We know that nearly all tortoiseshell cats are female. Dr Morris says that it has been calculated that about one in 200 tortoiseshell cats are males but I’ve also read that one in 3000 is the correct percentage.
Let’s say that they are rare. However, Dr Morris makes the interesting point that all tortoiseshell cats are feminine even the tortie toms. They are also sterile, therefore we can say with some confidence that no tortoiseshell cat has fathered a litter of kittens.
Dr Morris refers to a male tortoiseshell cat who was observed in a colony. This cat had a strange personality. He behaved in a feminine way. Morris describes the cat as a ‘masculinized female’. This cat ignored the usual battles between males or females because he was neither fully male nor fully female. He didn’t feel the need to compete within the pecking order of females or males.
This feminised male tortoiseshell cat didn’t start to spray urine at an age when typically a male cat would have started. The cat did not bother to attempt to mate with females on heat but he allowed young tomcats to mount him and attempt to mate with him.
When a little older he did mate with some females but without enthusiasm. Similarly, he lacked enthusiasm when spraying urine to mark territory. In short he never behaved like a full-blooded tomcat at any stage of his life. His infertility was confirmed when he was placed in isolation with a highly sexed female with whom he mated.
In short, this individual cat was a feminized tomcat. Because of their rarity people are curious as to their value. Because there are sterile their worth is devalued. However, historically their rarity has given them value.
For example, in Celtic countries it was considered a good omen if a male tortoiseshell came to the home and settled down. In England, there was a belief that warts could be removed by rubbing them against the tail of a tortoiseshell tomcat in the month of May. Japanese fishermen paid large sums of money for a tortoiseshell tomcat to keep as a ship’s cat. They believed the cat’s presence would protect the crew from ghosts of their ancestors and the vessel from storms.
The rarity provided the the male tortoiseshell with compensation for the unfortunate fact that he is highly feminine in nature.
Why Male Torties Exist
The reason why male torties exist is because of a minor genetic error. The male cat develops with the genetic combination XXY.
“The double X gives it the chance to be red and black, while the Y chromosome gives it male characteristics” (Dr Desmond Morris in World a Feline Encyclopaedia).
The tortoiseshell coat pattern looks as if it is made up of black, red and cream. In truth, however, there are two colours black and orange tabby. The lighter orange tabby areas give the impression that the cat has three colours.