The tortoiseshell cat has black and orange fur, in a mottled pattern. They look very dark at first glance, despite the flecks of lighter shading to their coat. The tortoiseshell cat isn’t a breed, but a description of a color combination. And it’s a heck of a cute one! Tortoiseshell cats are almost always female, although you can find the occasional male tortie he will normally be sterile and unable to have kittens of his own.
The tortoiseshell cat can be found in several purebred families, such as the large Maine Coon, long furred Persian and even the curly haired Cornish Rex. You can also get gorgeous mixed breed moggies with tortoiseshell fur, along with the odd unusual dilute version with muted tones.
- Tortoiseshell vs calico cats
- Dilute coats
- The mystery of males
- Tortoiseshell cat breeds
- Brilliant behaviors
Check out these 33 amazing tortoiseshell cat facts! Get to know the truth behind your favorite cat pattern, and find out why so many people want tortoiseshell kittens. Because there is more to the tortie cat than meets the eye.
It’s always surprised me that the tortie doesn’t get more press or screen time. They look like someone has had an incredibly creative moment with a couple of halloween themed colors. And although they are unusual, they aren’t so rare that you wouldn’t be able to find one in a hurry.
This pattern of kitty is so remarkable that I remember each one I encounter very fondly. Famed for their sassy attitude, I’ve found them to be anything but. Charming, sweet and with an intense gaze you don’t often find in a feline.
1. Tortoiseshell vs Calico
Although people are not always aware of the differences, the tortoiseshell calico cat and the tortoiseshell are actually two different types of cat. Calico is the term used to describe a tricolored or patched coloration that includes white. In other words, the cat has a random pattern of black, orange and white patches.
Tortoiseshell cat coats have a random pattern of two colors – one based on black, and one based on red. The patches can be small, giving a ‘salt and pepper’ appearance, or they can be big and splodgy.
For a deep dive into the differences and similarities between them, check out tortoiseshell vs calico cats.
2. Dilute Tortoiseshells
Most torties are red and black, also known as black tortoiseshells. But some have muted colors. Instead of bold and striking patches of color, their coats have softer, pastel colors. Rather than red and black, dilute tortoiseshells have orange and grey patches, yellow and chocolate, or other subtle color variations that make torties so unique.
These dilute color kitties are still tortoiseshell cats, but their genes have a mutation that leads to the muted colors. Blue and cream tortoiseshells are a common combination that you might see, and this type of feline is often called a blue tortoiseshell cat. Here, the blue does not really refer to blue, but to a blue-gray color.
3. Tortoiseshells Can Have White Patches
Just to make things a little more complicated, tortoiseshell kittens can have white bibs, tummies and paws, and still be tortoiseshell. These cats are officially described as “tortoiseshell with white trim”.
The difference between them and calico cats are that their white areas aren’t scattered over the body at random – they are neatly organised, and caused by different genes.
4. White Tortoiseshells are the Official Cat of Maryland!
You heard us right! The calico or white tortoiseshell cat is the official cat of Maryland. The state cat became official on October 1, 2001. The feline shares the same color pattern as the oriole, the state’s official bird, so the calico was the obvious choice.
5. There Is No Individual Tortoiseshell Cat Breed
Many people don’t know this, but there is no tortoiseshell breed. We call them torties, and most of us know one, but they don’t form a breed. What’s going on? The tortoiseshell coloring is a variation seen in many different breeds of cat, and it is caused by simple genetics.
The variation is caused by x-linked genes and is called a mosaic expression. While it appears complicated, the term ‘expression’ means that only one x-linked gene for hair color is expressed in each cell. This results in the mixed or patched coloring depending on which gene is left “on” in each cell. Let’s explain this a little further.
Cats, like humans, have sex chromosomes. A female has two X chromosomes in each cell, which we call XX. Males have only one X chromosome and a Y chromosome, XY.
In cats, the X chromosome contains lots of other information, including instructions about coat coloring. Because female cats have two X chromosomes, they receive two sets of instructions (genes) for coat color in each cell. In tortoiseshell cats, these instructions don’t match because they’ve got one gene for orange fur and one gene for black fur.
Now it gets amazing – during an unborn kitten’s earliest development, one X chromosome in every single cell deactivates. This process is known as lyonization, and the X chromosome which deactivates is completely random in each cell. So, some skin cells retain the instruction for orange fur, and others keep the instruction for black fur. So, a tortoiseshell pattern emerges!
6. Most Tortoiseshell Cats are Female
Because this color is linked to the X chromosome, almost all torties are female.
7. … But You Can Get Males Occasionally!
Are all tortoiseshell cats female? No, there are actually some male tortoiseshell felines. However, they are not very common.
Since the color pattern requires two x chromosomes, only male cats with an XX-Y gene mutation will appear to be tortoiseshell. This means that the cat can have the different color genes on each chromosome, but the male cat will have some other issues.
8. Male Tortoiseshell Cats Are Usually Sterile
Male tortoiseshell cats, with XXY chromosomes, are relatively healthy in most ways and can live a long and healthy life. However, a male tortoiseshell cat is sterile due to the abnormal number and pattern of the chromosomes in the cellular DNA.
Approximately 1 in 3,000 (0.033%) of male cats have this condition, and their cells can undergo the same X-inactivation process as females. XXY males are invariably sterile and will remain rare.
9. This Sterility Can Be Seen In Humans!
The unique chromosomal pattern of the male tortoiseshell is sometimes seen in human males, too. The condition is called Klinefelter syndrome in humans and leads to a significant reduction in testosterone.
The lower testosterone levels often lead to a quiet, calm, and sensitive personality, and you may just see these same characteristics in your male feline. So, a male tortoiseshell may be the gentle and loving companion you are looking for. Of course, you have to find one first!
10. Fertile Male Torties Are Rare, But They Do Exist!
Traditional male torties are sterile, but a relatively old study from the 1980s revealed that this is not always true. Scientists found two fertile Burmese tortoiseshell tabby cats in the United States. The cats did not have two X chromosomes, but the regular XY patterning seen in most male cats.
Researchers concluded that their tortoiseshell coloring was caused by the instability of certain genes linked to hair color. In other words, the orange hair genes randomly turned off in some cells and produced the tortoiseshell appearance.
Whether male or female, hair length is something else that owners look for. Some like cats with short hair, while other are fanatics for long haired cats. Luckily, the torti cat coats come in all lengths.
11. Tortoiseshell Cat Hair Can Vary In Length
Tortoiseshell kittens come in both long and short hair varieties. Whether you want a long haired tortie kitten with a luscious coat, or a short and easy to maintain version, you’ll find the right cat to suit you.
If you searched hard you could even find a tortoiseshell Persian cat or a tortoiseshell Siamese mix. Look at your local animal rescue facilities and breeders, and you might be surprised what you can find.
12. Tortoiseshell Cat Color Isn’t Connected to Health
If you are concerned about tortoiseshell cat health problems, then don’t worry. Since the torties are not a specific breed, there are no health issues associated directly with the cats.
However, you should be concerned about general health issues and remember that if, for example, you have a Persian torti cat, you’ll need to look out for the health problems associated with Persians. As always, when looking for a tortie, look out for the general cat health. According to an extensive Finnish study, the most common feline ailments involve the mouth, kidneys, and skin.
13. Tortoiseshell Cat Lifespan Depends Upon Breed
Again, because tortoiseshell doesn’t mean a particular breed, their lifespan can vary. If you know that your tortie belongs to a specific breed, such as a Ragdoll, American Shorthair or Cornish Rex, then look at the lifespan for that cat. If you are not sure, you can look at the average feline lifespan to determine the tortoiseshell cat lifespan.
According to a UK study that looked at the longevity and mortality of over 100,000 cats, the average lifespan was found to be 14 years. Crossbred or mixed breed cats live longer, so you do not have to go searching for a purebred if you want a lifelong companion.
14. Some People Think Tortoiseshell Cats Are Lucky!
According to some traditional folklore, the white, or calico tortoiseshell cat brings good luck. For this reason, the people in the United States often call them “money cats.’
15. Others Believe That Torties Are Mystical!
Not only are torties considered good luck charms, but they may just ward off ghosts and evil spirits according to Japanese culture. In fact, the people of Japan sometimes kept these cats on their boats to protect themselves while out on the water.
16. One Tortie Lived to 21 Years Old!
Marzipan, one of the most famous torties in the world, was a white tortoiseshell cat living in Melbourne, Australia. This feline, who lived to be 21, enjoyed her life in the Astor Theatre and welcomed guests who arrived to watch movies in the cinema. She isn’t the only famous tortoiseshell cat. The Japanese went one better!
17. The Station Master Cat
Tama, a working cat in Japan is also a white tortoiseshell tabby cat. This impressive feline was the station master for the Kishi Station on the Kishigawa Line in Kinokawa, Wakayama. Her job was to meet passengers and she was paid with cat food.
This tortoiseshell station master even wore her own hat and neck badge to signify her position. Like many of our beloved torties, she had a larger-than-life personality!
18. Tortoiseshell Cat Personality Varies
The tortoiseshell personality varies, simply because they can be from a range of breeds. As a result, they most often show the personality and temperament common to that breed.
However, many people claim that the tortie has its own unique personality that makes them very demanding. They are the divas of the feline world. For this reason, tortie lovers refer to this personality as “tortitude.” Although most studies have shown no special personality traits linked to torties, some studies and many owners disagree!
19. But There Could Be A Tortie Attitude!
Tortitude may actually be a real thing, according to a study conducted by the University of California. According to the study, tortoiseshell and calico cat owners described their cats as stubborn and strong-willed in the vast majority of cases.
All very interesting and we are sure that many of you agree. The owners in the study also suggested that their tortie cat was full of energy and mischief.
20. Tortoiseshells Could be Energetic
Many people also associate high energy levels with tortoiseshell cat behavior or tortitude.
Is this true? We don’t know, but just in case, make sure that you have plenty of toys lying around. You may want to keep your feline active and happy.
21. The Word ‘Tortoiseshell’ Could Come From Turtles, Not Tortoises…
Some people are confused by the term tortoiseshell, because a tortoise’s shell is often a fairly uniform dark brown or green color, with little color variation.
However, the hawksbill sea turtle boasts a much more varied shell color, with rich tones of brown and orange.Why, then, do we call these cats tortoiseshells and not turtleshells? Surprisingly, the answer lies in the world of jewelry.
Yes, you heard us right! The old fashioned ‘tortoiseshell’ jewelry wasn’t made from tortoises but from turtle shells. The term, tortoiseshell, actually comes from this jewelry, because it resembles the tortie’s coat.
22. Mitt Brushes are Great for Long Haired Torties
Mitt brushes or grooming gloves are often useful for grooming a feisty long haired tortoiseshell cat. Perhaps she has tortitude and doesn’t like being brushed.
These gloves can help you to brush your feline with gentle strokes, and she will not even know that you are brushing her.
23. A Tortoiseshell Tabby is Called a Torbie
Sometimes, tortoiseshell cats can have tabby patterns in one or both colors. A gray tortoiseshell cat or a tortoiseshell tabby cat, called a torbie, can sometimes have a unique color pattern called mackerel.
This unique name refers to the narrow and solid stripes that run vertically down the body of a tabby. The mackerel pattern makes the feline look like a tiger cat, but the term mackerel suggests the appearance of a mackerel fish.
So, if you see this sort of pattern on a tortie, then you have a mackerel torbie. Torbies are just another wonderful tortie variation, but can you breed tortoiseshells?
24. Tortoiseshell colors are genetic
If you want a specific tortoiseshell pattern, then you can breed for the pattern and color.
Color combinations do depend on genetics and they are not guaranteed, but you are much more like to see a tortoiseshell kitten if you breed with a tortoiseshell mother. Breeding a tortie with black and red males increases the chances of ending up with tortie kittens in the litter.
Red males will often produce felines with more of a red color, while black ones will often produce a black tortoiseshell cat. Talking of color – did you know that some tortoiseshell cats appear to be one color? Neither did we!
25. Some Tortoiseshell Cats Appear to be One Color
Some tortoiseshell cats look like they have a solid color, even if the mother is a tortie. If you cannot tell if your feline is a tortie kitten, then inspect the back of your cat to look for hair color variation.
There are more hair follicles on the back of a feline than anywhere else, so it may be easier to see bits of orange, black, or white in this area.
26. Muted Tortoiseshells can be Described as Brindle
Felines, like the muted tortoiseshell cat, are sometimes referred to as brindle. Brindle is a brown, tawny, or a light hair color with streaks of other colors mixed in. Since brindle is most often used to describe the color of a dog, tortoiseshell is a more apt description. However, you might want to use the term brindle to describe the pattern of different colors in your tortoiseshell.
I think we have talked about color a lot, so for those of you still not convinced by tortoiseshells, what about their personality?
27. Breed has more Influence on Personality than the Tortie Color
If you are looking for a specific tortoiseshell kitten personality, then you should investigate the different cat breeds. For example, Ragdoll, Persian, and Siamese cats are typically quite affectionate and make great companions.
You can then ask a breeder to let you know when a tortie kitten is born with the distinct tortoiseshell coloring. We’re almost at the end. Why don’t we take a break from cats and talk about beautiful butterflies?
28. There is a Tortoiseshell Butterfly!
The term tortoiseshell is not only used to describe jewelry and felines. There is actually a tortoiseshell butterfly as well.
The Aglais urticae is called the small tortoiseshell and features orange and black wings with yellow and black stripes on the top. A small patch of white is found on the tips of the wings. They are stunning butterflies and well worthy of the name. Talking of names, tortie owners come up with some great names for their cats.
29. Tortoiseshell Cats can Inspire Amazing Names
Tortoiseshells often have unique names like Isis, Nubia, or Nefertiti.
These traditional Egyptian names are perfect for the cats, because tortoiseshells can be traced back to the Egyptians. If you have any cool tortoiseshell kitten naming ideas, let us know in the comments.
30. The Tortoiseshell Goddess
Did you know that some people in South East Asia believe that the first tortoiseshell cat had a divine origin. She emerged from the blood of a goddess born from a lotus flower.
That really is one of our favorite stories about the origins of torti cats!
31. Tortoiseshells as a Love Charm
Another great myth about tortie cats says that, if you dream of a tortoiseshell cat, you are destined to be lucky in love. Who knows? Maybe it will work for some of you!
32. Fortune Telling Tortoiseshells
One final myth, although we have no idea where it comes from, is that tortoiseshells are able to see into the future. Even better, they can pass this gift on to a child in the household. Although most of these myths probably are not true, we don’t care because we adore our tortoiseshell cats all the same!
33. Some Breeds have Tortie Points
In some cats, their nose, ear and paws are a different color from the rest of their fur. This color pattern is known as pointed. Its probably best known in the siamese cat. Points can come in a range of different colors, from blue grey to seal, to deep chocolate. But did you know that you can also get cats with tortie points? They include the tortie point Siamese. And they are incredibly pretty!