Calicos, Torties, and Torbies Oh My! All You Need to Know About Tricolor Cats

Most people know what a calico cat is, and if you’re a cat lover you probably know what a tortoiseshell or tortie is too. But how about a torbie? And where did these colors come from anyway? Is it a breed? Sit tight my friends, all of your questions are about to be answered.

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What is a Tricolor?

Calicos, tortoiseshells, and torbies all belong to a category of cat colors called tricolor. So that answers the breed question. No, they are only a color pattern that is found in many breeds. Tricolor refers to a coat color that is the combination of 2 colors plus white. Sometimes there is a lot of white, which is referred to as a Calico. Other times there is very little white, almost to the point where you don’t know it’s there, and that’s a tortoiseshell (or commonly known as tortie). The two colors along with the white are most commonly orange and black. One thing you may have heard about tricolors is they are always female, and that’s true. The reason for this is all in the genetics, which we’re about to get into, so you might want to grab a snack.

Why Are Tricolors Female? The Magical Orange Gene

It’s basic genetics that when a female egg (X) and a male sperm (Y) make a baby, you either get XX (female) or XY (male). That’s simple. But when coat colors of cats get involved, it gets all funky. There is a color gene for orange coloring in cats that is noted as O. The O gene can only be carried on the X chromosome. Since a male cat has only one X chromosome, if he carries the orange gene, he is either OY (orange) or oY (some other non-orange color). Female cats have two X chromosomes, which means they can be OO (dominant orange), oo (recessive orange, which results in the cat being some other color), or they can be Oo, which is tricolor. Tricolor contains both dominant and recessive orange genes.

The O gene is crazy; if you have a dominant O and a recessive o, they combine their efforts. So genetically your tortie is actually orange and not orange at the same time for a phenomenon referred to as mosaic. If that sounds weird, that’s because it is.

But Wait! My Friend/Sister/Cousin/Neighbor Has A Male Calico!

Maybe they do. And it does happen occasionally. Every few thousand tricolor cats that are born, you may find one male. A male tricolor cat is a genetic misfire. Genetically, instead of being XY, he is XXY. Animals are meant to have chromosomes in pairs, and having three chromosomes where he is supposed to have two can cause health problems. And almost always causes sterility. It is also possible that he is not a true genetic tricolor, but merely has unusual markings that make him resemble one.

So Then What’s a Torbie?

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Some calicos and torties may have what looks like orange tabby patches instead of more solid orange. That’s just the nature of the orange gene. It’s tabby sometimes. It does what it wants. The orange gene is special. But if your kitty has tabby stripes on the black parts of her body too, she’s a torbie– tortie + tabby. Calico torbies are usually referred to as torbie and white. Because why not.

Dilute Tricolor

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Surprise! There’s more to it. There’s another kind of tricolor called a dilute tricolor. The dilute effect comes from another gene for dilution (D). Dilution effects black coloring, turning it into a faded blue-grey color. A tortie who also has the dilute gene is referred to as a “blue creme” (or blue creme and white if she’s a calico dilute).

The Tortie Tude

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If you’ve ever known a tortie, you’ve probably heard of the tortie tude. They’re sort of the “firey redheads” of the cat world. Torties have a reputation for being opinionated, bossy, and sometimes even a little crazy or bipolar. There is some genetic basis for this. Because they are genetically two colors at once, it’s entirely possible they have a little bit of a split personality. But that’s just more of what makes them special!

So we bet you didn’t know that pretty kitty had so much science behind her, did ya? No two tricolors are identical! With their gregarious personalities and unique markings, they truly are a special bunch of ladies (and the odd gentleman, of course).