Tortoiseshell Cats Facts, Genetics And Personality

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Tortoiseshell Cat

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Prior to the 1970's, tortoiseshell was a popular material for eyeglasses, jewelry, combs and furniture inlays. The mottled black and dark reds were beautiful and it had an oddly warm texture.

Then, environmentalism became a thing and it was no longer in vogue to kill animals for decorations.

This came as great relief to the still critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, where this material was coming from. Today, it is illegal to import or export tortoiseshell products or harm a hawksbill sea turtle in any way.

Let's keep the shell on the tortoise (turtle, whatever) where it belongs. If you still want something beautiful, mottled and warm, why not get a tortoiseshell cat?

What is a tortoiseshell cat?

A tortoiseshell cat, also known as a tortie, is a cat born with a fur pattern resembling the mottled red and black tortoiseshell material. Even the paw pads might have some spotting. “Tortoiseshell” is usually reserved for multicolored cats that have rather small or no white markings.

The ones that are mostly white and have tortoiseshell patches are known as tricolor. In the UK they are known as tortoiseshell-and-white. This pattern is simply called calico in the United States and Canada.

Tortoiseshell Genetics

It is a unique genetic structure that makes a tortie a tortie. Just as genetics will determine whether you have a short haired or long haired cat, genetics determine the color pattern of the fur as well.

The gene for dark colors (brown, black, cinnamon, etc.) can often be masked by the co-dominant gene that makes the orange color. Because this is carried on the X chromosome, chances are very good your tortie is a girl.

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The red patches can also be cream, orange or yellow. The darker parts can be black, chocolate brown, grey blue or even a tabby pattern. Cats with that last coloring in them are known as torbies. A tortie with lighter, almost pastel colors like cream, lilac or cinnamon is known as a dilute tortoiseshell.

Tortoiseshell vs Calico

While all tortoiseshell cats are calico, not all calicos are tortoiseshells. While the genetics that make the tortoiseshell pattern are much like the ones to make the calico pattern, the calico carries the white spotting allele.

tortie will have little to no white in her fur pattern. Calico, like tortoiseshell, is the name of a coat pattern rather than breed. You may well find a calico and a tortoiseshell in the same litter.

Tortoiseshell cat personality – Tortitude

It is believed that tortoiseshell cats have a bad attitude. Perhaps this led to the Japanese superstition that torties chase off ghosts. No one wants to believe their cat is hissing and yowling at them, so they imagine that the cat's troublesome behavior is trying to scare away a ghost. Torties have been described as stubbornly independent, frisky and capricious.

They are known to be very vocal and will advertise their needs and wants (even if it's only for attention) by hissing, meowing or loudly purring. In other words, they're not very different from most cats.

As your tortie is likely to be female she will likely have behavior associated with female cats. A female cat may not roam as far or as often as a male.

A queen, after all, never strays far from her castle and that is how she expects to be treated. She may not be itching to start a fight, but she will have no problem finishing one. And don't mess with her kittens if you want to keep those fingers in one piece.

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Health and Lifespan

The average lifespan of a tortie is fourteen years, much as with any other cat. Some have been known to live longer with Marzipan the Theatre cat of Melbourne reaching twenty-one. (More about her later) With proper care and nutrition, a tortie should live a good, long life.

Tortoiseshell cat health problems

The only health problem unique to the tortoiseshell is Klinefelter Syndrome in the rare case that you have a male tortie. Neutering may seem unnecessary as he will be sterile, but it will remove his chances of developing testicular cancer and reduce territorial spraying.

These cats are not as long lived, being prone to tumors, subarachnoid hemorrhage and diseases of the aortic valve. They may have habits more like a female cat.

For instance, if he comes across some kittens he will care for them like a mother and may even attempt to nurse. They can't be fathers, but they can be good nannies. He may even try to entice other males into mating with him. Of course, many male torties have been observed to “swing both ways”.

Your male tortie may have more frail bones, so he will have to be treated gently. His weight will have to be watched as he can pack on the pounds easily.

Ask your veterinarian about vitamins or dietary supplements that might make life easier for your colorful little boy. Other than some minor health risks and being a little in touch with his feminine side, a male calico can lead a life like any other cat.

Breeds that can have a Tortoiseshell coat

Tortoiseshell is a coloring, not a breed. Many breeds carry the tortoiseshell coloring. The American and British shorthairs are the most common.

Siamese and Burmese cats may not meet breed standard if they exhibit calico markings, but it has been known to happen. The Japanese bobtail with calico or tortoiseshell markings is said to be particularly lucky.

Persians and Maine coons make for beautiful longhaired torties. The Scottish fold, American curl and both Cornish and Devon rexes can have tortoiseshell coats.

Even the hairless Sphynx may have patches of color on her skin.

There was a wild feline species from Brazil known as Felis bracatta said to have the tortoiseshell pattern. Sadly, this beautiful and elusive species is believed to be extinct.

To this day, the only specimen of Felis bracatta is a mounted skin and a sketch dating from 1897. If there are any left, they're good at hiding!

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Tortoiseshell cat facts

Here are some more things you might want to know about your colorful friend.

You can not breed them

Sorry! Can't be done! This sort of thing is totally random. Even an attempt to clone a calico resulted in more of a calabbie. Male calicos and torties cannot sire kittens. 

Tortie and calico females may be more likely to have tortie and calico kittens, but it will still be completely random. Fortunately, this pattern is not at all rare and you are sure to find one or maybe even a dozen at your local animal shelter.

Most Tortoiseshell cats are females

Females make up the vast majority of tortoiseshell cats because two X chromosomes are needed to create the coloring of black, gold and orange.

As male cats have only one X and one Y chromosome, that means that it is technically almost impossible from a genetic standpoint for a male to inherit the gene for tortoiseshell coloring.

The rare male tortoiseshell would have an extra X chromosome, making it an XXY, a symptom of Klinefelter Syndrome.

A study by the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri shows that only 1 in 3000 tortoiseshell cats is male. On the rare occasion that a calico is male, he will typically be sterile.

Considered Good Luck All Over the World

In many parts of the United Kingdom, it is believed that torties will vanish your warts. The cat's gender and the month you do this in seem to vary. (In pagan magick, Monday is the best day for healing spells. Try it then.)  

In the Far East, it is believed torties will chase off ghosts while bringing in money. In fact, it's believed that the darker colored torties will bring in gold while the lighter colored ones bring in silver.

To have a dream about a tortoiseshell cat means love is on the way. One wedding superstition states that if a bride hears a tortie sneeze on her wedding day, good luck is sure to come. (Of course, sneezing cats are also said to be an omen of rain.)

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Tortie Cats in Culture and History

In Among the Khmers of Southeast Asia, it is believed that tortoiseshell cats were created from the blood of a goddess born from a lotus flower.

Said goddess may well have been Nang Kwak, a Thai goddess of fortune who dresses in red and gold and often takes the pose of the Japanese maneki neko. Perhaps this was to explain why torties were almost always female and had a rather imperial attitude.

A Turkish myth says the cat was created by a wizard using smoke, fire and two bright stars. In America, they're called “money cats” because it's believed having one around will make you luckier in financial matters.

In the painting “The Courtship of Washington” by Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris, a calico can be seen washing her paws under the table in the far right corner. As calicos tend to be female, this was probably not the feral tomcat Martha Washington was said to have named after Alexander Hamilton.

Writer Edgar Allan Poe had a tortie named Cattarina who died mere weeks after he did.  One of the most famous tortoiseshell cats was Marzipan, who lived to be 21 years old. Marzipan lived out her unusually long life at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne, Australia where she welcomed the movie patrons.

torbie named Tama (her name means “ball”) was stationmaster for Kishi Station in Kinokawa, Japan. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Bonding” featured a rare male calico named Patches, who turned out to be an illusion created by an alien entity who wanted to console a boy who had recently lost his mother.

How to Look After Your Tortoiseshell Kitten

First of all, you want to make sure you are not getting your kitten from a mill. If you aren't shown the mother or the rest of the litter, it's possible you're being sold a mill kitten who may be dead in a few days.

A reputable animal shelter may be the best place to go. In any case, take your new kitten to the vet for a full check-up.

Finding out what breed you have will be instrumental in monitoring her health. Feed her a healthy, high protein diet. Show off that beautiful mottled fur by having it regularly groomed and cleaned.

There are cat shampoos that are better suited for dark fur or light fur. Buy accordingly. Meet both her physical and emotional needs and you will have a healthy and happy cat!

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The tortoiseshell cat is a beautiful animal to have as a pet, named for a lovely decorative material that had to be discontinued when it was discovered that demand for it was damaging the environment.

This is a coat pattern rather than a breed. The genetics are complicated, making them impossible to breed even by direct cloning. Due to the genes being so closely tied to the X chromosome, nearly all tortie are female.

The scarcely seen male calico will have Klinefelter Syndrome. A cat with Klinefelter syndrome may have some health problems to attend to but otherwise can be a sweet cat to have around.

Many people around the world consider the tortie to be lucky. Torties have a reputation for having a prickly attitude and all around bad temper, but it is unjustly deserved. A cat's treatment in life has much more to do with personality than anything like hair color. Treat your tortie as nicely as you would any other cat and you will find her responding in kind.

Frequently Asked Questions


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