7 Fascinating Facts About Tortoiseshell Cats

Are most tortoiseshell cats truly female? And where did the name tortoiseshell come from in the first place? Is ‘tortitude’ a real thing for tortie cats?

A tortoiseshell cat sleeping and relaxing.
A tortoiseshell cat sleeping and relaxing. Photography ©piranka | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

What could former president of the United States Ronald Reagan and actress Lea Michele possibly have in common? They both added stray tortoiseshell cats to their families! President Reagan kept his two tortoiseshell cats, Cleo and Sara, at his California vacation ranch. It’s reported that Michele found her tortoiseshell cat, Sheila, on a Paramount studio lot. That’s the power of the “tortie” — one of the nicknames for tortoiseshell cats. So, what exactly are tortoiseshell cats, and what’s so special about tortoiseshell cats? Let’s find out!

A close up of a tortoiseshell cat.
Tortoiseshell does not refer to a cat breed. Photography ©Justin Davis | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

1. Tortoiseshell cats are not a breed of cat.

Tortoiseshell cats have a combination of two colors, usually black and red. There are variations of the black and red, too — black can be diluted variants of brown or grey and the red can be diluted to cream, gold or orange. Torties are called tortoiseshell because the coloring of their coats looks like tortoiseshell.

Tortoiseshell was a highly prized material used in manufacturing everything from jewelry to furniture until 1973. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) banned the use of real tortoiseshell worldwide at that time since turtle and tortoise populations were being decimated. Synthetic tortoiseshell is still popular. “What does that have to do with cats?” … you may be wondering. Well, the color combination is rarer than most coat cat colorings.

2. Tortoiseshell cats are predominantly female; it’s in the genes.

The chromosome linked to coloring in cats is the X chromosome. Females have two X chromosomes, carrying the orange and black codes. Males have a tiny percent chance of displaying orange coat color. And to further confound things, female cat heterozygous display a combination of orange and black, aka tortoiseshell.

3. Piebald is not a reference to a hairless dessert.

While tortoiseshell cats are two colors, if white is present, the cat is now considered piebald. But you probably know them as “calico cats.” Although, outside the United States, this term is not popular.

Sephora and Diane Iannoccone.
Sephora shows off her tortitude with shelter volunteer Diane Iannoccone. Photography by Denise LeBeau.

4. What about tortoiseshell cats and the much ballyhooed “tortitude?”

In an article on tortoiseshell cat personality, Maeve Conner gleans some insights from cat behavior expert and star of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell, Jackson Galaxy. “Galaxy says he has not found tortoiseshell cats to be feistier than average, but he does believe they tend to be ‘more sensitive to the stimulus around them.’”

I’ve seen some real chutzpah from tortoiseshell cats. At my local shelter, North Fork Animal Welfare League, the cats live in cage-free enclosures, with a large population of all kinds of felines. Volunteer Diane Iannoccone spends almost every free moment at the shelter socializing cats. Many of the cats are scared when they first enter the facility. One cat named Sephora caught Diane’s eye. Sephora is a young tortoiseshell cat who was shy at first. Diane went out of her way to help the kitty come out of her, um, shell!

After two weeks, Sephora wasn’t only feeling more acclimated, but made sure she was the queen of the hill. She beat out dozens of other cats to proudly perch on Diane’s lap. And, happily, Sephora got adopted into a loving home shortly thereafter. It could have been her “Meow First” personality that won her that coveted spot. While this could help prove that tortitude is true — is there any science behind it?

Tortoiseshell cats are known for having tortitude.
Is tortitude in tortoiseshell cats really a thing? Photography ©piranka | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

5. The tortitude heard around the world!

In 2016, articles touting tortitude spread faster than unchecked fleas in a cattery. Reputable publications such as the Sacramento Bee and the Seattle Times were sharing the results of a study released by University of California, Davis. The study, from a behavior expert at the highly respected UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, was originally published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. While the headlines were purporting “tortitude,” the reality is, “Researchers found no significant variations in aggression level associated with coat color at vets’ offices, despite common attitudes among veterinarians, technicians and shelter workers that some coat colors reflect cats with more peppery personalities.”

6. So, what are torbies?

Tortoiseshell coat coloring can mix it up in stunning ways when combined with tabby patterns. Yep, these types of tortoiseshell cats are called torbies.

A tortoiseshell cat getting or taking a treat.
Some myths and legends surround tortoiseshell cats. Photography ©piranka | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

7. Tortoiseshell cats are legendary!  

Cat expert and publisher of The Conscious Cat, Ingrid King, finds tortoiseshell cats so fascinating that she wrote a whole book about them. Tortitude: The BIG Book of Cats with a BIG Attitude features interesting tidbits. Ancient Celts believed it was good luck if a male tortoiseshell cat stayed in their home (with about 1 in 3,000 tortoiseshell cats being male, that’s some luck!). Japanese fishermen believed the males protected their ships from ghosts (again with the males!). It’s said that tortoiseshell cats bring money, have psychic abilities and see into the future. And if you dream about one, you’ll soon be in love (most likely with a tortie!).

Thumbnail: Photography ©piranka | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

This piece was originally published in 2018.

Read Next: The Fascinating Facts Behind Cat Colors

130 thoughts on “7 Fascinating Facts About Tortoiseshell Cats”

    1. I love coming across pet blogs, especially one regarding cats! That’s awesome about Ronald Regan having this special bread. Thank you for article.

  1. The GIF ad to the right is extremely distracting. I failed to read the rest of the article because of it. If you feel it necessary to include active GIFS, perhaps you might offer the option to stop the animation.

  2. I am on my second Tortie, she was once treed by a dog, and was really frightened. Has never gone outside since. Now we have two dogs that come in every night and I warn my 5 cats “puppies are coming” when I go to get them. Squeeky as decided it is her house and sits in the middle of the kitchen when they come in or go out and makes them walk around her. Now these are two dogs that love to chase cats, and they walk very carefully around her and sometimes make a slight sniff of her, but would think of doing anything else. It is her house. She is very small, only 8 pounds, but stands her ground every time.

  3. Lillian Heldreth

    I can’t figure out how our Miss Fanny was still at the shelter when we went to pick out a cat. We were looking for a black female to go with Our Sam, but this pretty ball of fluff put on such a show that we couldn’t resist. She rubbed our legs, she purred, she said “take me home” in every possible way. How could we take another cat when this one so obviously wanted us? She’s been with us for three years now, keeping big black Sam in line (“Stay out of my space, thank you very much!”) posing like a beauty queen, and otherwise finding ways to amuse us. She “talks” in emphatic chirrs at times, and is a treasure whom we love.

  4. I have a female tortie, her name is Tigger, & she loves to talk, run around the house at different times of the day like a crazy cat. I found her in my neighbors drive way one late night when I was setting outside on my porch. When I took her to the vet. to make sure she was okay they told me that she was about three weeks old.
    Not only is she a tortie she is a kitty with no tail, she is a Manx, she is now five yrs. old & has come into her own with my adopted eleven yr. old American Bobtail, so in my house having no tail & a quarter inch tail is just fine.

  5. I have a tortie who is also polydactyl. She has a thumb on each of her front paws. She strokes my face with those sweet paws. Her name is Mama Kitty and I adopted her in 2005. I think she must be about 17 now. Now that I am working remotely, she stays by my side all day long. I love my kitty and would be lost without her.

  6. Have a tortie, Joy, unlike any other cat I ever had, and I’ve had many. She literally rules the apt She’s a big, powerful cat who literally moves dining room solid wood chairs to get me up in the morning, she has a rigid schedule which I must keep for her. A very vocal girl, a runner, jumper, and loves to sit on my lap when her mood hits. Not at all shy with people, it’s like living with a roommate, my best friend. True tortitude!

  7. I have a brindle tortie who is the queen of the house, her name is meme. She was a litter of kittens who my crazy cat mom rescued from feral cats who set up residence at her house. She has an attitude and is very aggressive towards my other two cats. She wants to be petted when she wants to be petted, she is a biter/ nibler when being petted, to the point I have to be stern with her to lighten up.

    I also have a tabby/ tortie mix, yoyo she is tabby from her chest then a gradual shift into tortie. She is very shy, until she wants attention. She is not aggressive until meme play fights with her then it’s on. She will go toe to toe with meme and hold her own. When her and meme get going it sounds like herd if buffalo running through the house.

  8. I honestly thought Tabitha was a Calico, but after reading some articles and pics I get it now, she’s a Tort. Being an OTR trucker I’ve had her with me since about 6 weeks old and January 1 2020 almost 2 years later she’s had her first litter of 5, and yes in my 18 wheeler. She had a one like her and one a Calico they are amazing kittens I’m keeping those two.

      1. Exactly my question. This coming from someone who jus spent weeks caring for and trying to find good homes for six kittens that a stray brought into my yard. By the way, even that stray is now spayed.

    1. Please get her spayed. There are too many cats and kittens that won’t get good homes and be put down. Don’t forget her vaccinations too, especially being an OTR trucker. Be safe out there.

  9. Any one interested in torture calico cats must read. C.alicos and kin available at amazon bookstore or author house.com.

  10. My Tortie is 12 years old. I had a small dog until two weeks ago when he died. The two got along fine even though they were not real close companions. It never occurred to me that my Callie would miss the dog, but she does. She walks through the house meowing and appears to be looking for him. They had been together for eight years. I’ve been considering going to the local shelter and getting another cat, but I wonder if Callie would adjust to another cat. Should I choose a young cat or another senior? What do some of you readers think? Because of my age, I really can’t take care of another dog, but Callie is lonely.

  11. I found all of your comments interesting. I have had my Tortie for 11 years. She was about one year old when I got her as a stray from one of my neighbors. I thought she was a calico until I found information on Torties on a website. She is beautifully marked. I never let her outside as she is very shy and becomes afraid easily, but she is lovable with me and soon warms up to visitors. She is independent and makes her own rules. She sits on my lap when SHE wants to. From the day I got her she wakes me in the mornings by patting my face, usually quite gently. However, if I don’t respond and get up to feed her breakfast, her little claws come out a little and she lets me know she means business. I love her dearly and as a seventy-nine years old widow, she is a constant companion. If I have been away, she greets me at the door when I come home. Then she hops, turns away and runs. That always makes me laugh and I need that!

    1. I have a torbie, Callie, and her ginger tabby brother, Oscar. She is affectionate when she is hungry! She is sweet natured though and loves her brother – they spend so much time sleeping, hugging each other. He is much more affectionate and quirky.

  12. My beautiful Coco was a tortie. I saw her at 2 weeks old at the rspca. I’d gone to ‘just visit’. Whilst talking to the receptionist I could hear her squeaking from a box. The more I talked the louder her squeak until she popped her head out of the box. Love at first sight. They didn’t think she would survive being so young without her mother. We had the most wonderful 21 years together. Sadly I lost her in November. I’m so totally heartbroken.

    1. I got my torie about 3 weeks ago I named her Coco. I couldn’t think of a name but my grandchildren thought of the name. I swear she is hyper but after reading the different messages on sights, I guess she is normal

    2. I have a Tortie, a Torbie and a Tabby. Two females and a male. The tabby is a male. Sorry for your loss. My cats literally saved my life. I am a veteran with PTSD. I have a hard time some days. At one point, I was going to end it all, then I met Maxx and Chica. Maxx is the Tabby and Chica is the Torbby. Brandy is the Tortie. Don’t know what I would do without them. So I know how you feel. 21 years is a long time so I know the memories are exquisite. I know the ones that we are making are.

      1. 21 yrs. is a very long life for kitty. You must have done something right as I believe their life expectation is less than 1/2 of that. My condolences.

    3. My Eddie died ten years ago after spending thirty amazing – and loud – years with me. I’m just beginning to think maybe of getting a kitten. I feel so bad for you – my condolences on your loss..

    4. Susan from Florida

      Our wonderful tortie, Molly, lived with us for 18 years. I still miss her, though she died over ten years ago. She had the heart of a lion and once went right up to the nose of a deer in our open woods. The deer must have smelled cat and took off. Molly sat there looking as if she were saying “See, I’m even feared by animals this big!” Loved her dauntless courage.

  13. We inherited a female torti when renting neighbors across the street were evicted. They had 3 dogs and at one time 4 cats. Our flame point siamese was the first to jump ship there last July (2018), and would not go back. When they were evicted, they took their dogs and not any of their cats. One — the torti, started hanging around here to get food and be around people with no dogs a month before the family was evicted. Today she is having kittens–2 so far, but two more on the way (it is taking longer than I though). Momma Cat, as we called her because the new people across the street thought they had adopted her. Nope, she adopted us. She is in the tiny closet now nursing the two, but she briefly came out, got on my computer bench, and meowed at me. Maybe she wanted more attention. We have been stroking her all day and she has been purring except when a kit is coming and then she makes a sound that fighting cats do. Never heard that out of her, but then I was never around a cat giving birth. It is very true that females about to have kittens look for a well hidden spot, and she has one in a very dark closet. And I would not say she has tortitude. She is very sweet but has a bigger voice than our Flame Point, who is a very sweet male cat. They seem to get along OK most of the time, but occasionally he likes to chase her. Cheeto is dying to get into this room to find out what the heck is going on. He senses changes in her body via smell and is terribly curious, but we are keeping him away as per doctors orders. We are going to try to find good homes for all of them, even the Momma Cat. Any takers?? Oops, kitten #3 just popped out! (1:42 CT)

  14. It weird because my tortie is not like this. Infact she is opposite. She is still very shy and is almost 5 years old. She stillnhidrs under the bed when mist people come over but yet when my daughters friends come, she stays out. Like she knows their kids. She is always behind my other cat (her brother) if its time to eat she stands behind him until he is done. If he jumps in the couch or bed, she wont come up until he leaves. Its like she she takes the backseat to him all the time . She follows me around all day. If i go in the kitchen, so does she. Bedroom she follows. Bathroom…. yeah she’s there. As soon as i sit on the couch, she hops up with me or lays near my feet. My other cat….i dont see him all day lol. And the craziest thing about her….she’s like an animal support cat!!! She knows when I am angry or frustrated or whatever you call it. If me and my husband are discussing something we saw on the news that was upsetting or made me angry, she is will jump on my chest or circle me feet, and meow non stop until she gets my attention. Its happened when I start yelling at my kids lol. But not all the time so she must sense my level of feelings. She is not very vocal at all. She will meow late at night when when she plays with her balls or when she is trying to calm me. This is the only time you hear her. And she plays fetch!!! How many cats bring you a ball to throw and then bring it back over and over!! I love her to pieces. And she love me too!

  15. My Tortie was everything you say! Before even reading this article I could have told you every word. Her “pet name” pun intended, was the Queen. She fought with dogs, survived a coyote attack, and didn’t put up with impudence or disrespect from children. Yet she was kind and gentle, fiercely loyal and loving, and she had an uncanny intuition that made her the most incredible pet ever. She died at age 18. I never adopted another cat. No one can replace her

  16. Anyone ever heard of or seen the tortie hop? Most cats leap straight up when surprised, but I’ve seen many torties (including mine) that jump up and sideways instead.

    Is this actually a normal cat behavior I’ve just never noticed before, is it an oddity I’ve seen because I’ve been looking for it, or is it actually something torties do that’s more-or-less exclusive to the genotype?

    This is actually something I’ve wondered for years (since the first time I ever saw – and adopted – a tortie) but never thought to ask anyone who might actually know a real answer…

    1. Oh my gosh! My tortie, who is generally quite anxious, hops too. I thought that perhaps it was because of her anxiety but if you’re saying your kitty also hops up in the air, then it could be a thing.

    2. My torti Alley has done this. She was about 2 years old at the time and was outside for her usual hour or two of rec time. A male of about 6 foot was walking through the parking login our direction. Our 2 yr old orange tabby cat ran into the house at the sight of this stranger, our torti however immediately started growling, puffed her long hair up and hopped sideways at him ears flat back. Luckily when I called her name she came back towards myself and my 2 sons. She stood about a foot in front of us growling until the man had walked by and out of sight. She is VERY protective of all of us. She growls at anyone who walks by our apartment. Even at my mother who she has known her whole life. Who needs a guard dog when you have a torti?

    3. My kitty Tumbles is 10 month old she tumbles on the chair spokes chasing her tail…that’s why her name is Tumbles And about a month ago she does this fluffy tail and hopping with her back up it’s so cute…she does this when we walk in the room after playing with her..we also play tag, she will swat my back leg and run and hide and I go and find her and tap her back..she loves playing with ping pong balls..Tumbles love everybody when they come in the door she greets them with her going between there legs..she is a joy to have around in this time of the virus..be safe and social distancing

  17. Jennifer L Snyder

    I got my MALE(!) torture from the restaurant where I work. There were guys there doing some sheet metal work in the kitchens, and they swore they saw a rat run in from the field behind the restaurant. Cutest. Rat. Ever. I was going to name him Apollo, since my other cat is Artemis. However got a great suggestion from a co-worker who said “name him after one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!” That was too good to ignore, so he became Rafael. I think he is sterile like most males, because his whatnots haven’t dropped. Would have loved to have him throw a litter with Artemis, but my hopes may be dashed :(

  18. I have 2 torties. One is short hair and she ALWAYS wants to be on my lap. She tends to be a one person at. She talks alot for attention. The other one I have is long hair and totally opposite. She is very quiet and stays to herself.

  19. Shannon Rutledge

    Oh, that’s terrible! If you truly have a tortie that is driving you crazy, please find a no kill shelter immediately! You don’t want your torti to run away- very dangerous for the cat! Please!

  20. I left a reply on this article a year ago, but never got an answer. I’m still confused about what my cat is–a calico our a tortie. The article says any white on the cat makes it a calico. My cat has the mottled mixed coloring of a tortie, not patches of different colors like a calico, but white paws and a white patch on her chest.

    1. Mine has some white on her as well, I consider her a Tortie with White, think that’s how she would be referred to in England and Australia. She is all tortie with lots of tude so seems to fit her best.

    2. My cat is the same. Most of her body coloring is like of a tortie’s. She’s got a split face, one side completely black, the other black and orange mix. Her paws and her belly are completely white. Not sure if she’s a calico or a tortie, but she sure has attitude!

    3. My torti has a white patch on her chest, and some on her belly, but not enough to make her calico. I also have a calico too. From what I understand the calico is patches of color. It sounds like you have a torti.

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