How to Tell the Difference Between a Calico and Tortoiseshell Cat

Caitlin Dempsey


A calico kitten stares at the camera.

Calico and tortoiseshell cats can sometimes be confusing to tell apart. Both the calico and tortoiseshell have a patchy multi-colored coat and these cats are almost always females. Related: Unicorn of Cats

Calico and tortoiseshell cats are almost always female

For both calico cats and tortoiseshell, the coat pattern is linked to genes expressed on both X chromosomes, which is why these cats are almost always females. In rare instances, calicoes and tortoiseshells can be male but are always sterile due to genetic mutation.

Calico and tortoiseshell is a coat pattern, not a cat breed

Both the calico and tortoiseshell are types of coat patterns found on cats and is not specific to a singular cat breed.

In fact, certain cat breeds allow for the calico coat pattern such as PersianJapanese bobtail, ManxMaine Coon, and Scottish Fold cats.

A mostly white cat with calico patterns on the top of the head, tail, and hind legs.
A Japanese bobtail with calico pattern. Photo: © Callalloo Twisty /

Likewise, several breeds such as the American shorthair, British shorthair, Cornish Rex, Persian, and Maine Coon cats can be tortoiseshell.

What differentiates the calico from the tortoiseshell is how the color combinations are expressed in the cat.

Video: What is the difference between a calico and a tortoiseshell cat?

Calicos are tricolor

Calicos have a three-color coat, with the white covering 25% to 75% of the cat. White is always one of the colors in the tricolor calico color combination.

The head and shoulders of a calico cat starting at the camera.  Some out of focus plants and soil are in the background.
Calico cats always have between 25% and 75% white along with two other colors. Photo: © Pellinni /

Unlike tortoiseshells, calico coats always contain some white. The color combination on calicos is always blocks (or patches) of color. Calico is mostly a term used in Canada and the United States to describe this cat coat color combination. In the United Kingdom, calico cats are known as “tortoiseshell-and-white” cats.

The most common color combination is red, black, and white. Other colors in the tricolor color combination can include cream, gold, brown, or orange.

What are muted calico cats?

Muted calicos are cats with a grey and cream coat pattern, giving the cat a less vibrant coat.

A muted calico cat lying on a light brown rug.
A muted calico with light orange, gray, and white color combination. Photo: © IcemanJ /

What are caliby cats?

Calicos that also have tabby markings are known as caliby cats (a merge of calico and tabby).

A calico kitten stares at the camera.
A caliby kitten with both the calico and tabby cat coat patterns. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Tortoiseshell cats have two coat colors

The tortoiseshell is a combination of two colors with very little white expressed in the coat pattern. Tortoiseshell cats are also known affectionately as torties.

The most common coat color mix in tortoiseshell is red and black. Other color combinations can include cream, gold, or orange. Muted tortoiseshell cats have a gray and cream color pattern.

Tortoiseshell cat have either no white or only a small white patch on their bodies.

A calico cat look at the camera.
A tortoiseshell cat with a white chest. Photo: Carole M. Highsmith, public domain via

Tortoiseshell cats get their name from how the coat color pattern is similar to that of the shell of a tortoise.

The colors combinations can either be small patches of each color or brindled where each color is mottled across the body. Unlike calico cats which have defined large patches of each color all over the body, tortoiseshell cats have the two color combinations weaved throughout the fur.

A tortoiseshell cat looking off the the right in front a white painted brick wall.
Tortoiseshell cats have two colors, often red and orange, that form a mottled coat pattern with little or no white areas. Photo: © katyamaximenko /

What are torbie cats?

Tortoiseshell cats that also have the tabby cat coat pattern are known as torbies.

A torbie cat sitting on light brown tile in front of the side of a dark blue sofa.
Torbie cats have a unique fur pattern that is a mix of a tabby and a tortoiseshell cat. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.


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Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.