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Cat genetics

Every time a new pregnant mama or litter of kittens comes in to TinyKittens, speculation begins about baby daddy colours and patterns, which leads to discussions about feline genetics. I thought I’d share a list of some of my favourite feline genetic sites and resources. If you have any resources you think should be added or if you have any information that should be added or corrected, just leave a comment at the bottom of this (or any) page.

Cat Genetics in a Nutshell:

Calico vs tortie

Tortoiseshell cats (which as a group includes torties and calicos and their variants) have coats that contain a mix of black and orange, plus possibly white. They are almost always female, as black and orange are carried on the X chromosome — as the kitten is forming in utero, one or other of her two X chromosomes turns on; if dad is ginger and mom is black, then her fur becomes black where mom’s X chromosome turns on and ginger where dad’s does, resulting in a tortie/calico pattern. The more white the cat has, the bigger and more differentiated the patches of colour are, with full tortie at one end (with no white at all) and mostly white calico at the other end. The line between them blurs towards the middle of the spectrum.

First, there are the straight up torties and calicos:

  • Tortie:  Mix of  small, generally not discrete patches of black and orange, with possibly small amounts of white. (Shiloh is a good example of a tortie with very little or no white; most of her colour patches are very small, mixed, and not very differentiated. Sable is also a very good example of a dark-heavy tortie.)
  • Calico: Calicos have larger, more discrete patches of colour than torties. The more white they have, the more distinct their colour patches are. (Scout is one of the few non-tabby calicos at the colony.)

Then there are the torties and calicos that also have a tabby pattern:

  • Torbie: Tortie + Tabby. Essentially a tortie, where either the black or the orange (or both) displays the tabby pattern as well.
  • Caliby: Calico + Tabby. Essentially a calico, where either the black or the orange (or both) displays the tabby pattern as well. (Skye and Sloane are both examples of a caliby, as their ginger bits are tabby.)

Then the patterns in that blurring area in the middle of the tortie/calico spectrum:

  • Tortico: Tortie + Calico. This is where that line between tortie and calico really blurs, where the pattern is a mix of fairly discrete patches of colour (without tabby markings) and the indistinct colour mixing of tortoiseshell.
  • Torbico: Tortie + Calico + Tabby. This is where that line between torbie and caliby blurs, where the pattern is a mix of fairly discrete patches of colour (with tabby markings) and the indistinct colour mixing of tortoiseshell. (Serenity is what I would consider to be an example of this — she has some fairly large patches of a single tabby colour but also large patches of tortie/torbie. Sierra is also an example, as she had some larger discrete patches of black and ginger tabby plus white. Most of the “torbies” at the colony are what I would actually call “torbicos”.)

Red (or orange) and black

Red (or orange) and black are both dominant colors. Dominant traits don’t skip a generation so one of the parents must exhibit a dominant colour for the kitten to get it. Because colour is carried on the X chromosome, male kittens can only get their colouring from their mother while girls can get their colouring from both mom or dad (pattern depends on which parent’s X chromosome is activated in the cells in any given patch of fur). So if you have a ginger mom and a black dad, boy kittens will be ginger (with or without tabby markings) and girl kittens will be some form of tortie or calico (with or without tabby markings).

Tabby patterns

  • Classic or blotched: This pattern is swirly, sometimes with a bullseye pattern on the side. (Stanley, from the Bradner colony, has a classic tabby pattern.)
  • Mackerel or striped: This pattern consists of long stripes that often look like a fish skeleton. (Hannity aka Hanna Tea is a mackerel tabby.)
  • Spotted: This is a pattern where mackerel stripes are broken up into spots. (Maravel is an example of a spotted tabby.)
  • Ticked:  The ticked hairs in this pattern contain bands of colour, resulting in a sort of salt and pepper or speckly appearance (sometimes with faint striping), rather than the distinct striping or swirling of the other patterns. (Zetta is an example of a ticked tabby.)


Dilute is a term that can be applied to any colour. Dilute black is grey, dilute orange is a buff colour. (Starling is an example of a dilute calico, where both her dark and orange patches are lighter, grey and buff instead of black and orange; she does not have any tabby. Tiger Buffy is an example of a dilute ginger tabby.)

Examples from TinyKittens fostering history

  • The Roundup Kittens: TeeKay (ginger) and Chef (tortie) were daughters of Athena (tortie). TeeKay’s father would have been a ginger; Chef’s could have been the same ginger or could have been pretty much any other colour. Ginger TeeKay’s three babies (two boys, Shepherd and Coulter, and a girl, Moose) were all ginger as well — the boys’ father could have been anything, but Moose’s father must have been ginger as well.
  • Sisko was tortie. Her final litter consisted of one tortie girl (Bluebelle), one ginger girl (Daisy), four black boys (Toothless, Walt, Bambi, and Thumper), and two black girls (Owl and Flower). Bluebelle’s father could have been any colour, and Daisy’s father must have been ginger for her to be ginger — we know from DNA testing that they (and Walt) have the same father, who then must have been ginger. The colour of the black boys father is irrelevant as they would have gotten their colour from Sisko. Owl’s father and Flower’s father (we know from DNA testing that they don’t have the same father) would have been black in order for them to be black.
  • Lorelai: Lorelai is black with little bits of white. Her daughter Rory is a mini-me. Depending on the colour of the father(s), Lorelai’s kittens could have been black (with or without white), tortie or calico (with or without white, with or without tabby), or straight-up tabby (with or without white). In reality, she had three tabby girls, one black girl, and one black boy.


Sites and Articles


  • Robinson’s Genetics for Cat Breeders and Veterinarians by Carolyn Vella, John McGonagle, Lorraine M. Shelton, and Terry W. Stanglein — You can generally buy this book from any online retailer like Amazon or Better World Books; it’s pretty pricey but within the typical textbook range of things. The latest edition is the 4th edition, published in 1999 by Elsevier. (Elsevier, unfortunately, doesn’t have a valid page for purchasing this book from them directly.)
  • Genetics for Cat Breeders by Roy Robinson — You can generally buy this book from online retailers like Amazon or Better World Books. You can also purchase a DRM-free PDF version from Elsevier. (You can often find a cheap used copy on Better World Books for a lot less than Amazon or Elsevier. My copy cost about $12 US in 2017.)
  • Cats Are Not Peas: A Calico History of Genetics by Laura Gould — Second edition published in 2008; first edition published in 1992. The book is generally available from online retailers like Amazon and Better World Books. The second edition tends to be fairly expensive, but used copies of the first edition can usually be found for less than $10 US. (You get what you pay for, though — the second edition includes a 50-page addendum that is not in the earlier edition.)
  • Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw —  While I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this book, John Bradshaw does offer some interesting background on the science behind what makes cats cats. It’s available to borrow in physical and digital format from the Fraser Valley Regional Library. It’s also available to purchase in physical and digital format from bookstores, including Amazon.


{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Kailey December 5, 2020, 1:17 am

    I have more of a question instead of comment. If the mom is a light gray & white and the father is orange.. will at least ONE of the kittens come out orange?
    There’s only 2 males that could have gotten her pregnant. One of which is orange/cream color and the other is gray & white. But none of the babies are orange or cream. So I’m wondering if that means he’s not the daddy. Because I assumed orange is very dominant?? And I’m hoping he isn’t bc he is the brother of my female. So question is if the dad is orange.. is at least one (if not more) of the kittens guaranteed to be orange? Thanks

    • Kitty December 5, 2020, 2:24 am

      Keeping in mind that I am NOT an expert on cat genetics and so this is all just based on my very amateur understanding:

      • Each kitten in a litter can have a different father so in this case it’s possible for each male to be the father of at least one kitten.
      • The colour genes are on the X chromosome so male kittens get their colouring solely from their mother and female kittens would get half from their mom and half from their dad.
      • A grey and white female is essentially a dilute black and white, and boys born to her would be black (or grey), black (or grey) with white, or tabby (with or without white). Regardless of who the father is.
      • Black (or grey if dilute) and orange (cream if dilute) are both dominant colours so a black father would pass down black to his daughters and an orange father would pass down orange to his daughters. I would expect any girls in this litter whose father is orange/cream to be tortie or calico since they would inherit both black and orange from their parents.

      If there is absolutely no orange or cream in any of the kittens (including no tortie or calico), really the only thing you could reasonably assume is that the orange/cream male isn’t the father of any of the female kittens. But he could still be the father of any or all of the male kittens.

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