What Color Is a Calico?

Calico cats have a distinctive look.

Calico cats have a distinctive look.

A calico cat is a mix of three different colors that can appear as distinct spots or an overall blend. While this color pattern isn’t limited to a particular breed and may be found in cats as diverse as Persians and Manx, calicos are almost always females.

Basic Color

A true calico cat is orange -- sometimes referred to as red -- black and white. The cat typically has patches of these colors in varying sizes and locations over her entire body. In some calicos, each patch of color is distinct, while in other cats the colors run together so that some areas are a bit blurred or muddy looking. The colors can be very crisp and well defined, but they may also look washed out or faded, depending on certain genetic factors. In some cases the colored patches will have distinctive tabby stripes, but these never extend into the white parts.


A tortoiseshell cat is a type of calico cat, but her coat is more of a blend of black and orange, often with little or no white, though it’s not unusual for her to have some patches of white on her chest and belly. Rather than the distinct patches of color that make a calico cat so striking, a tortoiseshell cat has an overall color that is a blending of black and orange. If her colors are diluted, the orange will be pale, more of a cream color, and the black will have a blue or smoky look.

Calico Genetics

The gender of a cat is determined by the X and Y chromosomes. A normal female will have two X chromosomes, while a normal male will have one X and one Y. In cats, coat color is linked to the X chromosome. Since a male has only one X, he ends up being the color that is on that chromosome, either orange or black. Females, on the other hand, have two Xs. When a female cat inherits one black and one orange chromosome, instead of ending up with fur that is one color, she ends up with some of each.

Male Calicos

A male calico cat is possible, although extremely rare. Genetically, he actually has two X chromosomes and one Y chromosome, a condition known in people as Kleinfelter’s syndrome. He can have any of the color patterns the girls have, including tortoiseshell, tabby and diluted, but there’s no point in trying to breed him, since he’s almost certainly sterile. Even if he’s not, his color is a fluke and not something he can pass down to his progeny, so he’s better off kept only as a pet.

About the Author

A recipient of a business and technology degree from the master's program at West Coast University, Cindy Quarters has been writing professionally since 1984. Past experience as a veterinary technician and plenty of time gardening round out her interests. Quarters has had work featured in Radiance Magazine and the AKC Gazette.

Photo Credits

  • calico cat domestic pretty rest sleep relax lounge image by Paul Retherford from Fotolia.com