5 min read

Calico Cats: History, Characteristics & Care


Written by Wag! Staff

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 08/21/2023, edited: 08/29/2023

With its distinctive tricolor coat, calico cats are instantly recognisable – and completely adorable. There’s something special about a calico cat, but you might be surprised to learn that it’s not actually a specific breed in its own right. That doesn’t make them any less gorgeous or appealing for cat owners; it’s just fascinating that many different cat breeds can bear the coloring of a calico cat.

Do you have a calico cat? If so, having a comprehensive pet insurance plan in place is the best way of ensuring your cat is looked after at all times. If you need pet insurance, or want to compare your current plan with leading providers, get a quote for cover in seconds using our online tool.

So, what is a calico cat? It’s simply a cat with a specific coloration.

A calico cat is a domestic cat that has three colors in its coat. These may vary slightly but typically tend to be orange, black and white (this is often the dominant color; a calico can be 25 to 75% white).

While orange, black and white is the trademark coloring of a classic calico, variations can include cream, blue and brown. The colors of the fur appear in bold patches instead of being mixed or swirled together, so a calico cat is usually easy to identify. If you see a feline with a head and face of bright orange, black and white, it’s a calico cat! 

A tortoiseshell cat is sometimes called a calico cat, and vice versa. We’re here to tell you that they’re not the same type of cat. Yes, there are similarities in coloring, but subtle differences. 

A tortoiseshell cat also has a beautiful mixed coat featuring orange and black, but importantly, no white (or very, very little). A calico cat always has white in its coat, even if it’s just a few spots here and there. Those that have only a small presence of white and are mainly black with a dash or two of orange might be classed as black calico cats.

You may also hear or read the term ‘dilute calico’. This refers to a calico cat with muted, or dulled colors – softer red/orange rather than bright orange, for example. Don’t worry, it’s still officially a calico!

How do calico cats get their colors?

This is where it all gets a bit scientific, so bear with us. First of all, let’s deal with this common question: are all calico cats female? Actually, they’re not. As we’ve explained before in this quick read on calico cats, while calicos are almost always females, there are males. However, a male calico cat is extremely rare, calculated to be only one in every 3,000 cats.

Cats get a set of chromosomes from every parent – males have XY and females XX. The calico coloring is present when a cat has two XX chromosomes, and is therefore female. Occasionally, a male cat has an extra X chromosome, giving it the tricolor coat. Many male cats with the XXY chromosome may have something called Klinefelter’s Syndrome, which can make them sterile.

What’s the History of the Calico Cat?

Where have they come from, these magnificent-looking calico cats? Well, it’s not 100% clear where they originated, as they’re not an official breed but a specific type of coloring. However, it’s widely thought that calico cats date back to Egypt. They were adopted by merchants and used on board ships to guard food stocks from mice and other vermin – which meant that they then visited countries around the Mediterranean, such as Spain, Greece, France and Italy.

Over the years, calico cats have become hugely popular, all around the world. They’re actually considered a symbol of good luck. Folklore has it that Japanese sailors considered them a lucky omen and would bring calico cats with them on voyages across sea.

Not only that, but in Japan, the famous Maneki-neko or ‘waving cat’ – which is said to represent good fortune and luck and is seen just about everywhere, from shops to restaurants and street murals – is often depicted as a calico cat.

In the USA, calico cats are loved and cherished. In 2001, the calico cat was named as the official cat (yes, there is such a thing) of the state of Maryland. Why? Partly because of the good luck the calico is believed to symbolize but also because its colors are the same as the Oriole, which is Maryland’s official state bird. The Baltimore Orioles, Maryland’s Major League Baseball franchise, plays in orange, black and white – the same colors as a calico cat’s coat. Neat, eh?

Calico Cat characteristics

What kind of temperament does a calico cat have? What’s a typical calico cat personality? Does it need much grooming? And, what type of diet is best for a calico cat?

These are tricky questions to answer, because the calico cat isn’t a breed type so it doesn’t have the same or similar traits that a specific breed has. Some calico cat owners may say their cat has a quirky or even assertive personality but that’s a common theme across many cats. 

For a truer expectation of character, grooming needs and any possible health issues, you’d be better advised looking into the specifics of your cat’s particular breed for more accurate answers.

Calico cat breeds

There are many different cat breeds that can have the calico cat coloration – which means lots of types of calico cats.

According to this color prefix chart from the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA), it officially recognises several breeds as having calico colors. These are:

  • American Bobtail

  • American Curl

  • American Shorthair

  • American Wirehair

  • British Shorthair

  • Cornish Rex

  • Devon Rex

  • Exotic Shorthair

  • La Perm

  • Maine Coon

  • Manx

  • Norwegian Forest Cat

  • Oriental

  • Persian

  • Scottish Fold

  • Selkirk Rex

  • Siberian

  • Sphynx

  • Turkish Angora

However, don’t be surprised to see other cat breeds sporting the calico cat coloring.

A look at those breeds will tell you that there can be a big variation among calico cats when it comes to grooming needs. A Persian needs almost daily grooming, while the almost-hairless Sphynx needs nothing. By the way, if you need some advice on grooming your cat, we’ve got some great tips here.

The same applies to characteristics. A Scottish Fold likes a lot of fuss, cuddles and attention, whereas an American Wirehair prefers to be left alone more. A cat’s personality is much more closely aligned to breed type than simply color, so one calico cat can be very different to another. It’s all about the breed, not fur color!

Caring for a calico cat

Because a calico cat isn’t breed specific, grooming and feeding requirements will differ. There isn’t a recommended ‘calico cat diet’ that you should follow, but it’s always good practice to feed your cat the best food available. Take a look at the selection of best cat foods from our friends and partners at Cat Food Advisor, which includes wet, dry and raw food, as well as specialist food for kittens.

If you’re considering a raw food diet, read our guide here to learn more about whether it’s right for your cat.

In general, you should groom your calico cat as needed, depending on its type of hair, and maintain a good health routine. There’s a lot you can do yourself, such as checking fur for any sign of unwanted fleas or ticks, keeping claws trimmed, and looking after your cat’s teeth.

You should also make sure all routine vaccinations are kept up to date. A wellness plan from Wag! can cover your cat for a range of treatments, including annual booster injections and deworming.

If it’s time to renew your pet insurance policy – or you simply want to compare your cover with other providers – you can get multiple quotes in seconds right here.

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