So, we will get this out of the way right now: Tortoiseshell cats are a coat pattern, not a breed. They don’t have any defining personality traits (despite what you may read about ‘tortitude’) and they can be found all over the world. There with that out of the way, let’s move on to the specifics of the tortoiseshell because this coat pattern carries some pretty cool stuff for any cat!
What is a Tortoiseshell Cat?
Tortoiseshell refers to the distinct patterns of the cat’s coat. It’s named after the actual tortoiseshell coloring from, well, tortoise shells, which were used for jewelry and decorations until killing them for that purpose was banned in many parts of the world.
Tortoiseshell cats have a few sub-categories including ‘torbie’ (tabby striped pattern with the tortoiseshell coloring) and calico which is white fur with tortoiseshell colored patches throughout their coat. The coloring itself should be at least two colors, usually black and red, but other shades of brown, cinnamon, and chocolate are seen too.
There is a great variation in shading and distribution of the colors. Tortoiseshell cats can be bridled (colors appear woven together) or patched (colors appear in large sections throughout the cat’s body).
Many breeds of cats can carry the tortoiseshell coloring, including Sphynx cats which will have patches on their skin.
Now, when we talk about a cat being black and red for their coloring, this is a generalization. Red can also mean orange, yellow, and cream; and black can also mean chocolate, grey, tabby, and blue.
So really, what we are looking for is two colors that contrast and are muddled together. You can even have faded versions which include combinations of lilac and cream or fawn and cream.
What are the Characteristics of a Tortoiseshell Cat?
Tortoiseshell cats are found across breeds, so the only real universalities are the coloring itself and a few other aspects:
- Tortoiseshell is always at least bicolor (black and red is common) and can be found on hairless, shorthair, and long hair cats
- Tortoiseshell coloring can be either mosaic (colors are mixed randomly together) or Chimera (coloring where one color is on one half of the face or body and a different color on the other side). They can also either be brindled (blended color) or patched (Blocks of color). No one tortoiseshell cat looks the same as another!
- It is impossible to breed specifically for tortoiseshell coloring – the coloring is completely random
- Male tortoiseshell cats are incredibly rare, are sterile, and have more serious health issues than females (more on that in a moment)
- Tortoiseshell cats are often represented in folklore all over the world and are often seen as a sign of good luck
Some people swear up and down that tortoiseshell cats have more attitude and are sassier than other cats, but since the tortoiseshell is coloring, it has no real bearing on their personality. (Though I can attest that my torties have been kind of crazy – then again, so was my grey cat, soooo….). The personality of any cat is bound up more in their breed and how they were raised, not their coloring.
Tortoiseshell cats have the lifespan of their breed. They are most commonly found among British and American shorthair cats, so figure about twelve to fourteen years, though there was a tortie who lived to be twenty-one years of age. However, the tortie coloring is found across multiple breeds, so the life expectancy will vary wildly.
The coloring often crops up in mixed breeds; as a result, they don’t tend to have many health problems (except for males which can have fairly serious health issues and a much shorter life expectancy due to their genetics).
Tortoiseshell Cat Genetics
Tortoiseshell cats have some pretty cool genetics going on that controls that coloring and explains why they are almost always female and why the few males are so frail. The reason lies in their chromosomes.
The female sex chromosome (X chromosome) also carries the code for an orange or a black coat color; the male sex one (Y) does not. Females have two X chromosomes, so there are two sets of information that can determine coat color. One X chromosome is ‘turned off’ in each cell, so you get those orange and black color variations.
In other words, if you have a set of X chromosomes and half of them have the orange part of turned off and the other half has the black part turned off, you end up with an orange and black coloration – tortie, in other words (or calico, depending on how much white ended up in there).
Male cats on the other hand only have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome, so they will generally be either orange or black (of the two colors). So how can you have a male tortie (or a male calico, since the same genes control this)? Mutation.
About 1 in 3,000 male cats are born with two X chromosomes and one Y chromosome. This gives a male a much higher chance of being multi-colored. On the other hand, it also saddles them with the equivalent of a bad genetic condition in humans: in the case of the cat, serious health problems, a significantly shorter life expectancy, and sterility. This is called XXY Klinefelter’s syndrome.
Interestingly, Klinefelter syndrome gives male cats some other quirks: they have habits more aligned with female cats, including caring for kittens, trying to entice male cats to mate with them, and generally acting more female. They make really good nanny cats!
On other hand, they also tend to be more fragile – frail bones, gain weight easily, and are more prone to tumors, heart diseases, and hemorrhaging. And even though they are sterile, they should still be neutered as this cuts down their chances of testicular cancer and spraying.
Sadly, male torties usually have a much shorter lifespan than females due to their mutated genetics, but supplements with vitamins or dietary supplements can go a long way to helping your male stay healthy longer, as well as regular visits to the vet, neutering, and keeping him an indoor kitty.
Male tortoiseshell cats are extremely rare, so even though they have some serious health problems, they still can go for a higher price than female ones since the rarity of males appeals to people who like rare cats or genetically rare pets. They also tend to be extremely affectionate and nurturing, which is pretty appealing to a vast swath of owners.
Breeds of Cat that Tend to be Tortoiseshell Cats?
Tortoiseshell coloring crosses into many breeds and the breed has no bearing on it. That being said, some breeds are more likely to be tortoiseshell than others. These include:
- British and American shorthair cats
- Maine Coons
- Cornish Rex
But tortoiseshell coloring can be found in pretty well any breed of cat, from the sphynx to Oriental longhairs and even Siamese cats can have torty ‘point’ coloring (though some people don’t consider them to be ‘show ready’ with that coloring). Japanese bobtails with tortoiseshell coloring, on the other hand, are considered to be quite lucky for their owners.
Tortoiseshell Cat or Calico Cat?
There is often a lot of confusion around whether a cat is a tortie or a calico. Technically speaking, a calico is a tortoiseshell cat, but tortoiseshell isn’t a calico (it’s a square-rectangle thing).
The difference is how much white the cat has on its coat. Tortoiseshell cats have very little white on them (or none at all as is preferred by many breeders and specialists), whereas calicos have primarily white fur with tortoiseshell patches (black, red, brown, cinnamon, chocolate, etc) throughout their bodies.
Calicos often have a white belly, white chest, and white paws whereas the rest of their body can have the patch pattern or a brindled one.
But there’s still a lot of confusion around it, especially if you go global. Calico cats are only called calico in the United States and Canada. In Britain, they are called tortoiseshell-white, so depending on where you got your cat and what your vet’s training is, you may see a calico called a tortoiseshell/white coat.
And some breeders still hold that a tortoiseshell can have white as long as it’s only on the chest, tummy, and paws and nowhere else. (Calicos often have white in other places too like their face, tails, shoulders, and back).
I mean, at the end of the day, you have a beautiful cat, regardless of how much or how little white it has in its coat and where it’s located.
Myths and Folklore Around the Tortoiseshell Cat
Tortoiseshell cats are popular and beautiful, so it makes sense there is a lot of folklore and myth around them. Here are some favorites:
- Ancient Celts thought the male tortie cats brought good luck to any home they stayed in
- Japanese fishermen carried tortie cats on boats, especially males which were believed to guard against ghosts
- Many people believe cats are psychic and able to look into the future, particularly tortoiseshell cats
- In Southeast Asia, lore states that these cats came from the blood of a goddess
- English folklore states that rubbing a wart with a torty’s tail would cure it
- A really obscure legend states that tortoiseshell cats are descended from a black cat that could hoist the sun while walking on earth
- In the US, it’s believed that torty cats can bring money into a household (that good luck charm again)
- Dreaming about tortoiseshell cats means love is on the way and if you hear a tortie sneeze on your wedding day, it’s a sign of good luck (and possibly rain, but you can’t get rainbows without rain!)
- In the Far East, it’s thought that torties will both chase away ghosts and bring in money. Dark-colored tortie cats bring in gold while lighter colored ones bring silver
Of course, all kinds of cats carry all kinds of myth and folklore, but torties certainly seem to carry the most! Fortunately, unlike their poor black colored siblings, all the legends around them point to them being good luck and highly beneficial to their owners.
And even if you don’t believe any of that, they are still rather lovely cats to own.
Variations of the Tortoiseshell Cat
Tortoiseshell coloring is… subjective… enough as is, but there are still more variations to confuse potential owners (but they are adorable too)!
We already looked at calico variations, as well as dilute tortoiseshell coloring. There is a final type called a torbie. Torbie cats are a cross between tortoiseshell and tabby.
They have tabby patterns that give them narrow and solid-colored stripes running vertically down the body. This color pattern is also called “mackerel” and these cats can also be called gray tortoiseshell cats. And like regular tortoiseshell coloring, you can also get dilute torbies.
Like any tortoiseshell cat though, this patterning cannot be bred for – it’s just going to come down to luck whether or not you have one. But you can increase the odds by breeding tabbies with torties and hoping for the best.
Is there Such a Thing as ‘Tortitude’?
Many owners (and vets) swear that tortoiseshell cats are some of the most energetic, sassy, attitude-driven, and insane cats of the lot; however, this is probably more to do with breed and socializing than coloration.
Certainly, a cat’s personality can run a huge gamut, just like a person, and much like a person’s hair color has little to do with their personality, a cat’s coat doesn’t impact how they act.
Now the breeds you often see with this coloration can be more insane, energetic, or fun-loving. For example, Cornish Rex’s can be fairly high energy and Persians can be quite diva, so it’s more about the breed. And of course, if you have a mixed breed, you can get character traits from all over the place.
I have had a couple of longhair tortoiseshell cats (the ones with the white coloration) and they were very beautiful cats, often commented on by others. They were also quite lovely pets with distinctive personalities, and they were both females. But they didn’t have any more attitude than any other cat.
Have you ever owned a tortoiseshell cat? How many compliments did she (or he!) get?
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.