What Is a Reverse Calico Cat?

by Nicholas DeMarino, Demand Media
    Calico cats represent an array of three-colored cats. The meaning of the term "reverse calico" isn't clear, though.

    Calico cats represent an array of three-colored cats. The meaning of the term "reverse calico" isn't clear, though.

    If you're writing a soap-opera script about cats, leave out storylines that involve calico kittens accidentally switched at birth. Random gene expression practically ensures no pair of three-color cats looks identical. There qre multiple terms for specific coat configurations but "reverse calico" is a misnomer without a precise meaning.

    Cat Color Genetics

    If you want to understand why the term "reverse calico" doesn't make much sense, you need to learn a little bit about cat genetics.
    Cats carry hair color genes for orange or black fur on their X chromosome. This is straightforward in male cats -- they get orange or black fur -- but female cats can get both genes. Orange is dominant, but a process called lyonization randomly mutes one of the X chromosomes in each cell.
    Black and orange cats are called torties, short for tortoiseshells.

    Spotty Issues

    Calico cats are tortoiseshells with white fur caused by a different gene. (Say "pigmentless fur" and "piebalding" if you want to sound like a scientist.)
    Tortoiseshells have mixed swirls of orange and black fur. Many appear as if their dominant color is black, so some people call orange-dominant tortoiseshells "reverse torties." The term isn't popular today, and its accuracy is questionable.
    Calicos generally have solid orange and black patches and their stomachs and paws are often solid white. Neither black nor orange coloring appears dominant among all calicos, so there's no trend to reverse. That's why there's no such thing as a "reverse calico."
    You could assume so-called reverse calicos have more black spots than orange spots, a la reverse torties, but that usage isn't common, and its accuracy, too, is questionable.

    The Cat's Pajamas

    The name calico refer to all three-color cats, not a breed. Domestic short-haired cats -- the mutts of the cat world -- represent the bulk of calico cats. Some fanciers accept the tri-coloring as an unusual variation in Persian and Manx cats, among others, though.
    Cats come in eight basic colors, six of which -- gray, dark brown, tan, medium brown, beige and cream -- result from variations on black and orange genes. Calicos with these diluted colors are sometimes called "dilute calicos" or are named after the particular shade, like "blue calico" for gray, white and orange variations. The same goes for torties.

    Girl Power

    Almost all calicos (and, by extension, tortoiseshells) are girls.
    It's possible to have a male calico, but they're quite rare. Such cats are XXY, not XY, so, technically speaking, they're hermaphrodites. A lot of people still refer to them as "male calicos," though. These cats are usually sterile and have Klinefelter syndrome, which can greatly shorten their lives.
    An even rarer variety is a chimeric cat, who has both XX and XY cells in his body. They could, theoretically, be fertile, although they're vanishingly few well-documented studies.

    About the Author

    Nicholas DeMarino is a journalist and former newspaper associate editor and reporter. His work has appeared in "The Arizona Republic," "The Billings Gazette," "San Antonio Current" and in other publications. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.

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