There’s something special about a calico cat. Unlike a conventional tortoiseshell cats, whose colour patches are fairly evenly distributed all over and have very little white, calicos are primarily white with clearly defined patches of colour. Calico cats are often called tortoiseshell-and-white cats in the UK. They’re also known as callies, tricolor cats or brindled cats. In Japan, the callie is called a Tobi Mi-Ke cat, meaning “three-colour fur”; they’re seen as symbolising good luck and happiness. As well as the typical white background with coloured patches, you can sometimes see calicos with tabby fur and coloured patches.
What percentage of calico cats are female? 99.9667% of calico cats are female, or 2,999 our of 3,000. The remaining 0.003 percent consists of physically male cats with an extra X chromosome, making them XXY. Only one in 3,000 calicos is male and only one in 10,000 of these males is fertile.
If you’ve found this page, you’ve obviously got questions about calico cats. Maybe you’re wondering if your calico kitty is male or female. Perhaps you’re concerned about your calico cat’s health. You may even have found yourself looking after a male calico and want to know if there’s anything important information that you should be aware of. Perhaps your female calico is pregnant and you’re wondering if she might have a male calico kitten, or maybe you’re just curious as to why most calico cats are girls. To find out the answers to all these questions and more, just keep reading.
What percentage of calico cats are female?
All but a tiny fraction of a percent of calico cats are born female. The genes that create calico markings are essentially the same as those for tortoiseshell fur, except for an additional expression of the gene for white spotting. Calico markings are not breed-specific. Calico and tortoiseshell cats have a mutant version of the genes for orange and non-orange colouration, which causes their beautiful mottled and patched coats. This mutant gene is carried on the X chromosome. For a cat to have tortie or calico markings, there needs to be both a copy of the gene for orange fur and the gene for no orange fur. This means that two X chromosomes are necessary for both genes to be present, otherwise the cat will not have those mottled or patched markings. For this reason, tortoiseshell and calico cats are almost always female. Male cats normally have XY chromosomes and therefore only one of the orange or non-orange genes.
In some rare cases, however, a cat is born with a condition called Klinefelter syndrome. These cats have a Y chromosome but instead of just one X, they have two. These XXY cats are physically male; however, they can have the orange gene on one X and the non-orange gene on the other X chromosome. This produces a tortoiseshell or calico cat with male genitalia.
These XXY males are very seldom fertile, although it does happen on rare occasions. They can also have other health issues and even if fertile are generally not regarded as suitable breeding stock. Female calicos, with their standard XX chromosomes, are perfectly healthy.
What all of this means is that your calico cat is almost certainly a female. If you do happen to find yourself caring for a male calico, pay special attention to his health as he may be a little more frail than other cats. Although your calico lad ma not be able to produce kittens, he is still a tom cat and needs to be neutered just like any other male cat. Infertility will not protect him from the health issues that can arise in an “entire tom”; nor will it protect you from moodiness, aggression, spraying and the other issues brought on by failing to neuter your pet.
If your male calico is the one in 10,000 who happens to be fertile, of course, he should still most definitely be neutered. His offspring are unlikely to be especially healthy and he should not be used for stud. Some people imagine that a fertile male calico should produce more male calicos and should also fetch a high price. This is incorrect. Breeders do not want male calico cats for stud as they tend to have health problems, which may be passed on to their offspring. A cat owner might be interested in a male calico as a curiosity but they are not especially valuable. Do the responsible thing and have your calico boy de-sexed as soon as he’s big enough.
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What breed is a calico cat?
The calico pattern belongs to no specific breed and does not designate a particular type of cat. There are around 16 breeds which can produce kittens who have calioc colouration. Breeds with solid colours (like the Russian Blue, the panther-like Bombay cat and the British Shorthair) can’t be calicos, although mixes between these and other breeds may produce a calico cat. Similarly, breeds with pointed colourations such as Siamese cats cannot be registered as pure-bred cats if they have calico patterns, since they must be mixed to have the calico gene.
Breeds that can produce calico cats include both short and long-haired types. As well as your friendly neighbourhood mixed-breed domestic moggy, lots of pure-bred cats may exhibit tortoiseshell and calico varieties. Short-haired breeds that can produce calicos include the Manx and Japanese bobtail, the American Shorthair (as well as the American Curl and Wirehair). Rex cats (Cornish, Devon and Selkirk Rexes) can be calicos. Long-haired breeds that can produce calicos include Persians, Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest Cats, American Longhairs and Turkish Angoras. Exotic cats can produce calicos in both short and long-haired variants.
Naturally these breeds can also produce torties, since the same genes are responsible for both patterns. Calicos may be produced quite infrequently, even if the parent cats have produced calico kittens in the past.
Types of calico cat
The standard calico cat has three colours: black, orange and white, with white usually predominating. This is not the only type of calico out there, however. Some calico cats actually have four colours rather than the usual three, with grey or tabby patches as well as the usual colours. As mentioned above, the white on some calicos is replaced entirely by a handsome ticked tabby colouration; these cats are sometimes called “calibbies” and they’re very appealing.
You can also find a variant known as the dilute tabby. These cats have the usual three colours but in a lighter, more subtle form. The black is replaced by a soft grey-blue, rather like the coat of a Russian Blue cat. The spicy orange-red, meanwhile, is replaced by a gentle peachy tint. I find this type of colouration very eye-catching, especially in long-haired breeds. The delicate colours give them a rather romantic look.
Eye colours in calico cats vary greatly. They may have any possible feline eye colour: blue, green, yellow, orange, or a deep amber that’s almost brown. They may also have any combination of these. More than once I’ve seen a calico cat with heterochromia — eyes of different colours. Typically these cats have had a patch of colour over one of their eyes, with the darker eye being on the side with the darker fur. Twice I’ve encountered callies with a blue eye on the ginger half of the face and a green eye on the part with a black patch. I’m not sure if calicos are especially prone to the condition but it was certainly a memorable effect.
Why are calico cats popular?
Calicos of all breeds are quite popular for their eye-catching and colourful coats; they also lack the tortoiseshell’s reputation for moodiness and attitude, although most owners agree that calico cats are quite sassy enough. Because calicos are slightly unusual, they have some degree of rarity value. It’s impossible to deliberately breed for this pattern — every calico is a happy accident.
Another reason for the calico’s popularity is that many cultures see this colouration as particularly auspicious. There are legends about their magical powers in Europe, including a belief once held in Ireland that a calico cat could cure warts if you petted it. The belief in the calico as a source of good fortune followed these cats to the US, where they’re sometimes called “money cats”. The state of Maryland voted, in 2001, to make the calico cat their official state cat.
As we’ve already noted, the calico cat is especially well-regarded in Japan. Cats in Japanese tradition have rather a mixed reputation, with many legends featuring sinister cat spirits that get up to all kinds of mischief. Cats with the celebrated Tobi Mi-Ke colouration, however, are regarded as entirely positive and are eagerly sought after. In times past, Japanese sailors would favour calicos as their ship’s cats; not only would the cat keep down vermin but, with her three-coloured coat, she was sure to protect the vessel and her crew from other disasters. Even today, the popular cat figures known as Maneki-Neko (greeting cat) are often given a calico-style pattern for additional good fortune.
Perhaps it’s the beauty of their markings or the serendipitous and unpredictable way that a calico can appear in a litter, but calico cats seem to have a reputation for good luck all around the world.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.