Are Orange Female Cats Really That Rare?

Kissy's portrait, July 8, 2012. Photo copyright © JaneA Kelley, all rights reserved.Hi everybody, Kissy here! I’m really excited because this week I get to have the whole column all to myself! As you can see from my photo, I’m an orange tabby cat (which Mama sometimes calls a “marmalade cat”) … and a quite beautiful one at that, I might add.

When Mama adopted me and showed my pictures to the world, lots of people remarked on how rare orange female cats are. Mama says she’s seen quite a few orange girl cats, so together, we set out for some answers. We interviewed Dee Walter Kruleski, a professor of biology at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, who told us the facts about female orange cats and lots of other cool facts about cat fur color inheritance. So, without further ado, let’s get on with it.

Kissy: I’ve heard that female orange cats are very rare. Why is this?
Dee: Well, it’s not that orange female cats are rare, it is simply that an orange cat is more likely to be a male. For a female cat to be orange, she must inherit two orange genes — one from her mother (orange, calico, or tortoiseshell) and one from her father (who must be orange). A male cat needs only one orange gene, which he gets from his mother (orange, calico, or tortoiseshell). This is because the gene that codes for orange fur is on the X chromosome, and like humans, females have two Xs and males are XY. Genes on the X chromosome are said to be sex-linked.

Kissy strikes an elegant pose. Photo copyright © JaneA Kelley, all rights reserved.

Here I am striking an elegant pose. Photo copyright © JaneA Kelley, all rights reserved

Kissy: Wow, so that means my father for sure was an orange cat. How cool is that? Is the same thing true for orange tabby (marmalade) cats? Mama says she’s seen a lot of female orange tabbies.
Dee: Yes, although the striping pattern is coded for by a completely different gene.

Kissy: Why is it super-rare to see a male calico cat?
Dee: Because in order for a male to be a calico, he must have the feline equivalent of Kleinfelter Syndrome and he is an XXY male. Because a calico male has an extra X chromosome, he is most likely sterile (cannot father kittens).

Kissy: Can you explain a little bit about how fur color inheritance works in calico/tortoiseshell and orange cats?
Dee: Well, orange fur is due to what is known as dominant epistasis. It actually changes black pigment into orange! This is an example of gene interaction — where one gene changes the expression of another.

Calico or tortoiseshell coloration is the result of something called X-inactivation (also known as dosage compensation). Female mammals (including humans) have one X in every cell inactivated (shut down) as an embryo. In approximately half the cells, the paternal X (one from the father) is expressed, and the other half of the cells the maternal X is expressed. So when you look at a calico cat, where you see black fur –that came from one parent and where you see orange fur, that came from the other parent. Thus all female mammals are genetic mosaics!

Kissy hamming it up. Photo copyright © JaneA Kelley, all rights reserved

Mama says I’m being a ham. I’d like to EAT a ham! Photo copyright © JaneA Kelley, all rights reserved

Kissy: Wow, that’s amazing. And complicated! How many genes are involved in determining a cat’s fur color?
Dee: Many! Here are a few of them:

  • Agouti vs. non-agouti: Provides the lighter fur background with striped cats.
  • Black vs. non-black
  • Color deposition: Determines how pigment is deposited, and also affects eye color.
  • Dilute vs. non-dilute: Gray is a diluted form of black and tan/beige is a diluted form of orange.
  • Spotting: If two dominant genes are inherited, a cat will have white on more than 50% of their body. If a cat has one dominant and one recessive gene, then the cat will have white fur on less than 50% of their body. If she gets two recessive genes, there will be no white on the body!
  • White vs. non-white: Just one white gene and the whole cat will be white! It is called a masking gene. A white cat could have the genetics to be a calico, black or any color cat but the white gene hides the other genes’ expression and the cat appears all white. White cats are not albinos unless they have red eyes. Albino cats are extremely rare and albinism is the result of color deposition and not the white gene.
  • There are also genes for tabby stripping, silver tipping and seal-pointing.
Kissy stays cool in her new favorite spot. Photo © JaneA Kelley, all rights reserved

This is my new favorite spot — and you might be able to catch a glimpse of my “tail light.” Photo © JaneA Kelley, all rights reserved

Kissy: Wow, that’s cool. I must have one dominant and one recessive spotting gene because I’ve got a little white spot on the end of my tail, and that’s all the white fur I’ve got. Anyway, Mama says some purebred cats are more likely to inherit certain illnesses. Are there any kinds of inherited illnesses or problems that tend to occur more in orange or calico/tortie cats than in the general cat population?
Dee: Not to my knowledge.

Kissy: Are there other sex-linked inheritance traits in cats (other than the obvious plumbing and hormone stuff)?
Dee: Many! Believe it or not, most genes on the X chromosome have nothing to do with sex but how the cells in the body work. Fortunately, there are few sex-linked genetic disorders known to occur cats.

Kissy: Any other cool stuff you want to tell me about orange cats, calico cats and sex-linked inheritance?
Dee: I think it really cool that cat coat color is used in virtually every biology and genetics textbook to illustrate X-inactivation and sex linkage. My students must solve genetics problems, and predicting the appearance of kittens is fun!

Kissy: One last thing: Mama says you run a cat sanctuary. Would you like to say more about that?
Dee: Shawnee Om Shanti Sanctuary is a living memorial to my daughter and only child, Shawnee, who died unexpectedly in 2001. It started with me feeding feral and dumped cats in the woods where I used to live. I gradually had shelters built for them, trapped and had them spayed/neutered and vaccinated. Last year I was forced to move, so we built the cats a swell two-story house, complete with a play yard and fenced to keep them safe. We are continuing to work on it — the “Cat House” has electricity, is insulated and has heat and fans. Soon we will be adding a big porch to the cat house! I hope to post videos of the sanctuary on YouTube in the near future. We are located in South-central Pennsylvania.

Kissy gives a huge yawn for the camera. Photo copyright © JaneA Kelley, all rights reserved

*YAWWWWN* Wow, I’m tired from all that science — but Mama and I both think science rocks! Photo copyright © JaneA Kelley, all rights reserved

Kissy: Thank you so much, Dee. It’s been great talking with you and solving some of the mysteries of how we cats get our fur color. And I guess I’m not so rare after all! We’d love to share some videos from the sanctuary when you get them uploaded.
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  1. Dee says

    I really enjoyed our interview Kissy! And you have GREAT genetics as you are a most beautiful kitty!

    • Chrysanthemum Kiss-Kiss Bobette Jellylorum Kelley says

      *purrrrrrr* Thank you, Dee! Mama and I sure do appreciate your taking the time to answer readers’ questions. You should see the comments on our Facebook page, too — apparently our talk has set to rest some concerns a reader had about the lifespan of her ginger tabby … and you even shared a couple of things that a vet didn’t know! :-)

      • Bailey says

        I have an orange female tabby. Last spring she turned 18 years old. She has been an outdoor cat for most of her life. 2 years ago she got hit by a car and it fractured her pelvis. The vet said she would not require surgery but she would heal. She said that my cat wouldn’t be able to run ever again and that she wouldn’t be able to jump or climb. Despite the odds of a full recovery, my cat Goldie will run, jump and even go for walks with the dogs still. :) She had a fast recovery that surprised every vet that she has seen since. She is a strong cat that is even more loving now then she ever was. I look forward to the next few years with her.

        • Randell says

          Maybe you should bring her inside ?

          Can’t believe after something like that close call and the rare occurrence of such a recovery you have not done so.

    • Chrysanthemum Kiss-Kiss Bobette Jellylorum Kelley says

      Dee said that she’ll share some videos of the place on YouTube, and when she does we’ll definitely share them here and on our Facebook page.

  2. says

    Great post! One of our daddy cats was orange, and we had orange kittens, many girls, as the moms were either calico, tortie or brown patched tabby, therefore all carrying the orange gene too…and that makes one from each parent. Your explanation is understandable to ‘lay people’ too, which is nice as so many genetics books are way complicated!

    • Chrysanthemum Kiss-Kiss Bobette Jellylorum Kelley says

      *purrr* Dee must be a great professor, too, because it takes a great teacher to help people understand complex stuff like genetics.

    • Chrysanthemum Kiss-Kiss Bobette Jellylorum Kelley says

      Mama and I were delighted to write this article because we learned a lot of cool stuff, too.

  3. says

    And here I thought ginger cats rocked because we were linked to the king of the jungle. Now you’ve gone and let the cat outa the bag. What am I gonna DO??? Why’d ya hafta go write such a good article???

    Just meowin’…

    • Chrysanthemum Kiss-Kiss Bobette Jellylorum Kelley says

      Aww, Brew– don’t feel bad. We’re still the kings and queens of all we survey! Tee hee hee!

  4. says

    FaRADaY: MOWZERS! We loves the science stuff too! We give this four paws up – waaay up! (But canz we still call you a redhead, that’s what we wanna know!)

    Maxwell: uhh, Miz Kissy, I just gotta say you make a pawesome rePAWter. Are you gonna do morerepawting in the future?

  5. says

    Whew, our heads are spinning and it’s not the heat! We’ve seen about the same number of orange girls as orange boys, but they’ve mostly been orange and white, not so many solid orange or marmalade–and some people call them red and some call them yellow, they must be awfully special to have all those names!

    We learned about tortoiseshells years ago, and again when Mimi and the Fantastic Four joined us and they are all black, except JB who has actual white spots; everyone has a few white hairs. But Mimi was obviously careful about an all-black papa for most of her litters, and in fact there were two in the neighborhood in those years.

  6. AmberRose Catchelor says

    Mewsies, Kissy! My Meowmie KNOWS DrDee! She was even at her Wed-wink! AND even got to see the original Shawnee Om Shanti Sanctuary.

    Dr Dee is a wonderpurr and fascinating purrson. All mine Furriends at CF2 yahoo group love her and all her kitties. and there a bunch of ‘em!

    On a purrsonal note, one of her Kitties, BeanerBoy is one of mine special furriends. He is orange with white bib and feet,

    The interview was very insightful and easy to understand. Uhmm, I have a Calico face with white bib, tummy and paws and four white feet, but my back is brindle. I am a happy mix-up of colors!

    Thank mew for sharing this with the world!

  7. Vagabondmoon says

    Hi, Kissy- you are a rocking kitteh! I have two lovely longhaired orange boys with very fluffy plumes -they were admiring your pics!- and they have a longhaired blue sister, and a shorthaired black deceased sister and their momma is a longhaired tortie, predominantly blue. I’d like to see someone figure out what color that daddy was! Thanks for the info.

  8. Calla says

    Kissy – I’m an orange and white girl kitty. Am I rare too? I have a cousin who is a boy cat colored like me, but he has more orange than white.

    I’m also very happy with my new forever family. They rescued me from the porch when it was really cold out. They took me even though I had a really bad infection and two breaks in my leg. It took me a long time to get better, but my human sister tells me that I probably won’t get very big…I only weighed 3.8 lbs at 5 months and now that I’m 8 months I weigh a little over 6 lbs. I hope you have a meow-velous day!

  9. says

    Hi Kissy! I’m a dog and I found your bloggie cuz of Mr. Jackson Galaxy. I just HAD to come over and read it since I have two Angel Kitteh siblings who were orange tabbies. One was Ripley and he was a boy. The other was Molly and she was a girl! They were littermates and my Mom knew that their Momma was orange cuz she met her. But now we know that their daddy was orange, too! This was a super great and Most Informative postie. Thank you ever so much!!

    Wiggles & Wags,

  10. DeeDee says

    Hi Kissy,

    Thanks so much for your article. My name is Molly, and I’m a tortie… My real name is Mulligan. Which is a do-over in golf. Since my Man, who loves golf and my Lady lost their tortie, Chelsea in 2005, they named me Mulligan. As I was a do-over of Chelsea. They adopted me and my brother, KiKi (male tuxedo) together in 2006. The Lady wanted another tortie but just couldn’t look at me as it made her cry since I looked a lot like Chelsea. But low and behold, I snuggled up into her lap and KiKi came over and snuggled up with me. I was soaking wet from her tears as she looked down at me, she smiled big and told the lady at Pet Smart that she would take us home… So, I guess one of my parents was orange!!!
    Kitty Kisses,

  11. Jo says

    Great info! My boy is a big beautiful orange tabby. Out of a ltter of 6, with a black & grey tabby mom, there were 5 black & grey kitties….and one orange one! It was such a huge surprise to see him in there with all the others! We’d taken the momma in as a stray (found homes for everyone & they promised to “fix” ‘em!)
    But back to my boy! Thank you for the wonderful info. Now I know much more about why he looks the way he does! :)
    Soft Hugs!
    jo (momma to Pumpkin)

  12. Nan Gordon says

    A friend & I were recently discussing the orange/female cat issue. Thank you for providing all of this great info! And thank you for doing what you do for the kitties. Always love to hear about passionate feline caregivers!

  13. Darla says

    Very interesting, Kissy! We’ve had 5 orange females over the years. Right now we have two very orange females (one with many black whiskers!), and a beige/tan female who some say is actually a muted orange.

  14. says

    Dee, I was hoping for some statistics. For instance, what percentage of orange tabbies are male/female? BTW, I had a wonderful orange tabby named Punkin who was AMAZING!
    Wonderful temperment!

  15. catlover39 says

    I was discussing this exact thing with a friend who has an orange female just the other day. Here is something interesting, my black make and my tortie female had a (solo litter) solid ginger kitten, male. I think that goes against what the expert said, if I understand it correctly. (No worries. That kitten has a wonderful home and they have since been spayed and neutered. This happened when they were very young and I didn’t think they were capable yet. I learned a valuable lesson)

  16. Lynn says

    We have a female orange tabby cat! She was the tiniest of the litter, and we had no idea at the time how very special she was (and is!).

  17. Jackie says

    This was very interesting! I had no idea how complex the coloring genes were in cats. We have two orange kitties in our house – 1 male and 1 female :)

  18. says

    Great post! We had a female orange kitty and everyone told us that was rare. She must have had 2 recessive genes as she had no white on her.
    Orange kitties rock!

  19. Kathy McGlone says

    I have an orange girl kitty and she is the best mouser!!! I have 2 other cats a brother sister gray/white shorthair and they just look at the mice and then take a nap!!! Tigger hears just a hint of prey and she is off on the hunt. I once found 3 dead mice under my bed (there was NO smell) Tigger had left them there for a late night snack. She’s a mushie, especially at night when I’m trying to go to sleep!!

  20. says

    Thank you for sharing! I have an orange boy and I always wondered why orange boys were more common than orange girls.

    When I took genetics in high school, my stepdad used our calico cat to help explain mosaics to me and how this occurs gene-wise. :)

  21. says

    Hi Krissy,My Kitty Bonesy was all white when we Adopted him with just hint orange on tios of his ears.
    now 14 years later he had more than 50% of his Body is orange.
    he has Blue eye’s and is the most Bluest eyes I have ever seen.
    he’s my Baby and never been 1 day with out me we Travel everywhere together.
    your Mama sounds like a wonderful Mama she really loves you .she is so very Lucky to have you as her Baby..
    maybe next time she will post more Pic’s of you and Her..
    till next time Krissy..

    sue and Bonesy…

  22. says

    Wow! Thanks for sharing this. I was told one of my orange cats was a female when I adopted him, and I knew it was pretty rare. Turns out it is a boy though, and I began to wonder if it is possible to have an orange lady cat. Now I know the answer.

  23. Sylvie says

    Hi, Thank you so much for teaching me why it took me such a long time to find an orange missy cat. A year ago, a friend told me about this neighbor who had kittens (well, not her but her lady cat). One of them was a little orange girl. I just jump on the occasion and got myself a pretty little Fantine that is an adorable compagnon. And her mother was a calico! Anyway, thank you for the info.

  24. Lori says

    I didn’t know most orange cats were male! My cat Sally is an orange female tabby and I also had a female orange tabby growing up named Bets. Sally has a chicken allergy though, is that common to orange female cats? But as long as she eats her limited ingredient green pea & salmon food, she doesn’t scratch. I just love orange cats, they are so beautiful!

  25. jon says

    We have a dark tortie whose mom is calico.
    The tortie has just a few white hairs on the back of her neck, so of the three toms around at the time, we figure her dad was the tuxedo. The litter contained the tortie, one tuxedo, two orange & white, and one tabby.
    And mama’s fixed now, so no more babies for her!

  26. amy says

    HI, I loved the article! I was wondering if you could direct me to where I could find out more information about cat colors. I have a male cat with a long tail, legs and ears that’s base color is grey with a cream color on his stomach and a few other small spots. The cream color is tinted orange and under the grey you can see markings that resemble the markings on a Bengal cat. He is a very interesting looking cat along with an interesting personality. Thank you!

  27. Destiny says

    This is the most interesting article on gene and coloration I have read in a long while. I will definately share it. I hope you are able to continue your work with the ferals.

  28. Myrna and Monkey-Poo says

    Hi, that was a great article. When I first left home and moved into my apartment, I found a orange male tabby I called Calico. Than there was long-haired Alfie , than organgeTosca, offspring of a male long-haired orange Persian father and a cream colored Siamese-cross mother with auburn markings. Tosca had. short hair , inquisitiveness , high energy-got to be in the midst of things Siamese traits, with the happy disposition of a Persian. But he looked like neither parent. How is that possible? I had to find him another home because my allergies kick in if I am around Persians. Tosca now resides with a family that fosters cats and loves his new role as foster dad to new arrivals. I am told he does an amazing job with the ferals they take in. He always did love to be around other cats. Hi , I am Monkey-Poo, I am a female blue tortie with a small patch of white hair on my shoulder, how did I get that way? Much enjoyed your artickule, pawsome.

  29. Stephanie says

    It is funny that Dee talked about cat coat used in biology textbooks. I remember sitting biology 101 in college being very bored and daydreaming, and then all of a sudden the professor had a picture of kittens on the screen and I suddenly woke up. It is one of the lessons I remember the most.

  30. Tami says

    Thank you for the interesting information. I have 3 10-year old orange tabbies from a litter of 4. Two of them have a tiny bit of white on them, and two are solid. They and their mama were rescues. I know the daddy was an orange tabby, too, but what was remarkable, and had my vet scratching her head was the fact the mama was a flame-point, long hair Siamese (flame-point meaning her points were orange). In that litter of four, she produced two females and two males. All of them are short-haired and striped orange just like daddy. Again, thank you for the info.

  31. Toni says

    I have a pride of kitties in my home of all colors, including a true Albino! Chaos was the product of an albino boy & a calico mom. The resulting litter was 5 kittens: 3 albino boys, a black girl, & a mackerel tabby girl. His eyes were originally bright unsettling pink as a baby, but now they’ve settled to a soft purple color. Truly striking!

  32. Maria Dingjan says

    Thank you for your very informative and interesting article. I volunteer at a local cat rescue which I enjoy immensely. I am trying to work out how I can enclose my yard to prevent my cat from escaping, (he has figured out how to use the extra large dog door, so I keep him and all his gear in the bathroom from dusk until morning daily). This keeps him safe as he can climb our seven foot high fences even with his nails kept short. Any suggestions would be most welcome.

  33. Tina Lynn says

    I have a total of 23 cats. I was looking for the rarity in the orange female. I have a new set of three kittens, the female one is a more solid dark orange with the white marbling. Oddly tho, the mother cat is a black/grey tabby, but I am positive the father is orange (he is an orange main coon and fathered our other two kittens with a solid black female, one tortie and a solid black long hair). Strange mix, have never seen a female orange kitten come from a non calico/orange/tortie momma. Her momma was also a black/grey striped cat, and has a grey striped brother and tortie sister, so the orange gene has to be in there somewhere…

  34. Barb says

    This was fascinating!

    I was a shelter administrator several years ago and while there, we acquired a lovely female orange cat. Her stripes were very muted so in some light she looked overall a very nice apricot colour. We called her Rosebud. And then we discovered that she was pregnant. We sent her to a foster home as there was some feline virus or another going through at the time. We sent her to one of our most valued volunteer’s family’s home. A bit of a mistake as the volunteer’s Mom insisted that Rosebud and her babies should not be disturbed and the kittens were half feral. She didn’t dare contradict me though when I went to see them and I gave them all a good dose of handling.

    What was interesting about them from my point of view was they were all Siamese. There were four boys – all flame points – and two females which were seal points. This combination I assumed was due to an absolutely Siamese male. Rosebud was a stray and there were no shortage of stray Siamese males about. But everyone of the kittens was very definitely Siamese. Points, blue eyes, shape and attitude.

    I adopted one of the males and he has never lost that little bit feral aspect. He loves me and likes to snuggle against me but he won’t let me pick him up or cuddle him at all. And he’s very suspicious and hostile to strangers in the house. He’s now 11 years old and not likely to change his ways. He’s not a lap cat, but he’s endlessly entertaining.

  35. says

    Well how lovely to meet you and you are beautiful :) our ginger girl Dinnermintz is our second ginger girl :) she came along as a foster of mine..after three times home with me to get well we just had to adopt her and not long after we had to say goodbye to our 17 year old ginger was meant to be :) a great post and very informative..and yes everyone even new vets assume she is a HE :) hugs Fozziemum

  36. Ann says

    Hello, my name is Amazing Grace. Long story, my five sibs and I were up for adoption, a brother and sister were adopted. Mom cat got mad and took the rest of us off to the woods. My adopted mom came to get me and of course, I was not there. So she said “If I ever see that little kitten again, it will be by the Amazing Grace of God.” Well, four days later, my yellow tabby mom took us back to the house and my adoptive mom was able to take me home. My interesting story is that there were five of us kittens in the litter and we all looked exactly alike, no dab of white anywhere, no different face shape, no size difference, we were absolutely identical. Of course three boys and two girls. But it was so amazing no tiny difference of any kind. We are a bright orange color, with beautiful necklaces and bracelets and even those were the same….exactly. Mom cat was sort of a faded yellow color and her markings were not so pronounced. Dad must have been like a light bulb turned on though, our color is intense.

  37. says

    I truly enjoyed reading this interview! Thank You both Dee and Kissy for explaining the colouring values of cats! I truly enjoyed learning how my cats got their colours. I have a black and white male, a orange tabby male, a calico female, a white and black spotted female, a honey tanned male and a calico striped female tabby.

  38. says

    Dear Kissy,
    I’ve enjoyed your article and the many responses. One Lady asked how to keep her kitty inside a back yard. I used to (over 20 yrs ago) have an adult care home in the middle of Phoenix,and each lady had her own cat, so it was absolutely necessary to devise some way to make sure all kitties could always be accounted for. I did just that after much innovative thought! The back yard was large with a 6 foot fence, and as I recall, the total cost for additional materials was about $30, and less than one day’s work. If you would like, I will type up the instructions, etc., and send to you to forward to whomever you wish. Often thought of trying to sell the idea, but I’m now 82 and I’d rather just have people be able to have a good kitty-proof back yard. P.S. I rescued a tiny orange feral kitty 12 years ago and she is my best friend!

  39. says

    I really enjoy reading about orange tabby cats i got an orange tabby cat for my bithday /christmas present the other day he is a kitten his name is Jack Barry i want to learned everything about him and thank you so much for some of the information about the orange tabby cats

  40. Roxie says

    Thanks for the info, Kissy and Mama. We recently acquired a little stray orange kitty and thought it was surely a boy cat. We were surprised to learn that she is a girl. Her name is Pippimary, and she is a lot of fun. We have fixed her pretty feral mama and feed several fixed feral cats in our neighborhood.

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