei profile image

Lady Lorelei 5 years ago from Canada

I enjoy your lenses so much. They have a wonderful honesty and emotion to them that is lacking in so many articles today.

pawpaw911 5 years ago

Did a lens on Top 20 Reasons You Might Be a Crazy Cat Lady, and thought I would check out some other cat lenses. We have one tortoiseshell. Her name is Mama Rahrah

LissaKlar LM profile image

LissaKlar LM 5 years ago

Great facts about tortoishell and calicos. I love cats, had 2 for 17 years. I just can't bear to replace them yet.

RinchenChodron 5 years ago

You do seem to be an expert! Great photos of Red.

puzzlerpaige profile image

puzzlerpaige 5 years ago

I never knew how to tell the difference between Tortoiseshell and Calico cats. I've probably called each by the wrong name! Our vet told us that our cat was a "Diluted Calico." She is sweet. But her mom, a tabby, is much like your Red. A little bit wild.

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