Differences Between Tabby, Torbie, and Tortoise Shell Cats

Differences Between Tabby, Torbie, and Tortoise Shell Cats

One of the greatest things about cats is that much like their feline loving owners, they come in all imaginable shapes and sizes. And even a wide range of colors! From the exotic looking spots of a beautiful Bengal cat, to the striking stripes of a Tabby cat, each one is certainly gorgeous and unique.

In today’s article, we will focus in on how to tell the difference between Tabby cats, Calico cats, and even the rare Torties and Torbies.

For example, did you know that “Tabby” actually refers to a specific coat pattern rather than a specific breed of cat? And surprisingly, not all Tabby cats even have stripes! Color us shocked!

In fact, differentiating between the various Tabby cats and other similar looking cats can be quite difficult for the untrained eye. But do not worry! We have put together a comprehensive guide for all cat lovers. Now, you will be able to tell the difference like a real pro!  

First Up: Tortoiseshell Cat aka Tortie

Tortoiseshell Cats are so-named for their tri-colored coats that resemble the colorful shell of a tortoise. Like the Tabby cat, the Tortie cat is not actually a breed. Instead, the “Tortie” term actually refers to the coat pattern that results from a certain genetic combination. Several pure breeds, such as Maine Coons and Persians may exhibit the Tortoiseshell pattern. Mix breeds may even express it!

Most often, Torties are black and red or orange, and oddly, they are almost exclusively female. Or...maybe not so oddly. It turns out that the genes that determine coat color are also responsible for determining sex. So it is all linked!

While male Torties do exist, they are incredibly rare- only about 1 in 3000 male cats have the Tortoiseshell pattern! This is because in order to express the gorgeous Tortie coat pattern, a cat must have a mutation in two X chromosomes. Males only have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome, while females carry two X chromosomes.

So in order for a Tortie to be male, he must have a genetic mutation that causes him to express two X chromosomes, in addition to the Y chromosome that makes him male. This XXY combination is known as Klinefelter Syndrome in humans and unfortunately, this particular gene variation causes the male Tortie to be sterile.

Also unique to Tortoiseshell cats is their sassy personality. Seriously, this goes way beyond the typically observed “cattitude” that is frequently attributed to most house cats. Studies from the University of California, Davis, confirm what Tortie owners have known along: with a flashy coat, comes an extra fiery spirit.

Difficult to distinguish from their Tortoiseshell/Tabby (Torbie) cousins, the Tortie cat does have at least one notable difference - the black part of their coats will be free of stripes. So just keep an eye out for that little detail!


Up Next: The Classic Tabby Cat

Most cat connoisseurs know and love a Tabby cat. With their distinctive stripes and spots, they are certainly hard not to admire. Some may even have unique swirl and whorl patterns. Certainly, they all have an unmistakable “M” on their foreheads.

Many legends exist that attempt to explain why this is. The first legend originated in Ancient Egypt, where cats were referred to as “Mau.” Perhaps this is because of the “Meow” noise that they make, but of course we can’t be sure. In English, Mau translates to light - like the light of the midnight moon. And Ancient Egyptians were known to associate cats with the moon.  The “M” on their heads are thought to represent this Mau/Moon relationship.

Also, unlike the Torties, Tabby cats are not mostly female. In fact, most Ginger Tabby cats are actually male! The Ginger gene is carried on the X chromosome, and in order to express it, females need it on both copies of their X. However, males only need one. As a result of their genetics, male Ginger Tabby cats outnumber females three to one!

As the most common type of coat pattern, the Tabby cat may exhibit one of four distinct marking types. The classic, or blotched tabby, has dark spirals on their lighter fur - resembling a delicious marble cake! The mackerel Tabby, also known as a tiger Tabby cat, has narrow stripes down each side. They are known as the “Mackerel” cat because their stripes all extend from one central stripe down their backs that resemble a fishbone. And of course, the spotted Tabby is covered in adorable spots of all different sizes! Unlike those with larger, more noticeable patterns, the ticked Tabby has individual hairs striped in light and dark colors. This pattern is known as “Agouti” and it is very prominent in the Abyssinian breed.

Are you considering purchasing or adopting a Tabby cat? First, read our complete guide for more information on all things Tabby. It even includes cute and clever name ideas!

Calico Cats: The Easiest to Spot

Perhaps, out of all the cats we have covered today, Calico cats are the easiest to differentiate. It is simple - just keep an eye out for the classic tri-color pattern: white, orange, and black! While it is true that Tortoiseshell cats also have these colors, Calico cats are mostly white with patches of black and orange while Torties have more equal distribution. In fact, some Calico cats are almost totally white, while the Torties have less distinct patterns.

And, like their Tortie friends, Calico cats are most often female due to their genes. As we have mentioned before, a cat’s coat color is determined by their X chromosome. Calico cats inherit one Big O, or dominant gene, and one Little o recessive gene. This “Oo” combination creates the tri-color look that is unique to piebald-esque Calico cats.

Interestingly, in addition to their classic patches, Calico cats may also have Tabby markings. Some say these cats have “Caliby” coats. And because the coat colors and markings are all due to genetic variations, Calico cats can’t be bred intentionally. They are just a very cute and happy accident!

Calico cats are orange, black, and white

Finally: The Rare Torbie Cat

Out of the four types of cat that we have mentioned today, the Torbie cat is most rare. These cats share looks with the Tortoiseshell cats and Tabby cats. In fact, before their name was shortened to Torbie, they were actually known as Reverse Torties due to their tabby stripes and Tortie markings. Sometimes, they are even called patched tabbies because they look mostly like Tabby cats with a few patchy areas of red and cream. No matter what you call them, they are strikingly beautiful!

Torbie cats are arguably the most difficult to differentiate. But do not worry! Here are a few quick tips: First, identify the Tabby pattern - whether it be classic, mackerel, spotted, or ticked. Then, look for little patches of a different color. If you find both, you are likely looking at a Torbie cat. Simple as that!

Blue Torbie cats have diluted coat genes

Tri-Color Cat Traits

We should also note that Torbies, along with Torties and Calicos all belong to the Tri-Color category. This refers to any two colors, plus white. In the case of the Calico cat, the two other colors are always orange and black. But when it comes to Torties and Torbies, the colors can vary - brown, black, cream, orange, tan, red, gray, silver, you name it! And to make things a bit more interesting, some cats can have diluted genes that make their coats appear faded.

Let’s delve into the science a bit. The vibrancy of a cat’s coat is determined by the “D” gene. A Big D is dominant, and a Little d is recessive. If a cat receives a “Dd” or “DD” combination, he will have a fully vibrant coat. But, if a cat receives a “dd” combination, his coat will be diluted. For example, if a black cat has a dilute coat he will actually look blue or gray. And if a Tortie cat has the dilute genes, he will be known as a Blue Creme. And you guessed it - a Calico cat with diluted genes is known as a Blue Creme and White.

Summary of Differences Between Cat Coats

Well, there you have it. Now, you can easily tell the difference between Tabby cats, Torties, Torbies, and Calico cats. Tabbies have a legendary “M” on their head, while Calicos are mostly white with a few patches of orange and black. Torbies, short for Tortoiseshell/Tabby, look like Torties - but they have stripes. And of course, Torties are known for their tri-colored Tortoiseshell pattern and major attitudes! They are beautiful and they know it. But let’s not forget about the cats that have diluted genes. They deserve lots of love too! With their faded fur, they have a very unique blue-ish gray hue that is just adorable.

So, what kind of cat do you have? A sassy Tabby? A Calico? A Tortie with a major ‘tude? Or maybe even a Diluted Torbie? Join our community and let us know what coat pattern your cat has. We would love to know!

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