Cat Colors, Calico, Tortoiseshell, and Torbie

Cats come in many colors, three of which are sex linked and generally occur only in female cats. The two best known sex linked cat colors are Calico and Tortoiseshell. There is also a third color, Torbie, which is also seen in females and is a version of calico combined with strong tabby markings.

When most people think of a calico cat, they think of a patchy cat with white, orange, and black. This is generally true, although real cat people think of it as a cat that is white with black, and red (the way orange is referred to correctly among the feline crowd, although some people also call it ginger) patches. If a dilute gene is present the colors will appear muted and the cat will be white with gray and pale orange patches (also called blue and cream). In calicos the color patches are typically clear and well defined. In some areas calico cats are called tri-colored cats, or tortoiseshell with white.

File:Longhaired Calico Cat.jpg

photo source – Longhaired Calico Cat

A tortoiseshell shell cat is one without white. The black and red areas (or black and orange) tend to be more blended and hard to define. Often times the facial markings will be more clear, and opposite (with one side being black where the other side is orange). If the cat has some white on it the cat will be said to be tortoiseshell with white. This would usually be no more than a spot on the neck, or feet.

File:Penny snuggles.JPG

photo source - Tortoiseshell Cat

A torbie is a cat that is more like a calico but with the clear addition of the tabby (stripes) pattern. Many people will refer to torbie cats as calicos.  The cat in the tortoishell picture (above) also has some tabby pattern, but is correctly called a tortoishell cat.

File:Cat looking on red flower.jpg

photo source – a Torbie Cat, she could also be called a Calico

These three cat color patterns, the calico, tortoiseshell, and torbie, are sex linked. Cat color is controlled by the X chromosome (which females have 2 and males have only 1). When any of these colors do show in a male cat the cat is very likely a chimera (the result of female embryo fusing with a male one early on in utero). Or else they are males with 2 X chromosomes and 1 Y chromosome.

Typically male cats who are calico, tortoiseshell, or torbie, are sterile, although this may not always be the case. They are no more likely to produce such rare colored offspring than any other cat, although people will often pay a high price for them.


Note: Calico, tortoiseshell, and torbie, are not breeds of cats, they are colors.

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User Comments
  1. Lilliana F

    On May 13, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    It is interesting that male cats of these colours are generally sterile- that is something I have never heard before. Also, it turns out the neighbours cat is a Tortoiseshell cat, we just called it multicoloured, so I learnt something today!

  2. Milton H Peebles III

    On May 13, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    I once had a male calico. He was a charmer. He was unique with his personality and he was not deaf or sterile. I knew all that was in your article except the term torbie. Now that I know it, I can say that some of the cats I’ve had were a torbie.
    Take Care, Dreamsweet and Let Your Heart Shine
    ~ milty

  3. Jimmy Shilaho

    On May 13, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    You raise some very unfamiliar issues, that is unfamiliar to me.

  4. Val Mills

    On May 13, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    That is interesting Brenda, I’d always considered them all as tortoiseshell. Our son once had, until it became ours, a beautiful tortoiseshell with a tiny dab of white under the chin. She had adorable kittens.

  5. martie

    On May 13, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I read a long time ago that most cat’s with three colors were female but, wasn’t sure if gray and black counted as one or two colors.

  6. Palestrya

    On May 13, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Thanks for the post! So – Ginger Snap was actually a Tortoiseshell, Fluffy is a true Calico, and the other sister, Honey Bunches is a Torbie . . . How interesting!

  7. Lauren Axelrod

    On May 16, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I’ve actually never seen a Torbie but it looks like it’s mixed with a Manx. I see some resemplace on its forhead.

  8. thresiapaulose

    On May 16, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Interesting info about cats Thank you Brenda.

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