Although you might think “tabby” and “calico” refer to specific breeds of cat, they’re actually only descriptions of what the cat looks like. With the wide variety of patterns and the jargon used to label tabby coats, it can get confusing to accurately describe kitty’s lovely fur.
Types of Domestic Calico Tabby shorthaired Cats ?
“Tabby” refers to a coat coloration in which the hairs are striped light and dark, called agouti. If your kitty has stripes, she’s a tabby. She’ll also have the distinctive “M” marking on her forehead. The tabby marking is considered the “wild” coat for domesticated cats, with other patterns, such as a Siamese’s points, being a result of breeding and domestication.
There are four types of tabby pattern: mackerel, classic, ticked and spotted. Mackerel is probably what you’re most familiar with, with stripes running down kitty’s side. If your cat’s a classic tabby, she’ll have thick swirls of dark color against a lighter background, sometimes making a bull’s-eye shape on her side or a butterfly on her back.
A ticked tabby has an even distribution of light and dark fur, given her a freckled or flecked appearance. If she’s a spotted tabby, she’ll have spots or rosettes like a leopard, as in Bengal cats. Tabby coats come in a range of colors including red, brown, silver, cream and blue.
Another common coloration is tortoiseshell; a cat who looks like this is affectionately called a tortie. Torties have splotches of black, red and cream all over their bodies. In reference to fur coloration, “red” means orange or ginger, “cream” means pale, creamy orange and “blue” refers to gray.
A dilute tortie has more muted splotches of blue and cream covering her body. Dilute torties look kind of like a faded or diluted version of a tortoiseshell. Torties are almost always female, as the genes required for the coat require two X chromosomes. Very rarely you’ll find a male tortie, and usually he’ll be sterile. This is because he’ll have a genetic abnormality, having an extra X chromosome.
Tabby and tortoiseshell coats can have patches of white fur. Typically, these are labeled by adding “and white” to the coat description, such as “red and white tabby.”
Different terms refer to where the white spots are. If she has little white paws, then she’s considered mitted. A locket is a spot of white fur on her chest. Buttons are white spots on her tummy.
A cat is considered bicolor if she’s about half white, and harlequin if she’s mostly white with only small patches of color. A van, like the Turkish van breed, has color only on her head and tail, with most of her body white.
Calicoes, Torbies and Patched Tabbies
A calico has patches of black and red mixed with large patches of white. If she only has a small amount of white, she’s called tortoiseshell and white, instead of calico. A dilute calico will have blue, cream and white patches, looking like a paler version of the traditional calico.
Just as torties, calicoes are almost always female. A patched tabby has patches of tabby pattern rather than solid colors. A tabby tortie, or torbie, is a tortie kitty with patches of tabby pattern rather than solid color. A patched tabby and white, sometimes called a caliby or patterned calico, has patches of tabby pattern mixed with patches of white fur.
Calico cats are domestic cats that are comprised of a garden of cat colors, either vibrant orange (technically known as “red”), white and black, or more subdued flaxen, blue-gray, and white. In feline genetics, the latter is known as “dilute calico.” The various patterns of the calico patches are almost as ubiquitous as snowflakes. You’ll never see two exactly alike.
Calicoes are almost all female, and the rare male is always sterile. (So much for the hopes of those thinking of breeding a rare line of cats.)
Calico Cats Are the Most Colorful Cats
Calicoes are rivaled only by tortoiseshell cats, who are genetically very similar. Indeed, it is often difficult to tell if an individual cat is a calico or a “tortie with white,” The most common difference is that tortoiseshell colors (red and black) are interwoven throughout the coat, where calico cats have distinctive patches of solid color. Sometimes the distinction is even more blurred, when a calico may have some woven patches intermingled with the solid areas, as depicted in the first photo. Such cats are often called “calitorts”…or could they be “torticals?”
Calicoes share that personality trait of tortoiseshell cats commonly described as “tortitude.” They are sassy, spunky and very independent. On the other hand, calicoes are sweet, loving, and loyal cats. If you hunger for unconditional love, a calico cat will willingly and enthusiastically fulfill that need.
Cat Breeds Embracing Calico Cats
It would be easier to give a list of those breeds which do not accept calicoes than those that do. Calicoes are not allowed in pointed breeds, such as the Siamese or Himalayan, nor those which allow only solid colors, such as the Bombay, the Russian Blue, and the British Shorthair. You’ll find colorful calico cats in the Persian, Manx, Maine Coon, and Scottish Fold breeds, to name a few. Some breed standards even allow tabby patches in their calicoes. Calico is the most popular color pattern in Japanese Bobtails.
Researchers began seriously studying calico cats in the 1940s. Murray Barr and his graduate student E.G. Bertram noticed dark, drumstick-shaped masses inside the nuclei of nerve cells of female cats, but not in male cats. These dark masses eventually were called Barr bodies. In 1959, Japanese cell biologist Susumu Ohno determined the Barr bodies were X chromosomes. In 1961, Mary Lyon proposed the concept of X-inactivation: one of the two X chromosomes inside a female mammal shuts off. She observed this in the coat color patterns in mice.
Calico Cat Fame
A popular children’s poem, written by Eugene Fields in the late 1800s, called “The Duel,” featured “the gingham pup and the calico cat.” In modern days, the State of Maryland officially named the calico cat as its “State Cat,” in October of 2001. The calico shares the colors of Marylands State Bird, the Baltimore oriole and its State Insect, the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly.
Calico cats are believed to bring good luck in the folklore of many cultures. In the United States, these are sometimes referred to as money cats. In Japan, the Maneki-Neko figures depict Calico cats, bringing good luck.
8 Questions About Calico Cats — Answered
Questions about calico cats run the gamut from: “Do male calico cats exist?” to “What’s up with the calico cat personality?” We’re here to answer a few.
Ah, calico cats! Those multi-colored coats that can be arranged into never-ending combinations of patterns make for tons of questions. Do male calico cats exist? Are the rumors about calico cat personalities true? What in the world is a calibby? We’re here with answers to a few commonly asked questions about those mysterious calico cats.
1. Is a calico a type of breed?
Calicos are not a breed of cat. Photography ©krblokhin | iStock / Getty Images Plus.
Nope. Calico refers to a color or pattern of a cat’s fur, not a cat breed.
2. Where does the name calico come from?
Calico cats get their names from printed fabric. Photography by ©krblokhin | Thinkstock.
Actually, the term “calico cat” is a description you’ll mostly hear in the U.S. Why? Calico is actually a type of fabric, but when it came to the United States in the 1780s, Americans used the term calico to refer to printed design.
Calico cats are also called brindle, tricolor, tobi mi-ke (Japanese for ‘triple fur’) and lapjeskat (Dutch for ‘patches cat’). Diluted calico cats with lighter coloration are sometimes called calimanco or clouded tiger. Calicos may also be referred to as piebald, which can mean any animal with a white base and pigmented spots.
3. What about a calibby? Are there different types of calico cats?
A dilute calico has colors that are a bit more muted than a standard calico. Photography ©adogslifephoto | iStock / Getty Images Plus.
- A standard calico usually has a white coat with large spots of orange and black.
- A dilute calico, as mentioned above, has lighter colorations that result in white coats with large spots of smoky gray and an almost strawberry-blonde color.
- A calibby is a mix of a calico and a tabby cat, where the calico patches of orange and black have the tabby striped or spotted markings.
4. What is the difference between a tortoiseshell cat and a calico cat?
Compare a tortie’s coloring with some of the calico photos. See the differences? Photography ©piranka | iStock / Getty Images Plus.
“Tortoiseshells (or torties) have similar coloring to calicos in that they are also contain black and orange in their coat, but the major difference is instead of a mainly white base, tortoiseshells have a black-based coat,” Dr. Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, explains. “In addition, instead of distinct spots of orange and white, tortoiseshells are more of an even blend of the black and orange with sometimes white mixed in.”
5. Are all calico cats female?
Do male calicos exist? They’re rare, and they’re probably sterile! Photography by Mahlebashieva/Thinkstock.
Most calico cats are females — but not all. Male calicos are rare. “The traditional characteristics for a calico cat are carried on the chromosomes that make cats female, so the majority of calico cats are female,” Dr. Gibbons says. “The possibility of a male calico exists, but they are incredibly rare, and I have yet to see one in 15 years in the veterinary field.”
Approximately one in 3,000 calico cats is male. Also, if you have a male calico, odds are that he’s sterile. Only one in 10,000 of male calico cats is fertile.
6. What cat breeds can be calicos?
A munchkin calico cat. Photography by Linn Currie / Shutterstock.
According to Dr. Gibbons the following breeds may have calico colorations:
- Domestic Shorthair
- Domestic Longhair
- American Shorthair
- Maine Coon
- Exotic Shorthair
- British Shorthair
- American Curl
- Japanese Bobtail
- Norwegian Forest Cat
- Turkish Van
- Turkish Angora
7. Are calico cats good luck?
Maneki Neko, aka Lucky Cats or Fortune Cats, are often calico cats. Photography by Danny Smythe / Shutterstock.
Yes! The aforementioned male calicos are considered especially lucky since they’re so rare.
The Japanese lucky cat, maneki neko, is often calico. Japanese sailors used to travel with calico cats on their oceanic expeditions. Calicos were said to protect the sailors from storms and any angry spirits on board!
Calico cats are also the official state cat of Maryland, due to a similarity in coloring with the state’s bird, the Baltimore oriole, and the state’s insect, the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly.
And, according to Irish folklore, calico cats will cure your warts. Simply rub a calico cat’s tail on your warts in the month of May!
8. Why do calico cats get a bad rap for their attitudes?
Merritt does not love when we pay attention to other living souls or objects other than her. She prefers to be the center of attention — always. This is her as a tiny kitten, so she’s always been this way! Photography by Cait Rohan Kelly.
As the proud mama to a calico cat, Merritt, I am very familiar with the calico attitude that these cats are said to possess in spades (there’s a reason her nickname is Mimi —the same nickname for known diva Mariah Carey). Like the infamous “I don’t know her” feud between Ms. Carey and a certain Jennifer Lopez, my Mimi would prefer not to acknowledge her competitors (in a cat’s case, other cats). This isn’t usually a problem since my other cat Gabby is large, lazy and likes attention selectively. But when we’re petting, kissing or snuggling with Gabby? How dare we! Mimi will meow away, wedge herself into the cuddle or come up and play-smack Gabby.
Merritt also likes to make packing impossible. And check out the tabby markings on her head — I think she’s a calibby! Photography by Cait Rohan Kelly.
Yes, my calico loves to be kissed, cuddled, held, paid attention to and — when the mood suits her — even carried around the house like some sort of ancient queen even though she is not a kitten anymore. Mimi is also very talkative and loves to trill away, another attention-grabbing behavior. She is a total diva.
But is this behavior backed by scientific fact? “Calico cats have a reputation for being fiercely independent, and sometimes feisty,” Dr. Gibbons says. “This is not always the case but many live up to their reputation. A recent study by the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science says that many owners report more aggression toward owners, when being handled and at veterinary visits in calicos, torbies and tortoiseshells. However, according to the author, analysis ‘of aggression due to handling, as well as aggression displayed during veterinarian visits, showed little difference among coat colors in these settings.’”