Differences Between Tortoiseshell and Calico Cats

Updated on March 26, 2018
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I love cats, dogs, and all other animals—even spiders and insects.

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 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

You can see that this cat Lilo has a very bright colored pattern of white, black and red patches on her head and body.

Typical calico cat with bright color patches.
Typical calico cat with bright color patches. | Source

Which color pattern has your cat

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A calico tabby cat.
A calico tabby cat. | Source

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.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Calico tabby catCalico tabby catCalico tabby catCalico tabby catCalico tabby cat
Calico tabby cat
Calico tabby cat | Source
Calico tabby cat
Calico tabby cat | Source
Calico tabby cat
Calico tabby cat | Source
Calico tabby cat
Calico tabby cat | Source
Calico tabby cat
Calico tabby cat | Source

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.

Calico cat with an attitude.
Calico cat with an attitude.

Cats with an Attitude

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

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What Is a Diluted Calico?

Dilute means less intensive. A dilute calico is a cat that has the same coloring pattern as a normal calico but the colors red and black are not so bright. It looks like they're a bit washed out so to speak. The black is greyish blue, the red is rather creamy as you can see in the photo below.

Diluted Calico Cat
Diluted Calico Cat | Source

Questions & Answers

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      • Titia profile image

        Titia Geertman 5 weeks ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

        Hi Gina Bobitt,

        What a great story to read about your cat. Good for you to take in a stray cat and care for her despite the fact that she's not friendly towards people. Sometimes I wish they could tell us their story and what happened to them. Only thing we can do is give them love.

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        Gina bobbitt 5 weeks ago

        When you describe the story in the article about when you found your cat red the story is very similar to mine except there wasn't a barn and I took the cat in as a stray that was about 9 years ago to and when you were talking about petting her she has the same exact behavior and I keep her as a house cat and when I was living with my sister I kept her my cat in my room and she came out when the kids were not around she's not good with other people and she does strike out at him but I've had her for 9 years same as you it was good to hear your side of it because I know that there's other people out there going through some of the same things I am but she's my best friend and my convenient

      • Titia profile image

        Titia Geertman 2 months ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

        #Burdie, that's a whole lot of kittens you have. We had 10 at one time long ago, now we only have 'Red' and she turns 17 this year.

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        Burdie 2 months ago

        I am proud owner at the moment of of 12 ----1 is 12 yrs old still acts like a kitten 1 I rescued & has an attitude 3 are kittens I rescued one of which gave me 7 babies 6 lived I couldn't part with building a cattery from Jackson Galaxy designs momma is preg again this is her last. When they are of age they are gone & she had an appt with doc. One of her kittens I thought was a tortie but after reading your article I realize she is also a calico as is a sister and mom . Thanks for your article.

      • Titia profile image

        Titia Geertman 5 months ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

        Hi EM, thanks for your comment. It's not so strange that your cats don't love each other as much as they did when they were young. Cats actually are loners, they don't really need the company of other cats to be a happy cat. They can also be quite territorial. As long as they don't fight all the time it's ok.

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        Em 5 months ago

        I have 2 tabbico sisters. One is diluted the other is not. They loved each other until the age of 3. Now at age 5 they tolerate each other but don't act the loving way they did as kittens.

      • Titia profile image

        Titia Geertman 5 months ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

        Thanks for your comment Emily. Red uses both sometimes, but getting older made her a bit milder too. She's becoming an old lady.

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        Emily Huffman 5 months ago

        Ha our tortie Amazon is almost exactly like how you describe Red, except she chooses teeth instead of claws for the most part. She also is a chronic "love nipper" when you pet her. She rarely goes into full out beast mode, but when too stimulated it's best to just leave her be. Silly felines!

      • Titia profile image

        Titia Geertman 7 months ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

        Doris_Mae, thanks for your story. Our cats have been strays most of the time and they all had/have their own background package to carry of which we'll never know the content. You just have to accept them the way they are and love them.

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        Doris_Mae 7 months ago

        My cat is an orange tabby, but she has a nasty attitude as well! She hates being picked up or pet too much, but her biggest issue is with other cats. As a stray, I believe she got attacked by other cats. She absolutely cannot be around other cats and will redirect her aggression towards me if she sees one. Okay, go back to your calicos and torties. I just wanted to share my story of my nasty kitty whom I love with my whole heart! :)

      • Titia profile image

        Titia Geertman 10 months ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

        # Rita: I don't think the way your cat holds her tail is breed related. Cats often hold their tail that way because they're excited in some way or other.

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        Rita 10 months ago

        I have a tortoiseshell cat. my cat holds her tail in the air over her back when she walks or runs.Is this a normal for this breed. Her tail curves at the end also. Does anyone have a cat with this trait?

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        12 months ago

        Cats are cool

      • profile image

        Hilary Walker 14 months ago

        I would dispute your use of the word "own" in the first poll question: how many of us actually own a cat? Do they not own us? Or at least decide to live with us! Currently we care for 17 cats, rescues of course, the latest one being the calico kittie rescued trapped in the house/garden behind us in the summer when she was a baby. We live in the south of Spain.

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        Ignaz Gyulai 15 months ago

        Some of the Calico Tabbies pictured here have the "dilute" gene as well, lookin' kinda pale...

      • Titia profile image

        Titia Geertman 15 months ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

        @ Hannah: even with very little white spots, your cat is a calico. Tortoiseshell cats have no white at all.

      • profile image

        Hannah 16 months ago

        My cat, Hazel, is a calico but she has very little white is she a tortoiseshell cat?

      • profile image

        Thelma 17 months ago

        I have a tori who is my best buddy ever. Her name is neko-chan. Neko is japanese for cat and chan is a term of endearment for a young girl.

        She knows my routine so well and comforts me when not well.

      • Titia profile image

        Titia Geertman 19 months ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

        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.

      • profile image

        CrystalDragon3568 20 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 23 months ago


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        debrahinkson@sbcglobal.net 2 years 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 3 years 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 4 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

        Tanya Jones 4 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 4 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 other...by the way, I made a wrong button choice on the Debate..sorry about that!

      • sierradawn lm profile image

        sierradawn lm 4 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 Geertman 4 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

        @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 4 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 4 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 4 years ago

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

      • profile image

        anonymous 5 years ago

        nice lens

      • myno1star profile image

        myno1star 5 years ago

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

      • Scarlettohairy profile image

        Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

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

      • profile image

        lionmom100 5 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

        Leah J. Hileman 5 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 5 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.

      • profile image

        JoshK47 5 years ago

        My favorite coloring of cat! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

      • potovanja profile image

        potovanja 5 years ago

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

      • Lady Lorelei profile image

        Lorelei Cohen 5 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.

      • profile image

        SteveKaye 5 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 5 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 5 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 5 years ago

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

      • tricomanagement profile image

        tricomanagement 6 years ago

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

      • tricomanagement profile image

        tricomanagement 6 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 6 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 6 years ago from Redcar

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

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        anonymous 6 years ago

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

      • mihgasper profile image

        Miha Gasper 6 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 6 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

        Lorelei Cohen 6 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.

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        Sandy Mertens 6 years ago from Frozen Tundra

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

      • fugeecat lm profile image

        fugeecat lm 6 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.

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        anonymous 6 years ago

        I LOVE this - what a gorgeous cat - great pictures

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        anonymous 6 years ago

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

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        jseven lm 6 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 6 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.

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        BeyondRoses 6 years ago

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

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        termit_bronx 6 years ago

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

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        anonymous 6 years ago

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

      • delia-delia profile image

        Delia 6 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

        Lorelei Cohen 6 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.

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        pawpaw911 6 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 7 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.

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        RinchenChodron 7 years ago

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

      • puzzlerpaige profile image

        puzzlerpaige 7 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.