A Complete Guide to Tortoiseshell Cat Breeds
That extravagant orange and black combination is surely unique! You’ve never seen anything so extraordinary walking around like she owns the place (and she just might). Where in the world did this beautiful cat come from?
As a child, I remember seeing one particularly beautiful cat every time we would visit my aunt’s home in upstate New York. A sort of robust dark-chocolate and vibrant orange striped pattern decorated her spectacularly thick yet silky smooth fur. I had never seen anything like her before!
Her striking beauty almost demanded attention. I always felt this huge desire to run my hands through that angelic coat!
What is a Tortoiseshell Cat?
Named after a cat’s coat color combination, this isn’t actually a specific breed. The coloring these little fellows sport looks a lot like tortoiseshell material, a type of orange/gold and brown mixture of spots and stripes.
The name ‘Tortoiseshell’ is normally given to cats lacking white markings on their fur, contrary to Calico cats which do have white markings on their paw tops or backs or chest areas.
More specifically, they simply combine two non-white colors, mixed or in patches throughout their fur. These colors are usually simply called black and red, but you can have deeper combinations.
The “red” can also be:
The “Black” can also be:
What makes this so tortoiseshell pattern unique, you ask?
Actual tortoiseshell products are produced, you guessed it, from larger tortoise and turtle species. However, many species used to make these products are endangered and protected, making both poaching and selling the products themselves very illegal in many areas. (Thank goodness!)
Though their sale is often illegal, tortoiseshell products can be extremely valuable unfortunately.
But alas, the name lives on in describing some cats.
Cats themselves born with this coloring are nearly always exclusively female. About once in every 3 thousand or so cases a male with this color combination is born! Unfortunately, these unique male torties are born sterile, and can’t reproduce. Synthetic tortoiseshell color was developed.
A Tortoiseshell Cat is named after the color pattern of her coat, and isn’t any one particular breed.
Tortoiseshell Cat Genetics
The select gene coding for darker coloring (i.e. black, cinnamon, brown) will frequently become overshadowed by the dominant gene coding for an orange coloring. Males will have a set of ‘XY’ chromosomes, while females a set of double ‘XX’ chromosomes.
This gene finds itself on the X chromosome, so (you guessed it) it is much more likely for these unique fellows to be born female.
More specifically, ginger coloring in cats (i.e. red, yellow, or orange) is a result of the ‘O’ gene carried on the X chromosome, changing darker pigment into a reddish pigmentation. Females need to inherit two ‘O’ genes on both X chromosomes to become a ginger cat and only one for a Tortoiseshell.
In tricolor cats, the white patches are caused by a gene responsible for piebald spotting.
The ‘non-agouti’ gene is responsible for solid color patches. The red pigmentation isn’t affected by this gene, so some red areas might sport a tabby pattern or markings.
Common Characteristics of Tortoiseshell Cats
Sometimes referred to as ‘tortitude’, these guys can have quite the willful personalities! Don’t worry though; his willfulness is easily matched by affection.
Tortoiseshell cats are definitely friendly and affectionate. Don’t let their notoriety deter you! They may be choosy as to their preferred human.
Whether it is due to their unique combination of genetics, socialization, or simple myths and legends, Tortoiseshell cats are often thought of as a bit more ‘feisty’ than other cats.
When they want something, they are a bit determined to get it, shall we say.
In addition to having be persistent and determined, these guys can seem possessive of their humans (which is not a bad thing). Some might call them unpredictable or fiercely independent.
Your cat might prefer his human interaction over any desire for play or companionship with other cats or pets.
This Torti owner loooves to cuddle (from catnissming in IG)
So, we just went over how Tortoiseshell cats might be a little possessive of their human owners. This often results in an incredibly affectionate cat.
There are plenty of head rubs, loving bumps, purring, and cuddling from these types of cats.
You’ve probably seen a dog urinate on standing objects during walks. You probably already know this is how they leave chemically-based scent markers, or ‘messages’.
Cats have tiny scent glands throughout their bodies, able to mark objects or people by rubbing against them. Some people call this ‘bunting’, and it’s a very natural behavior for cats.
These beautiful cats normally live between 10-15 years, but this can vary greatly since the breed would be a better factor in determining lifespan, not the coat color.
Tortoiseshell Cat Breeds
Since this is the name used for a particular color pattern and combination and not any set breed type, many breeds can be Tortoiseshell cats!
Below are listed general descriptions of 5 of the most common types.
This is a very common domestic cat breed, thought to owe her ancestry to early American cats belonging to European settlers. In 2012, they were believed to be among the seven most popular cats in the United States!
American Shorthairs sport a broad chest with thigh, strong legs and a thick, dense coat. Her coat can grow in the winter, offering a denser texture.
It goes without saying that the American Shorthair is also the most common type of tortie.
Native to Great Britain and probably their oldest natural breed, these cats probably descended from a type of street cats called European Shorthairs. In turn, they were brought to Great Britain around 2,000 years ago, courtesy of the Roman empire.
A thick but shorter coat can come in just about any color or pattern here, so there are several Tortoiseshell possibilities. A compact yet powerfully built body ends in a thick tail, resembling almost a teddy bear appearance.
The Cornish Rex sports a single coat of fine down hairs, whereas other cat breeds with this coloring will have 2-3 layers.
A very unique, smaller appearance depicts the Cornish Rex. He has a sort of ‘crushed velvet’ coat with soft and wavy fur, setting him apart from other cats on our list!
Imported from Iran (known then as Persia) to Italy back around 1620, Persian cats moved westward along with the infamous Crusades. Persian cats soon became very popular among nobility, English Queen Victoria in particular.
Normally weighing between 7-12 pounds, Persians sport a luxurious, long and silky coat. These cats have both an undercoat and topcoat, and are prone to shed more than many others.
Main Coons are thought to be native to America, dating back to early colonial days. No one seems to know exactly where and when they originated since record-keeping was poor in those days.
Adorned with a medium-long, thick coat, Maine Coons are a very large cat breed (largest on our list)! They can sometimes reach 20 pounds or more, but weigh an average of 9-18 pounds.
Their tortie coats will be shaggy and smooth, shorter on the shoulders while longer on the stomach.
Tortoiseshell Cat Breeds
The name ‘Tortoiseshell’ is used to label brindle colored cats with few to no white markings. This can cover a wide array of color combinations, involving amber, red, cinnamon, black and brown (or any mixture of).
Cats with these markings and larger patches of white fur are in fact Calicos. ‘Calico’ is a term describing tri-colored cats that include white, patches, stripes or spots of white in their coat. Think of a random pattern of black, white and orange, or a big patch of white.
These guys have diluted, softer colors instead of a bolder, deep coloring. Their color pattern is ‘muted’. Cream and blue is a common combination, called a ‘Blue Tortoiseshell Cat’.
How Much Do Tortoiseshell Cats Cost?
Typical Tortoiseshell cats (from a reputable breeder) can usually run you anywhere between $750-$3,000! This will vary depending on age and the location you purchased your cat, who from, etc.
Of course, the males are valued at a higher cost than the females. If you ever see one of these unique guys sitting alone at your local shelter, a $300 adoption fee is well worth it if you’re into rarity.
A Little Tortie History & Folklore
Like the Egyptian Tuxedo cat lore mentioned here, Tortoiseshell felines were first thought to charm their caretakers with good luck. This dates back to both ancient Japan and Celtic histories.
Southeast Asian lore claims these exotic cats were formed from the blood of a goddess, while the Japanese believed a cat with the tortoiseshell color provided home protection from ghosts!
From an English folklore perspective, it was believed rubbing a wart on a Tortoiseshell cat’s tail will offer a cure.
One obscure legend even claims these unique guys are actually descended from a very unique black cat that was able to hoist the sun while walking on the earth.
As the sun suddenly left the cat’s body, golden rays marked the cat’s fur. How cool is that?
Wild Facts About Tortoiseshell Cats
- Nearly all of these cats are female, and it is very rare for a male to be born with this coloring combo
- Ancient Celtic peoples thought the male (very rare) tortie cats that stayed in their homes brought good luck
- Japanese fishermen carried them on boats (if they were lucky), believing males would guard against ghosts
- Some believe these cats are even psychic and able to see into the future (hmm, interesting!)
- ‘Mosaic’ is the most common coloring style, a traditional coloring randomly mixed
- Mixing a tortie and a tabby cat produces what is called a “torbie”
Conclusion: Now You Know About Tortoiseshell Cats
There’s no longer any reason to worry about your lack of torty knowledge. Now that you know so much more about this uniquely colored cat, their unique “tortitude”, you can use that newfound information to impress neighbors, friends, and family!
Jackie Johnston is the founder of Cat Word – a community of cat enthusiasts with a mission to spread as much knowledge as they can throughout the world on every aspect of raising and nurturing cats! In her spare time, Jackie loves reading and spending time with her two sons Logan and Christopher, and of course with their furry felines Simba and Max.