Torbie, Tabby, Tortie, and Calico Cats: What Are the Differences?

Torbie tabby tortie tortoiseshell and calico cats what are the differences

Most of us are aware that aside from solid colors, our lovely cat companions also come in different coat patterns. However, only a few people can name and distinguish these unique feline patterns.

Tabby, tortie, torbie, and calico are four of the most popular feline coat patterns. Cats with these coats can either exhibit striped, spotted, ticked, mottled, or patched patterns in their body. These patterns, albeit looking closely similar, are distinguishable from one another.

This article will be your ultimate guide in understanding the differences and similarities of tabby, tortie, torbie, and calico cat color patterns. Hop on and let’s get to know all the features of these coats!

Differences Between Tabby, Tortoiseshell (Tortie), Torbie, and Calico Cats

Aside from the variations in breeds, felines are also categorized based on the coat color and pattern they exhibit. 

Four among the most popular coat color patterns include the tabby, tortie, torbie, and calico cat coat. They have distinct differences in terms of their pattern, color combination, and personality.

This table summarizes the differences between the four feline patterns: 

Color PatternCharacteristics
TabbyPatterns: Stripes, whorls, spots, and agouti
Colors: Brown, orange, and cream
Sex: Majority are male
Subtypes: Classic, mackerel, spotted, and ticked
Personality: Friendly, intelligent, sassy, and affectionate
TortiePatterns: Speckled and mottled
Colors: Black and red/orange/cream
Sex: Majority are female
Subtypes: None
Personality: Strong-willed, hot-tempered, sassy, independent, feisty, and unpredictable
TorbiePatterns: Speckled or mottled with tabby patterns
Colors: Black and red/orange/cream
Sex: Majority are female
Subtypes: None
Personality: Strong-willed, hot-tempered, sassy, independent, feisty, and unpredictable
CalicoPatterns: Patches of color
Colors: Black, red/orange/cream, and white
Sex: Majority are female
Subtypes: None
Personality: Sassy, aggressive, independent, and strong-willed

To help you better understand the differences between the four patterns, I’ll be discussing each of their characteristics, appearance, personality, and coat genetics in a more detailed manner in the succeeding sections.

1. Tabby Cat

Gray tabby cat rolling and asking for attention

The tabby coat is the most common among the four existing cat patterns. Numerous breeds of domesticated cats, purebred and crossbred, showcase this cat pattern. Surprisingly, this is also observed among wild felines such as tigers and leopards. 

The tabby cat pattern is easier to distinguish compared to tortie, torbie, and calico. This coat is characterized by distinctive stripes, dots, spots, whorls, or swirls distributed throughout the body.

Aside from the stripe patterns, tabby cats also have distinctive face marks which canine fanciers call mascara markings.

They are called as such because they highlight the eyes just like how mascara does to a person. A mark on the forehead that resembles the letter “M” is also a trademark of the tabby coat pattern.

The tabby coat consists of two different hairs. Usually, the base of a tabby cat has a lighter and unique fur called agouti. If you look at the individual strand of an agouti coat, you will see multiple bands of color. 

Meanwhile, the second type of hair on a tabby is usually darker which creates a striped pattern.

Unlike calico and tortie cats that are mostly observed on female felines, the tabby coat pattern is inclusive for both male and female cats. Interestingly, most cats with the ginger tabbies color are male.

The tabby pattern can be observed in numerous cat breeds including the Abyssinian, American Bobtail, American Curl, American Shorthair, American Wirehair, Birman, Colorpoint Shorthair, Egyptian Mau, Javanese, Maine Coon, Manx, Norwegian Forest Cat, Ocicat, Oriental, Persian, Ragdoll, Scottish Fold, and Siberian cat.

Interestingly, it can also appear along with other patterns such as the tortoiseshell and calico giving birth to new cat patterns known as “torbie and calby.”

Tabby cats can come in a variety of colors. And as mentioned earlier, their patterns can also vary.

Cat fanciers have classified the possible patterns of tabby cats into four — classic tabby, mackerel tabby, spotted tabby, and ticked tabby. Let’s dig deeper into these patterns.

Classic Tabby Cat

Classic tabby cat

The classic tabby, also called “blotched tabby,” exhibits bold whorl patterns around the body.

Their patterns are distributed on the legs, tail, and body of the cat and they are not symmetrical as compared to the other tabby patterns. Nevertheless, the mascara markings and the letter “M” mark are still present. 

Mackerel Tabby Cat

Mackerel tabby cat

They call this tabby pattern “mackerel” because the symmetrical stripes on the body look like bones of a mackerel fish.

These stripes run parallel on their sides. A quality mackerel tabby should have evenly-spaced and non-broken lines or stripes which run from the head to tail.

Kitties with mackerel tabby patterns are often also called “tiger cats” because of the resemblance of their striped coat.

Among the four tabby patterns, the mackerel is believed to be the original marking; thus, they say it should have been the one called “classic.” By far, it is the most common tabby pattern exhibited by cats. 

Spotted Tabby Cat

Spotted tabby cat

You guessed it right, the spotted tabby has spots rather than stripes for its pattern. While the mackerel resembles a tiger’s coat, the spotted tabby looks similar to a leopard’s coat. 

The sizes of the spots vary, and they are well distributed on the coat. Oftentimes, they look like broken lines or stripes.

Nonetheless, the facial markings including the “M” on the forehead are still evident for spotted tabby cats. 

Ticked Tabby Cat

Ticked tabby cat

This type of tabby pattern doesn’t have spots or stripes but rather evenly distributed ticks of color that look like salt and pepper.

This is due to the presence of the agouti hair which is why they are also referred to as the agouti tabby.

Unlike the regular hair strand which has a single color, the agouti hair has multiple bands of color that alternate from the root to the tip.

This is why the ticked tabby has a salt-and-pepper appearance rather than striped or spotted patterns. 

However, there may still be a residual presence of stripes in the legs, abdomen, and tip of the tail of the ticked tabby.

The mascara markings and the “M” mark on the forehead should still be visible. This type of tabby pattern is more common for Abyssinian cats.

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2. Tortoiseshell or Tortie Cat

Tortoiseshell or tortie cat on a wall

The tortoiseshell or tortie was named after the speckled or mottled shell of a tortoise. The tortie pattern is bicolor and is not an exclusive pattern for any specific breed.

Its colors are usually black and red although the red color can be substituted by cream, yellow, or orange.

Tortie cats do not have stripes or spots, unlike tabby kitties. Rather, they have patches of either red, orange, yellow, or cream mixed with their black coat. 

You can also tell a tortie apart from a calico cat by looking at the concentration of white fur.

Most tortie cats only have two colors other than white. They may have a small number of white speckles but not large white patches like the calico.

A tortie that has two different colors present on each half of its face is called a chimera. It is surely an astonishing pattern to behold.

Tortoiseshell cats, unlike tabby kitties, are mostly female. This is because the gene responsible for this pattern is a recessive gene held by the X chromosome.

This means that for a cat to exhibit this pattern, it must inherit two copies of the gene. Since female cats have two X chromosomes, they have higher chances to acquire this pattern.

Male tortie cats do exist. However, the chances of breeding them are very slim. Unfortunately, the rare male tortie cats also tend to be sterile due to a genetic condition called Klinefelter Syndrome (XXY). This condition occurs when a male feline (XY) inherits an extra X chromosome. 

Aside from their unique color pattern, tortie cats are also famous for their distinct personality, or should I say, “tortitude.”

Breeders and tortie cat parents testify that cats with this pattern are a bit sassy, slightly aggressive, and have high energy compared to other cats.

Watch this cute tortoiseshell cat showing some “tortitude”:

Moody Tortoiseshell Cat

Interestingly, tortoiseshell cats are considered to be lucky in many cultures. They are even called “money cats” in certain countries.

The Manx, Scottish Fold, American Shorthair, British Shorthair, Oriental Shorthair, Siberian, Exotic Shorthair, Persian, LaPerm, Munchkin, American Curl, Sphynx Cat, Devon Rex, Cornish Rex are just a few of the cat breeds that can sport the tortie coat pattern.

3. Torbie Cat

Female torbie cat framed by garden planters

The torbie cat pattern is a combination of the tortoiseshell colors and the tabby pattern.

Its name is a shorter version of a tortoiseshell-tabby coat. They are also called either patched tabbies, striped torties, or reverse torties.

It is easy to distinguish a torbie from a tortie since tortoiseshell cats are not supposed to have the tabby pattern.

Likewise, the difference between a torbie cat and a tabby kitty is simple. Torbie cats have speckles of red/orange and black fur on its body that tabby cats don’t have. 

This coat pattern is not exclusive to a specific breed. Numerous feline breeds sport this type of cat coat color including American Shorthair, Persian, Maine Coon, Cornish Rex, and British Shorthair.

The coat color of the torbie cat is dominantly black with speckles of either red, brown, or orange. 

Just like its cousin tortoiseshell, torbie cats are said to have a sassy personality or a tortitude. Also, most torbie cats are female because the gene responsible for the torbie coloring is sex-linked similar to tortie cats.

4. Calico Cat

Beautiful calico cat walking grass

The calico is a tri-color pattern that is oftentimes mistaken with tortoiseshell cats. It is because their fur color combination is almost similar to those of the tortie which are black and red/orange/cream.

The major difference between the two is that the calico pattern has large white patches aside from the colors mentioned.

As discussed earlier, tortie cats may have a very small amount of white speckles in their coat but not large white patches that resemble the calicos. 

Due to their color pattern, the calico cat is also called a “piebald cat” and “tortie-and-white cat.”

Calico cats are almost always female because the gene responsible for the calico pattern is linked to the X chromosome.

While it’s true that male calico cats do exist due to a condition called Klinefelter Syndrome, they are unfortunately born sterile.

The calico pattern can be observed on numerous cat breeds including Manx, British Shorthair, Arabian Mau, Norwegian Forest Cat, Turkish Angora, Siberian, Japanese Bobtail, American Shorthair, Turkish Van, Exotic Shorthair, and Persian. 

The personality of the calico cats varies from breed to breed. Nevertheless, they are said to be sassy, aggressive, independent, and strong-willed in general. 

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What Are the Similarities Between the Four Varieties?

Although the four cat patterns are unique and distinct from each other, they still share some similarities. 

The genes responsible for these feline patterns are all sex-linked. The tortie, torbie, and calico patterns are all linked to the X chromosome.

For a cat to inherit one of these patterns, it needs two copies of the gene. That’s why most of the cats with this type of coat are females, making male cats with this coat type very rare. 

Male tortie, torbie, and calico cats also suffer a similar condition that is linked to their color patterns.

Klinefelter Syndrome is a genetic disorder that occurs through the presence of an extra X chromosome which is common for male tortie, torbie, and calico cats. Unfortunately, male felines with this condition tend to become sterile.

The gene for the orange tabby pattern is also sex-linked. However, unlike the three aforementioned patterns, orange tabby cats are mostly male.

An interesting fact about the tortie and torbie cats is that they are considered to be lucky in various Asian and western cultures. They are thought to bring fortune to their owners, making them popular house pets.

In the United States, they are known as “money cats.” Japanese fishermen, on the other hand, believe that these cats protect them from storms and ghosts. 

When it comes to personality, the tabby cats are the outcasts. Tortie, torbie, and calico cats are known to have a “tortitude or cattitude.” They are said to be strong-willed, aggressive, sassy, independent, and unpredictable. 

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Cat Coat Color Genetics: Why Do Cats Come in So Many Different Colors?

You might have been wondering how cats acquire their unique and astonishing coloration and patterns. Well, it all boils down to genetics.

All cats have two basic pigments in their body composition – eumelanin (black) and pheomelanin (red). These pigments are produced by cells called melanocytes.

Now, if cats originally only have two pigments, how come they come in a variety of colors other than black and red? This is where genes work.

There are specific genes in feline genetics that alter, regulate, and control the production of eumelanin and pheomelanin.

These genes can either change the shade of black to gray or blue and lighten the tone of red into orange, yellow, and cream.

Some genes can even totally stop the production of pigment in certain body parts which results in white spots or patches.

Meanwhile, the colorpoint gene allows darker pigmentation on body points such as ears, feet, tail, and faces.

There are also genes responsible for the exhibition of various coat patterns including the tabby, tortie, torbie, and calico patterns.

The appearance of a cat will depend largely on what genes it has inherited from its parents. Nevertheless, cat coat color genetics is far more complex compared to canine color genetics.

If you want to be sure about the color genetics of your cat, you might as well have a DNA test done. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Differences between torbie tabby tortie and calico cats

What Is the Difference Between a Tortie and a Torbie?

The torbie pattern is a direct descendant of the tortie — short for tortoiseshell tabby.

This is why the two are always confused with each other. Nevertheless, it is easy to distinguish a torbie apart from a tortie cat by looking at its pattern. 

Torbie cats have tabby marks and patterns on their black coats aside from mottles of colors.

These tabby patterns can either be stripes, agouti, or whorls. Tortie cats, on the other hand, only have speckles and mottles of orange and black on its coat.

Are Torbie Cats Rare?

Torbie cats are rare. In fact, they are rarer than tabby, tortie, and calico cats. The coat of torbie cats exhibits both the mottled tortoiseshell coat and the striped tabby pattern.

Some of the breeds that can have the torbie pattern are the Siberian, Persian, Main Coon, and Benga.

Which Is the Rarest Color of Cats?

The true diamond among the cat colors is the chocolate. This coloration is the result of the dilution of eumelanin or black pigment.

Since the gene for this color is recessive (b), two copies are needed to form the chocolate color.

A single dominant gene (B) will turn the coat color into black. The second and third rarest cat colors on the list are lilac and cinnamon.

Final Thoughts

The various coat patterns of cats are truly sights to behold. If you plan to own a feline companion, you can use this guide to consider what pattern you would like your cat to have.

Cat coat colors and patterns can tell a lot about a cat’s genetics and personality. Some patterns are exclusive for specific sex due to genetics.

In the cases of male torbie, tortie, and calico cats, their patterns can also signify congenital disorders due to genetic mutation.

Aside from health, cat patterns are also associated with personality. Most breeders and feline fanciers believe that certain cat patterns exhibit the “cattitude.” 

Nevertheless, cats can surely become the best companions regardless of what coat color or pattern they have.

John Carter

My name is John Carter and I absolutely love pets, especially cats and dogs. I've got a Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Behaviour and Welfare and have several years’ experience working in animal shelters and rescues. My passion for animals started at a very young age as I grow up on a farm with several horses, cows, cats, chickens, and dogs on our property.

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