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Calico Cats Guide (including A Quiz!)

Nov 1, 2011 · Updated Apr 26, 2018 · ·
  1. Anne
    The complete guide to calico cats
    Calico cats have captivated cat lovers for millennia. People all over the world share their lives with these unique tri-colored felines and many become avid fans of calicos. If you're interested in calico cats, you've come to the right place. We're going to explain -
    • What calico cats are
    • The variations of the calico pattern
    • The meaning of the name "calico"
    • Is the Calico a breed?
    • What breeds have calico cats?
    • The difference (and similarities) between calicos and tortoiseshell cats
    • The genetics behind calico cats
    • Why calico males are so rare
    • Where to adopt a calico cat or kitten
    Read through to become a true calico expert! And then test yourself in the quiz to get a virtual certificate you can share with your friends.

    Ready to get your calico fix? Here we go!

    How is the calico coat pattern defined?

    A calico cat has three colors in her coat, one of them being white. The classic calico has white, black and orange/red. Since there are always three colors in a calico's coat, they're also known as tri-color cats.
    A calico cat has three colors in her coat

    Variations of the black element in a calico include:
    • Gray tabby
    • Blue (slate gray) which is also known as diluted black
    Variations of the red element in a calico include:
    • Red tabby
    • Cream tabby
    • Cream which is also known as diluted red
    A calico cat with a pattern of white, blue and cream is often referred to as a "dilute calico". We'll talk more about dilute calicos in a minute and also discuss how tabby plays into the entire mix.

    When calico turns into tortoiseshell

    The tri-colored coat of calico cats features a predominately white base with large patches of two other colors. The more white there is in the coat, the larger and more differentiated the color patches.

    On the other hand, as the area of white coat decreases, the red and black begin to have a more "mixed" look as the patches decrease in size. In some cats, the white disappears altogether, leaving a tightly-knit mix of red and black which is known as the tortoiseshell pattern.

    So, tortoiseshell cats - fondly known as torties - are actually calicos with no white showing. That's why they're often bundled up as tri-color cats, even though technically the coat only shows black and orange.

    A tortoiseshell cat

    How does the tabby pattern come into play?

    You may have heard that all cats are actually tabbies. The tabby pattern is almost certainly the original coat pattern that the first domesticated cats had. We can still see tabbies in the wild today. Tigers are striped tabbies, leopards are spotted tabbies and lions are in fact agouti tabbies. The tabby pattern helps these feline predators hide in the shadows as they ambush their prey.

    Over thousands of years of domestication, new mutations popped up with cat colors and patterns that can mask the original tabby. Every now and again, the tabby markings show up through them.

    White is the only color that truly flushed out the tabby, to the point of no markings showing. Black is relatively good at hiding tabby patterns too, although - given the right light - you may see an underlying tabby pattern even in a black cat. Red, however, almost always shows the tabby pattern very clearly.

    And what about calicos?

    Since one of the coat colors in calicos is red, you can usually see some tabby in a real calico. Just look for it in the red areas. If that happens to be around Kitty's forehead, you should be able to spot the famous tabby M shape.
    Calico with tabby M on face

    Some calicos go in for the tabby even more. Their pattern is comprised of pure white along with gray tabby instead of black and of course, red tabby.
    Tabby markings on calico cat's back

    What's the meaning of the name "Calico"?

    The name "calico" has a long history. According to linguists, the word originated in the mid-16th century as a version of the word calicut. Calicut was the name of a sea port in India. The word was also used to denote a fabric which was manufactured in that city.

    The material unique to Calicut was mainly white but with a certain colorful pattern with patches of orange-red and black. Some people called it Kalko, as a variation of the word "Calicut". It wasn't long before a pattern of white combined with other patches of color became known as "calico".

    Originally, calico was used to describe horses. Records show that it began to be used as a descriptive term for cats sometime in the 1880s.

    So, yes, our calico cats are in fact named after a pattern of a fabric!

    Is calico a breed?

    Calico is a type of coloration on the cats' coat - not a breed. You can find the calico coloring in many breeds of cat, from long to short-haired, and even in some other species.

    Which cat breeds can have calico as an allowed pattern?

    People sometimes ask which cat breeds are calicos. There is no breed where calico is the only allowed pattern, so there's no "calico breed" out there. However, these popular breeds can have calico as a pattern:
    • Persian
    • Maine Coon
    • American Shorthair
    • Exotic
    • Manx
    • Oriental
    • Siberian
    • Scottish Fold
    • Sphynx
    The colorpoint breeds cannot have calicos per se but some do allow for a parti-color pattern in the points. That means these cats have the same underlying genetic makeup as calicos - and yes, they will be female. More on the fascinating genetics of the calicos and why they're females in a minute. For now, keep in mind that a colorpoint Ragdoll can be classified as having "tortie" points, so in a sense, that's the calico cat pattern in a colorpoint cat!

    Some cat breeds can never have a calico coat pattern. Bengals, Abyssinians or Bombay cats have coat patterns that exclude the possibility of calico patches or even tortie elements.

    The genetics of calico cats

    Calico cats are almost always female - though there are instances of male calico cats. Wondering why that is? Here's the genetic background.

    Genetics 101

    Most mammals inherit their sex through a pair of sex chromosomes. The sex chromosomes come in two possible variations -
    • X and Y
    • X and X
    Having X and Y chromosomes in that pair generates a male. However having two X chromosomes creates a female.

    When a male and a female mate, they each pass on one chromosome from the pair. The female can only pass on an X chromosome. The male can pass on an X or a Y chromosome.

    If the male passed on an X, then we have an offspring with two X's as the new pair of sex chromosomes - and that's a female. However, if the male passed on a Y chromosome, then the offspring has X (from the mother) and Y (from the father) and congratulations, it's a boy!

    What does this have to do with calico cats?

    Chromosomes hold the genes that determine what a creature will be like. In cats, the X chromosome can carry the gene for black coloration or the gene for orange coloration. It can't carry both - only one of the two.

    A male cat only has one X chromosome. That means it can have either the black gene or the orange gene. In other words, a male cat can be black or it can be orange. However, it can never be both.

    Females on the other hand, can have one X chromosome with the orange gene, and another with the black gene. And black and orange together make a calico!

    And that's why calico cats are (almost) always females. That's also why torties are females too. Any cat that shows a combination of black and red, or their derivatives (such as blue and cream) is by definition a female.

    We'll discuss male calicos later on. First, let's see where the white comes into play.

    How the actual coat pattern is determined in calico cats

    During the in-womb developmental process (or when the embryo is just forming, pre-adorable kitten), the process of X-inactivation occurs.

    What that means is that the embryo's body randomly activates either the black or the orange genes in the cells that are in charge of fur growth. Once a gene has been activated, all the hair that comes from that cell will inherit that coloring.

    Some cells just don't get those genes activated at all. Those are the areas that turn out white - with neither black nor orange color activated.

    How can this help?

    Essentially, the genetic inheritance pattern means that a calico - or tortie - is almost certainly female. This can be helpful when you're trying to sex kittens.

    Rescuers can also quickly assess a feral cat's sex at a distance, if she is a calico.

    Or you can just impress your friends with quickly guessing that a cat is a female, simply by noting the calico coat pattern!

    Calico vs. tortoiseshell - what’s the difference?

    We mentioned torties earlier, but now that we know the genetics behind calico cats, let's take a look at the two patterns again.

    Calico cats will have very distinctive, noticeable patches of solid colors - including white. Sometimes calico cats will be called tricolor, due to predominantly orange, black, and white coloring. Remember, there will be a significant amount of white in the coloring of the cat for it to be classified as a calico, but with substantial splashes of black and orange.

    A tortoiseshell cat will have a predominately red/orange and black pattern (or their diluted variations), which are all interwoven. These cats are often dark in nature (from the blacks/browns) and can be found with mottled designs, speckled patterns, and large areas with solid colors, but usually with highly interwoven color breaks.

    A classic tortoiseshell cat - not a calico cat per se, but pretty close!

    A dilute tortie will have a bluish-gray overall appearance with cream specks.

    The line between a calico and a tortoiseshell isn't always very clear. Most people consider the presence of white an indication of a calico. No white at all? You have a tortie on your hands.

    What’s a dilute calico?

    Again, now that we have the genetic background, let's take a quick overview of dilute calicos.

    The black and red colors in cats have what is known as "dilute" versions. In essence, a different gene causes the hair to have fewer pigments, creating a diluted version of the original color.

    Solid blue cats are in fact the dilute version of black cats. Cream tabbies are the dilute version of red tabbies.

    Mix black and red and you get a calico, or a tortie. Mix blue and cream (the dilute versions of black and red) and you get a dilute calico or dilute tortie.

    Male calico cats

    Yes, there are male calico cats. And yes, they are very rare.

    Remember, males have XY chromosomes, and females have XX chromosomes. Calico cats have two X chromosomes because each X chromosome can carry either the gene for black or the gene for orange. So how can a male cat get both genes?

    The answer is that these males do have XX chromosomes. They have a chromosomal abnormality where they have three sex chromosomes and not two. They have X, X and Y chromosomes. The Y chromosome causes the development of male genitalia while at the same time the two X chromosomes generate a calico pattern.

    Due to their rarity, a male calico cat can be expensive. How much does a male calico cost? No one knows for sure. As with anything rare, there are people who may be willing to pay a high price, but it all depends on finding the right buyer.

    The downside is that male calico cats actually suffer from a chromosomal abnormality. Other than creating the calico pattern, they are at risk for various health problems. Male calicos are almost always infertile.

    Calico cat personality

    It's not easy to accurately and objectively determine personality traits in scientific studies. That's why no one knows for sure if calico cats have any unique personality traits.

    Some cat owners claim that tri-color cats do have unique characteristics. Traditionally, calico cats (and tortoiseshell cats!) are said to be sassy and distinctly independent personalities. However, they are also known to be very loyal and loving to their human.

    A few other attributes associated with calico cats and tortoiseshell cats include:
    • Strong-willed
    • Possessive
    • Feisty
    • Very vocal
    • Temperamental
    • Cattitude (cat-attitude)
    • Quirks and idiosyncrasies are more prevalent in calico cats
    No matter the color classification, just keep in mind that each cat will be very different, and personalities can vary. Many members of TheCatSite have calico cats, many of whom are mellow loving kitties. We see no indication here of calicos or torties being more "difficult" compared to other cats.

    Are there unique calico cat health problems?

    Not really. Some breeds have health problems that are associated with breeding in a smaller genetic pool. Those breeds may have calico cats who will be at risk for the breed-typical health issues. However, that's not related to the cat's coloration.

    A domestic shorthair or longhair calico cat, i.e. a mixed-breed one, is usually a healthy happy cat with no special health problems.

    The exception would be male calicos. Due to their rare genetic makeup explained above, male calicos tend to have many other health problems.

    Take good care of your calico cat and she will enjoy a healthy long life.

    Where can you get a calico cat or kittens?

    If you are financially and emotionally prepared to buy or adopt a cat, should you pick a calico cat?

    Yes, absolutely, if for no other reason than love for the coat pattern… Our site survey shows that most people do have a preference for a specific coat pattern.
    coat color preference.JPG

    If you’re ready to own a cat and you’d like a calico, you’re in luck - there are dozens of calico cats in cat shelters near you, all of them looking for loving forever homes.

    Reach out to your local shelters and rescues to see what cats are available. Many cats and kittens end up in pounds, shelters, and rescues through no fault of their own. Whether it was divorce, death, allergies, or some other kind of issue, many cats end up at the pound due to circumstances beyond their control.

    Should you adopt a calico kitten or adult cat? There are pros and cons to either option. Read our article before you make the decision -
    A Kitten Or An Older Cat - Which Should You Adopt?

    If you’d like a calico patterned cat in a specific breed, you’ll have to work with local breeders. Since calico cats are just color classifications, the color pattern can happen in any of the breeds listed above. Prices for breeds vary significantly, so you should be willing to pay more for a pedigree or purebred cat, no matter if they are calico or not. Make sure you read our article about the topic first -
    How To Choose A Cat Breeder

    So, are you a calico cat expert?

    How well do you know calico cats? Now that you've finished reading our article, it's time to take the quiz and see! Don't forget to leave a comment and let us know what your result was!

    Final words
    Is there a special calico in your life? Tell us about her (or him!) in a comment and share a picture too.

    A lot of work has gone into preparing this guide, so please help us spread the word and share this on Facebook or Pinterest.

    Share This Article


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  1. calico man
    Lulu definitely has the "cali-tude" and everything is done on her terms. If she doesn't like something she is quick to let me know.
      tarasgirl06 purraised this.
  2. chasacha
    J'arrive sur ce site, bonjour à tous.
    J'ai trouvé cet article excellent.
    Je me présente en vous faisant connaître Roma, ma chatte calico (à peine) torbie diluée. Seuls ses patons (là où sont plantées ses moustaches) et son petit menton sont blancs. Et ses couleurs bleue et crème sont très imbriquées l'une dans l'autre. Elle est tortie/torbie car son marquage tabby est très apparent, surtout au collier, sur le front, ses pattes et sa queue. C'est un petit modèle de chatte de gouttière, très commune, très gentille et sociable, très têtue pour grimper sur vos genoux. Elle a de grands yeux vert clair transparents, et un miaulement aigu et insistant, par petits coups brefs et impérieux. Elle a cinq compagnons minous, tous différents. Sérieuse présence dans la maison ! Je suis désolée, on refuse mon image JPG. Que dois-je faire ? tant pis, dommage, une prochaine fois peut-être. Salut ! Et pardon si je ne parle que français ...
      catspaw66 purraised this.
    1. catspaw66
      If you can read English, I welcome you and Roma to TCS. I don't speak French, but know enough words to get most of what I read.

      She sounds like a gorgeous dilute calico. Very laid-back and mellow if I am translating properly.
      tarasgirl06 purraised this.
  3. MichelleP224
    I have a question!
    If I wanted to breed cats specifically for the calico/tortoiseshell gene how would I do so? I understand there's no way to be definate, since the male would have to be a solid color, while the female would be calico/tortie. I also understand that any kitten born male would not be calico/tortie.
    It's more of a curiosity, really. I just want to know what color male would have the best chances of passing down the gene from the mom?
    What do y'all think?
    1. catspaw66
      There is no way to breed calico cats, I believe. The color is random, and can't be controlled.
      tarasgirl06 and calico man purraised this.
    2. MichelleP224
      Thank you for letting me know! I figured that was the case, but I couldn't find the information I was looking for elsewhere. Thanks again! ^_^
      Oh, also I don't actually want to breed kitties. Lol There's already so many. I was just curious as to how the coat worked in genetics (:
      Thanks again!
      tarasgirl06 purraised this.
  4. lyrajean
    Interesting that in the list of breeds that allow calico patterns they did not mention Japanese bobtails. It's the quintessential J-bob color! Here's my un-bobbed Japan kitty and forum alumna Aya-chan.
      rascalshadownj2 and tarasgirl06 purraised this.
  5. nataliat1026
    I recently brought home a little calico that I watched being born almost 8 weeks ago. She was in a litter of 6, containing an orange tabby, two gray tabbies, a black one, and two calico's. I don't even like cats, but who can't have a cavity over a bunch of kittens? The more time I spent up there, the more she in particular would recognize my voice from the distance, being alert and staring curiously at me whenever I entered the room. I named her after one of my favorite songs, "Jezebel", and whenever I play that song or any music by that band, she falls asleep in a little purry bundle on me.

    She's absolutely friggin fearless, super playful, very very intelligent, curious, and unbelievably loving. She sleeps next to me in bed and snuggles with me every morning. I'm smitten with this darn kitten :-)

    I was actually a little apprehensive at first, because she was the tiniest in the litter (and still is very petite). But it became apparent very quickly that she'd have no trouble claiming what was hers among the crowd. She also has these bada** looking stripes on her sides, which look like ribs. She's just incredible. And yup, I'm totally biased!

    Excellent article by the way! I learned so much! And best of luck to all readers who have little kitties of their own here.

    1. tarasgirl06
      How can anyone not love cats??? Incomprehensible. Are they safe in a loving permanent home, I hope?!
    2. nataliat1026
      Oh yeah - they all went to lovely lovely homes. I brought Jezzie home with me and she's thriving. She's spoiled rotten! I've always been a dog person, but she totally melted my heart. I'd still love to get a big dog in the near future though. She loves animals and humans alike, so I have a gut feeling everything will be great. She's just such a sweetheart. I can feel the love radiating off of her. It's amazing.
  6. rascalshadownj2
    This was a really good article. I took the quiz and missed only two questions only because I don't have a calico cat for a pet. But I thought I did pretty well considering. ;)I learned a lot after reading this article. I like calico cats. They are really pretty! Wish I could have one. But I can only afford two cats. ;) Good luck to everyone else who takes the quiz. Thanks for posting this article! :)
  7. tarasgirl06
    Thanking you for yet another excellent, interesting, educational article *and contest which I aced after reading it!* Our beloved calico/calaby/tortico beauty Maryam, was a gorgeous beauty with a sweet nature, as is our sweet Tarifa, who's torti-with a tiny, tiny bit of white.
  8. Antonio65
    My Lola was officially a tortieshell cat, but she did have two or three small white spots, one on her belly, one on her chest on a tiny white spot on one of her wrists. According to someone in the article she sould have been a calico, to me she was a wonderful tortie!
    I also met a calico male years ago, and he wasn't unfertile. As a matter of fact he had kittens with his "wife".

    From what I was told by several vets, one of the most interesting qualities of calico and tortie cats is that they have a higher resistance to and ability to recover from diseases, and a stronger build even if they're slim.
    My Lola was a clear example of how a tortie cat can undergo the most severe conditions and still come out healthy and sound.
    I was also told that calico and tortie have a longer lifespan. The two oldest cat I have ever met were tortie, one was 24, the other 22 yo.

    Needless to say that tortie is my favourite color in a cat!
      tarasgirl06 purraised this.
  9. catspaw66
    Wonderful article and pictures. No preference as to coat color, but with all 4 of The Ladies being calico you would think I did.

    I got 10 out of 10 on the quiz. Who woulda thunk it?
      tarasgirl06 purraised this.
  10. jinxybean
    Great article! I don't have a preferred coat pattern or cat type. I love all the kitties, and my Jinxy Bean just happens to be calico! :) (sorry for the large image!)

      Candybee, tarasgirl06 and rascalshadownj2 purraised this.
    1. rascalshadownj2
      What a beautiful cat! You're lucky to have her. Hope she is doing well. Thanks for posting that lovely picture.
      tarasgirl06 and jinxybean purraised this.
    2. Candybee
      Wow Jinxy Bean is beeeeeeautiful! Those are my kind of calico colors! Love them!
  11. Candybee
    Dreamer Rose - Lily is beautiful! I just love her fur design.

    I didn't realize until I read this article the huge variations in calico patterns. I can't find a one that I don't like either! Great article!
      tarasgirl06 and Anne purraised this.
    1. DreamerRose
      Thanks. That's what attracted me to her. I thought she was so pretty.
  12. greycat2
    Great article and updates to it. I had one Calico for 10 years before she passed away at 19 years of age in 2012. She was a rescue from a shelter and brought her home at age 9 years old. She was a Van Pattern and she fit very well into the personality of a Calico.

    Here she is, my beautiful and missed Kuce.
      tarasgirl06 and Anne purraised this.
  13. DreamerRose
    That's a great article and explains all anyone would like to know about calico cats. Before the two I have now, I had a calico and a tortie, both females of course. I can see the faint tabby markings on Mingo when he lies in the sun, but a description of Lily defeats me. Strictly speaking, she must be a calico (love her two front legs, which are different colors), but on her back the fur is all mottled like a tortie. So I call her a tortie/calico.

    Lost my banner. Mingo is black; here's Lily.

      tarasgirl06 and Anne purraised this.
    1. catspaw66
      She is one gorgeous lady.
      tarasgirl06 and DreamerRose purraised this.
  14. Lari
    A perfect score!

    I adore my sweet calico. Her orange looks tan most of the time oddly enough.
      tarasgirl06 and Anne purraised this.
  15. Candybee
    Here is my calico Gypsy. Adopted her from the shelter this past March. She is a total sweetie pie and goof ball. She loves to "talk" and definitely has catitude! Forgot to add she is very curious about everything and surprises me with how she likes to examine, test out, or explore everything around her!

    Oh yes... I got a 10 out of 10! Woohoo! I am a calico expert!!

  16. Mamanyt1953
    Hekitty is the very definition of "tortitude," and I wouldn't have it any other way! She rules my house with an iron paw. She does actually have some white on her...she has a tiny snip of white on the top of her ruff, and another tiny snip below it, a patch of white smaller than a dime in her left "armpit," a speck of white on her tail and between the toes of her right hind foot, and one white whisker! That withstanding, to all intents and purposes, she's a tortie, NOT a calico!

    Loved the quiz! I got nine out of ten, and actually got ten out of ten, but clicked by mistake on the wrong spot!
      tinydestroyer, tarasgirl06 and Anne purraised this.
  17. puffball1355
    i had a tortoiseshell cat a while ago her name was Stormyfur do to the fact that she was mostly black with some orange splotches and stuff everywhere looking like a storm and her brother is an orange longhair with sort of a tabby pattern its very light though my pic is my current cat who is named Professor peaches
  18. jiskefet
    All my cats have a definite cattitude, but my torties and calicos all have/had tortitude. Not as much more aggressive than other cats, but they are and were all true divas. But that might well be because everyone seems to love a tortie or calico, so they are used to being spoiled and admired. Or maybe it is just because the diva attitude is more of a female thing, and torties and calicos are (except for the very rare XXY male) all female...
  19. peaches123
     my other cat Zoe,  a true tortoise with a lovely multi colored.coat. 
  20. tuxedoontheloos
    I had a tortie and a calico growing up, both from the same litter. The calico was shy but sweet. The tortie was a super dominate alpha cat, and a bit aggressive with strangers, but an absolute cuddle hog with us.
  21. plucy
    I just love my Calico cat. She's quirky, independant yet very sociable. Very , very curious too.
  22. wendy56
    I was reading on the calicos and found it interesting that only 1 in 5000 calicos are male, as the info above mentions that males are rare..
    I have a female calico and she had a brother who was orange, including the pads of his feet..he also had long hair and looked very much like a maine coon and a wonderful personality too..
  23. di and bob
    I think people got the idea of 'tortietude' because naturally all calicos are females, and it's the FEMALE that has attitude at times. I've had several female cats that definitely had an attitude, but only one male, (he was Siamese, so that probably explains it!)
  24. catspaw66
    I am wondering if the "tortitude" myth comes from the fact that calicos, being brightly colored, are observed more closely than non-calico. I say my ladies have tortitude, but actually it is just typical cat attitude.
  25. wendy56
    we have 2 female calicos and both sisters....their patterns are different, but are the calico pattern..
  26. Anne
      rascalshadownj2 purraised this.
  27. drbobcat
    I wonder where the "tortietude" nonsense began.  Many people seem to believe that torties are aggressive and difficult to manage.  I was surprised to hear even Jackson Galaxy, who ought to know better, claim that torties had attitude problems.  In shelter, I understand that Calicos are the second to last cats adopted, after black cats.  That's pretty strange considering how beautiful calicos are.  I accept the fact that breeds may exhibit different behaviors, some more chummy with people, some calmer than others for example, but I've never seen any evidence of attitude problems in torties. 
      tinydestroyer purraised this.
    1. tinydestroyer
      I noticed this too! I began to think my tortie had that famous torti-tude as a kitten, but she was just being a rambunctious kitten. As a young cat, she is the sweetest, cuddliest, most loving thing in the world, and very easy to handle. Those stereotypes are silly, but sadly pervasive. My best friend adopted a black cat, and mentioned how she's had nothing but good luck since!
  28. lesliecat
    Hi Mary Anne. Good article. It seems that many people don't know the difference between a tortie and a calico.
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