“Tortitude” – The Unique Personality of Tortoiseshell Cats: Fact or Fiction?

tortoiseshell cats

Five years ago, I wrote a post titled Tortitude: The Unique Personality of Tortoiseshell Cats. The post describes some of the unique traits that many of these beautifully colored cats seem to share: they tend to be strong-willed, a bit hot-tempered, and they can be very possessive of their human. Other words used to describe torties are fiercely independent, feisty and unpredictable. They’re usually very talkative and make their presence and needs known with anything from a hiss to a meow to a strong purr.

The post gets 200-300 views every single day, and has generated close to 14,000 comments to date. It’s become a place for people to share stories about the torties in their lives.

As someone who has been owned by four torties at this point, not counting my first office cat at the animal hospital I managed, who was also a tortie, I feel that I’m somewhat of an expert on these special cats. And while Virginia, Amber, Buckley, Allegra and Ruby all had or have some degree of tortitude, their personalities were and are also  very different. This appears to be true for the torties whose guardians have commented on the post as well.


What is a tortoiseshell cat?

Contrary to what some people think, tortoiseshell cats are not a breed. They are named for their distinctive coloring – a combination of patches of black, brown, amber, red, cinnamon and chocolate. The size of the patches can range from a speckled pattern to large splotches of color. Tortoiseshell cats have have very few or no white markings, as opposed to calicos, who are tri-colored cats with larger areas of white fur. Sometimes, the colors are more muted. These torties are known as dilute torties. Very dark torties with a lot of black in their fur are often affectionately called “chocolate torties.” Occasionally, the typical tortoiseshell colors are also seen in a tabby (striped) pattern; these cats are referred to as “torbies.” Tortoiseshell markings appear in many different breeds.

The unique genetics of tortoiseshell cats

In addition to their unique personalities, torties also have unique genetics. The vast majority of tortoiseshell cats are female, because two X chromosomes are required to produce black, gold and orange coloring. Male cats only have one X and one Y chromosome, so technically it’s genetically almost impossible for a male to inherit the tortoiseshell coloring. A male tortoiseshell has an extra X chromosome, making it an XXY. According to a study by the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri, only 1 in 3000 tortoiseshell cats is male.


Are tortoiseshell cats really different from other cats?

Speaking from personal experience, it appears that no two tortoiseshell cats display the exact same amount of tortitude. Virginia had definitely read the book on tortitude. The first time I met her, during my interview for the hospital manager position, she greeted me by walking over to me, looking up at me, and then digging her claws into my legs to use them as a scratching post.  Amber was the “anti-tortie” – she was a gentle, calm, almost shy cat, but she was a bit headstrong. Buckley’s tortitude manifested in her exuberance. She loved everything and everybody. Allegra is highly sensitive to the world around her, and often quick to react to something that she perceives as a threat. Ruby is the most high-spirited cat I’ve ever had. Of all my cats, she is the one with the highest dose of tortitude.

tortoiseshell cat

The experts weigh in on tortitude

I decided to check with some other experts to get their thoughts on tortitude. “I often tell clients that torties are the redheads of the cat world,” says feline veterinarian Dr. Fern Crist, who practices at Just Cats Clinic in Reston, VA. “They are beautiful, but short-tempered and quick to wrath. Of course they are not all like that, any more than every redhead is – but I always approach a tortie with a tad more circumspection than any other coat color.” While Crist takes a cautious approach to her tortie patients, she adds “I’ve always thought that the price you pay in tortitude, you get back tenfold in love.”

“There is no evidence that there is a link between color gene and personality,” says Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, a former president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners and owner of two cat hospitals, Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, CA and the Cat Hospital of Portland in Portland, OR. “It is true though, that almost all tortoiseshell cats are females, and some people perceive females as being more headstrong than male cats. However, the real determination of personality is naturally a combination of genetics and environment.”

Jackson Galaxy has worked with his share of tortoiseshell cats in his decades of helping cats with behavioral challenges. “In my experience, tortitude is a very real thing,” says Jackson. “And now that there is a a study correlating coat pattern with behavior, our characterizations have been validated. Of course, anyone who knows me, knows I try not to talk about cats in generalities.” Jackson feels that torties and calicos are more energetically sensitive. “I think that’s part of the reason why their personalities are always on full display,” he says. “I’ve always said that cats are energetic sponges. Torties, however, just seem to soak up more, which is why they’ve got so much to say.”


Tortoiseshell cats are special

Those of us who love torties embrace their unique personalities. It is important to remember that every cat, regardless of coat color, is an individual. Not every tortie will exhibit the traits attributed to these beautifully colored cats, but the majority seem to live up to their reputation. As far as I’m concerned, tortitude is real. And while torties may, at times, seem like they have split personalities, going from purring away in your lap to suddenly racing around the house like a crazy kitten, those of us who love them wouldn’t want them any other way.

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1,071 Comments on “Tortitude” – The Unique Personality of Tortoiseshell Cats: Fact or Fiction?

  1. Karen Rowe
    September 16, 2017 at 2:05 pm (5 days ago)

    I just got mine yesterday. I do believe she is about 4 weeks old. My co-worker was driving to work and kept hearing a meow, once she got to work she kept hearing it and started looking for it. She climbed under her truck and this little girl was found riding on the spare tire. So of course we named her Hitch. She slept with me all night all curled up on my arm and I have been giving her her kitten milk and food. She is the sweetest thing I have ever seen. We think she got lost during Hurricane Irma here in Florida. But she is a survivor and will be a spoiled rotten mess.

    • Ingrid
      September 18, 2017 at 5:48 am (3 days ago)

      What a lucky girl that you took her in, Karen!

  2. Cindy LaMar
    September 14, 2017 at 4:52 pm (7 days ago)

    I have a little 3 week old Tortie, rescued from a wheel well in Hurricaine Harvey, nearly dead and flooded out. She is now here in Colorado, and is a spit fire! How this kitten lived, is remarkable. She was so sick.

    Now at 1.5 pounds, she is ruling the roost!

    Her Tortie colors are remarkable!

    • Ingrid
      September 15, 2017 at 5:16 am (6 days ago)

      Oh my goodness, what an amazing rescue!

      • B
        September 15, 2017 at 7:51 am (6 days ago)

        Thank you for giving her a good home and love after everything she went through. Give hugs from all of us.

  3. Ivy
    September 8, 2017 at 5:30 pm (2 weeks ago)

    I have a blue tortoiseshell kitty! I just adopted her in July. She’s barefly three months old and she’s very affectionate. She’s chill and she enjoys playing a lot. She may be nice but she also has tortitude which is one of the best things about her. She’s my first kitty and she’s the absolute best. I love her very much!

  4. John
    September 4, 2017 at 8:08 pm (2 weeks ago)

    My mom brought home a tortoise shell kitten in July of 1997. She lived until June of 2017. She was born in April so she was over twenty years old when she died. When I was at the vet with her, I had people tell me they owned a tortoise shell that lived to be 19 years old. I don’t know if that’s coincidence or if there is something to it genetically.

    She was the best cate we ever had. People who don’t like cats told me she was the “coolest” cat they had ever been around. Whenever I took her for her check ups at the vet, I just carried in her in my arms and she sat in my lap while we waited. None of the other animals bothered her at all no matter how loud they were. She just looked at them with a curious, “What’s your problem? Chill out.”

    She was in good health her entire life. She required daily thyroid medicine the last two years and then her kidneys began failing—which was her ultimate cause of death. The vet said that was common with the thyroid condition. I said to the vet, “Well she has lived longer than a lot of cats.” The vet said, “She has lived longer than 99% of cats.” They called her a “wonder”.

    I think her hearing was worse the last couple of years but her eyes were great, her teeth were great, and her activity level was like a kitten.

    So, from my experience, a tortoise shell is an awesome cat. She brought us twenty years of joy.

    • Ingrid
      September 5, 2017 at 5:07 am (2 weeks ago)

      She sounds like she was an amazing kitty, John. Thank you for sharing her with us.


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