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What Is a Calico Dog?

You’ll be hard-pressed to find “calico dog” listed on any breeder’s books, and that is because, as a breed, calico dogs don’t exist. The same can be said for their feline friends. Calico is a color-pattern or physical characteristic of an animal, not a breed.

A calico dog is a dog whose coat is made up of three or more colors. The terms “tricolor” and “piebald” are often used by breeders when referring to a calico dog. These attractive and unusual color patterns are usually a result of natural genetic makeup or specific breeding. As a rule, Calico dogs are identified solely by their color composition, meaning that any domestic dog breed can be a calico.

To really understand what makes a dog a calico, you need to know how calico, as a color pattern, is defined as well as how this color variation comes about. In terms of breeder terminology, it is also good to be aware of the various terms for the coloring of a dog’s hair and how breeders may use them interchangeably.

What Defines a Calico?

The subject of determining a calico dog is a difficult one not only because the color of dogs’ coats ranges so vastly but also because the term “calico” is not widely used when referring to the color of a dog’s coat.

In fact, several terms are used interchangeably when referring to a calico dog, including tricolor and piebald.

The American Kennel Club provides a comprehensive list of dog breeds and their specific coloring. Their breed descriptions deal with the terms solid color, parti-color, bicolor, and tricolor.

Solid color refers to a dog whose coat is one color, although it may be various shades—for example, a golden retriever.

Parti-color refers to a dog who is particularly colored with one primary color and then has large patches of another color. In contrast, bicolor refers to a dog with two colors in fairly equal concentration.

The term “piebald” is used when referring to an animal with a pattern of hair made up of two colors, usually black and white, and consisting of pigmented spots.

When dealing with calico dogs, you need to consider both the number of colors and the level of coloring. 

A calico coat is defined as being tricolored, meaning its fur consists of at least three different colors (source).

Interestingly, the term “calico” derives from the textile. The textile, which developed in India, was originally a plain white or cream-colored fabric with printing in one or more colors (source). When the fabric arrived in America in the late 1700s, the term calico was coined. The word was then later transferred onto animals, such as the domestic cat and dog.

These colors are loosely defined as white, black, and orange, with white being the dominant color. In cats, calicos are considered to be up to 75% white. While white, black, and orange are the dominant colors, there are sometimes variations that include brown and ginger patches. 

Any breed of animal can be a calico as long as its coat comprises three or more colors. Tricolored dog breeds include the Beagle, Collie, Pembroke Welsh Corgi, King Charles Spaniel, and the Australian Cattle Dog.

The crossing of more and more dog breeds means that the number of colors and patterns is constantly growing. Read about The Australian Cattle Dog-Dachshund Mix for a perfect example of the variety of colors and patterns currently emerging.

The Science Behind Calico Coloring

Breeds of dogs are first recognizable through their coloring. As dog owners, we expect our dog species to have a specific color pallet. We know that Labradors are either golden, chocolate, or black and that dalmatians are white with black spots. 

The shade of a dog’s coat comes from their genetic makeup. At the same time, some dogs have genes that give them one solid color like a Maltese. Then others have genes that allow for multiple shades of one color, for example, a Weimaraner. Lastly, there are breeds whose genetics mean they have a multicolored coat like a Tricolored Collie. 

A dog’s coloring is determined by two pigments that are responsible for determining all dog colors (source). The first pigment is known as eumelanin. Eumelanin is considered to be black, but it may alter, depending on the dog’s genes. Thus, eumelanin can be modified to be brown or grey. 

The second pigment is known as pheomelanin. It is, by default, yellow or gold. However, variations include tan, orange, and cream. At the same time, the absence of pigment means that the dog will have white hair. 

How calico coloring comes about is down to two possible reasons: nature and genetics or breeder manipulation.

Nature’s Choice

How a calico dog may come about may be entirely down to the roll of the genetic dice. 

While there are only two pigments that can determine a dog’s coloring, you have to factor in the science of genetics. Both dominant and recessive genes of the parents play a significant role in determining the color of their offspring. 

A litter of puppies born from the same parents can offer many different coat colors, some of whom may be calico.

Breeder’s Choice

Calico is a popular color for cats, and it is becoming an increasingly popular coloring option with dogs. As such, breeders may manipulate the parent genes to get a dog who has calico coloring. 

How Calico Dogs Differ from Calico Cats

When dealing with Calico cats, the genetic traits are most often associated with the females. However, when it comes to dogs, this is not the case. In dogs, both males and females can carry the genes which determine whether they will have calico coloring. 

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Image by Bari Spears via Unsplash

Final Thoughts

Calico dogs have an attractive coat that consists of three or more colors. While Calico is not a breed of dog, you may find that many breeds have this coloring. It is also important to be aware that the term “calico” is sometimes used interchangeably with tricolored and piebald.

The calico coloring comes about due to genetics, which can be through natural genetics or breeder manipulation.


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