Three-Colored Cats Have Catitude

The lap kitty Brenda always wanted.
Frida Kahlo is a tortoiseshell tabby, tortoiseshell colors with tabby stripes. Her tail is especially striped. And, she is OH so sweet!

Sacramento Bee
Your tortie is temperamental?

It seems you’re in good company.

Veterinarians from the University of California, Davis, have discovered, in recently published research, that cats with calico and tortoiseshell coat patterns tend to challenge their human companions more often than felines whose fur is less flashy.

The research backs up long-standing observations among veterinarians that such cats often are “difficult,” said Dr. Elizabeth Stelow, a behavioral expert in the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Her study, based on a survey of more than 1,200 cat owners, found that calicoes and torties are more likely to hiss, chase, bite, swat or scratch during interactions with humans.

The UC Davis data also suggest that cats with gray and white, and black and white coats are slightly more likely to engage in those behaviors, a finding that surprised researchers. Cats sporting other colors, including solid black, gray and white, display aggressive personality characteristics significantly less frequently, according to the study, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.

The online survey, posted on a social media site, did not reveal the study’s focus. It simply asked cat owners questions about their feline’s behaviors, and requested that they choose a color category and written description that best fit their pet.

Calicos and torties have reputations for being feisty and unpredictable, characteristics that the study appears to confirm. Calicos are mostly white with patches of orange and black. Tortoiseshells have coats that feature a constellation of black, brown, amber and red patches. Because two X chromosomes are necessary to produce their coloring, the vast majority of both types of cats are female.

“They’re fiery,” said Front Street animal shelter manager Gina Knepp. “They’ve got a little spirit and zip to them. If you want a cat that will keep you on your toes, a calico or tortie is the way to go.”

In the UC Davis survey, cat caretakers used a scale from 0 to 5 to assess the frequency of behaviors such as hissing and biting. A complex data analysis of answers to the survey found statistically significant differences between the frequency of such behaviors in “orange females” – including torties and calicoes – and most other cats, Stelow said. She said the research suggests that the same genetics that dictate coat color may play a role in aggression, but that more study needs to be done to explore that theory.

The study is believed to be the first to look at specific behaviors related to coat coloring. Although it had some limitations, including the fact that researchers relied on the observations of cat owners and never observed the felines in question, the research offers insights that warrant further investigation, said Stelow.

“We thought the findings were very interesting, and we would love other researchers to take the baton and run with it, to look at the genetics of why this may be happening,” she said.

Stelow, who authored the study with veterinarian Melissa Bain and data analyst Philip Kass, said the findings should not discourage people from adopting a tortoiseshell or calico cat. “I have a crazy calico myself,” she said, along with an orange tabby. Both are great companions, she said.

Aggression in cats, Stelow noted, rarely is violent. “It’s very different from dogs. Dogs show a very, very wide range from not aggressive at all to capable of killing. The overwhelming majority of cats are not the least aggressive,” and those that are usually display it in “very subtle ways,” she said.

“We are not suggesting that anyone avoid having these cats in their homes,” she said of calicos and torties. “Most of them make lovely pets. It’s just information to help you understand what you might be up against.”

Barbara Doty understands.

Doty, a cat rescuer and founder of the nonprofit LapCats, which works with Sacramento County’s Bradshaw Shelter to find adoptive homes for felines, generally describes calicos and torties as the “divas” of the cat world.

“It’s an attitude,” she said. “Some of them just want to be the one and only, the queen of the household so to speak. They tend to be a little more high strung.”

Doty shares her home with a tortie who “is more sensitive” than most cats, she said. “She loves most people, but if another cat rubs up against her and gets too close, she might swat her.”

Potential adopters tend to gravitate toward colorful cats, research has shown, while black cats tend to linger longer in shelters. The key, said Doty and Knepp, is finding the right personality match. Black cats, Knepp said, “seem to have the most balanced personalities, from my observations. For the most part they are very stable.”

“But I truly believe that there’s somebody for everyone,” she said. I would suggest spending some time at the shelter, see who catches your eye and watch the cat for a while. Then open that door, hold out your arms and see what happens.”



  1. Interesting. I’ve had a calico, I can relate about how much she demanded attention, and how stubborn she was. On the other hand, she was the smartest kitty I’ve ever had. Unfortunately she passed away 2 months ago from cancer when she was 10 months old (she was born with FeLV) but she cooperated a lot with her daily routine about meds, grooming, bladder expression, wheelchair exercise. She knew she was quite pampered, and although she didn’t like all her meds, I’m sure that she loved the 24/7 attention.

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