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.

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