The Tabby Cat
The first, and most important, fact about tabby cats is going to blow your mind:
All cats are tabby cats.
I can hear you from here, telling me that YOUR cat is not a tabby cat.
But believe me, the tabby is there. Underneath the visible pattern of your cat’s fur, are the tabby genes. There may be other genes that “modify” or hide the tabby-ness, but secret tabby genes are always lurking in the background.
Have you ever watched your “not-a-tabby” cat lying in a bright sunbeam, and thought you saw a hint of stripe in his fur? Those are his tabby genes, which might not be quite so fully hidden.
We’ll dive into this deeper. But first…
What is a tabby cat?
A tabby cat is not a breed of cat. “Tabby” is not a cat color. Tabby refers to a set of coat markings, also called a pattern.
Any house cat with certain markings can be a tabby cat. In fact, many breed standards (I counted at least 39) recognize some form of tabby patterns as accepted coat markings.
Tabby cats are what is known as a “landrace” of cats, which means that they developed these special markings all on their own, without any help or design on the part of humans, as a kind of adaptation to their environment. (Read the section, “Why do cats have tabby stripes?” below.)
Tabby cats can be found all over the world, mixed in with the general population of cats wherever they live.
What makes a cat a tabby? (Hint: it’s not what you think)
Any house cat with certain markings is considered a tabby cat.
Those markings include what many people see as an “M” on the forehead. Some M’s look “M-ier” than others, and, at first, I had a hard time seeing the M, especially when the lines don’t connect.
Most tabbies have stripes by their eyes and across their cheeks. Many have stripes along their spines, and stripes around their legs and tails. Their bodies may have specific markings, depending on the type of tabby they are: narrow stripes, thick swirls, dots, and flecks, often on their sides and flanks, but also on their chests and bellies.
Most tabbies also wear dark eyeliner, but with paler fur around the eyes. Typically, there is pale fur on the chin and belly, too. The nose is often pinkish, with a darker colored outline.
What really makes a tabby a tabby
But the real definition, believe it or not, of a tabby cat has nothing to do with stripes. A tabby cat, by definition, is a cat with agouti fur.
What’s agouti fur?
An individual agouti hair has several bands of color, a dark color alternating with a lighter or more reddish color. If you have a tabby cat, look for a dropped hair and examine it closely. You’ll see the stripes or bands of color.
This weird little fact becomes important if you want to understand tabby cat genetics.
The four tabby patterns
There are four tabby cat patterns.
Actually, that’s a lie.
You could really say that there are five tabby patterns. Well, there may be more than that. But cat fancy only recognizes four.
The mackerel tabby
The mackerel tabby is the most common kind of tabby cat in the world by a mile. While the classic tabby (see below) is actually the most prevalent type in the United Kingdom and Middle East, overall, there are far more mackerel tabbies on this planet than any other kind. A LOT more.
Mackerel tabbies have markings that are said to resemble a fish skeleton, which is probably how they got their fishy name. They are sometimes called “fishbone” tabbies.
The mackerel tabby has slim, vertical stripes on the sides of her body. They can be continuous stripes, or broken into shorter bars or spots, especially on the flank and belly.
Most mackerel tabbies have 3 or 5 vertical lines on the forehead (that can look like an M), and dark lines that emanate from the corners of the eyes and across the cheeks.
A mackerel tabby may sport stripes on the neck and shoulders, and around the legs and tails. Some mackerels have a “necklace” of stripes on their chests.
Some mackerels also have a darker color that runs in two lines across their tummies. Some people refer to the double line as “vest buttons.”
The classic tabby
I don’t know why the number-two type of tabby is called the classic tabby, but it is. How confusing! But it’s number two for a reason: the classic markings come from a recessive trait, which means that’s there’s less of a chance that a kitten will get classic tabby markings. We’ll discuss genetics a little more in a minute.
The classic tabby will also have an M on his forehead, but the stripes on his body are thick and curving. The classic is sometimes called a “blotched” tabby. The curves are marled, like marble cake, and sometimes swirl into a bullseye on the side of his body.
Classic tabbies can have a light-colored butterfly kind of mark (mirror-image blobs) on their shoulders and three thin stripes running along their spines. Many have bands on their legs, tails, and cheeks.
The ticked tabby
The first time I learned that a ticked tabby is a tabby at all, I could hardly believe it. I thought tabbies had to have stripes all over!
Remember that I said earlier that the definition of a tabby cat is a cat with agouti fur? The ticked tabby has an even field of agouti hairs and no stripes on the body. If you look at an individual hair on a ticked tabby, you’ll see distinct bands of colors on each one. The whole effect is “salt-and-pepper” or like sand.
You can sometimes see “ghost-striping” on the lower legs, face, belly, and tail tip. There may be an M on the face and a dark line along the spine. It’s believed that a ticked tabby with these soft stripes carries a mackerel or classic tabby gene. Note that not all ticked tabbies have these ghost stripes.
The spotted tabby
A spotted tabby has dark spots on a lighter-colored background.
The current thinking is that the spotted tabby is really a mackerel tabby with a special modifier gene that causes the thin stripes to be broken into smaller pieces that happen to look like spots.
The unofficial fifth type of tabby – the patched tabby
A patched tabby is a calico or tortoiseshell cat with patches of tabby coat where solid patches might otherwise be. A calico cat with tabby patches can be called a caliby. A tortoiseshell cat with tabby patches is called a torbie.
The patched tabby, however, is not an officially recognized type of tabby cat.
Read “Calico and tortoiseshell cats” to learn more about this unique coat pattern, with or without the tabby patches.
All the other kinds of tabbies
Even though cat fancy recognizes only four types of tabbies, there are many variations on the theme.
Some of these variations are the result of random breedings, and some are specific to certain breeds. For example, there are “candle-flame” tabbies that are the result of crossing a domestic cat with a wild cat, as in the Toyager breed.
There is a Sokoke tabby in which there are agouti hairs in the middle of darker markings. There are freckled or speckled tabby patterns, found in Indian domestic cats.
But these and other tabby-ish patterns are not “official” tabby types.
What do you mean, all cats are tabby cats?
Earlier, I claimed that all domesticated cats have tabby genes. Let’s talk genetics for a minute.
You probably learned in high school biology class that almost all living things have little packages of genes inside every cell, called chromosomes. The genes inside the chromosomes determine many of our traits, from our sex to our eye color.
In cats and humans, chromosomes come in pairs. We get one from each parent to make a full set. Cats have 19 pairs and there are many thousands of genes that determine almost everything about an individual cat.
The first set of genes that we need to talk about when discussing tabby-ness is the agouti gene, which allows hairs to be banded with darker and lighter colors. The agouti gene messes with pigmentation while each individual strand of hair is growing. When a hair is first growing, the agouti gene allows it to be fully pigmented. Then it slows the pigmentation down in the middle, and then speeds it up again at the end. That's how agouti hair strands get their bands of color.
The agouti gene is dominant, which means if a cat gets even one from a parent, he will have agouti fur and look like a tabby cat. But if a cat gets two recessive genes – one from his mom and one from his dad – he will be non-agouti. In other words, there will be no gene to stop and start hair pigmentation and he will end up looking like a solid-colored cat.
Here’s where you might argue that a solid-colored cat is, in fact, not a tabby cat. And here’s where you would be wrong.
The non-agouti gene isn’t a “non-tabby” gene. It’s a gene that just hides the tabby-ness. The non-agouti gene prevents the hair from producing that lighter pigment while the strand is growing. In fact, this non-agouti gene doesn’t always work perfectly, which is why many solid-colored cats have a hint of striping. The tabby-ness is always there.
Why orange cats are always tabbies
There is one circumstance under which the non-agouti gene doesn’t function, however.
If a cat is orange, the orange gene keeps the non-agouti from working at all. That means that if a cat is orange, he will also have stripes, even if he has two recessive non-agouti genes from both of his parents. This phenomenon, in which the effect of one gene is disabled by the presence of another, is called “epistasis” in genetics. Thanks to epistasis, all orange cats have stripes.
Why do our house cats have tabby stripes?
We may have bred certain cats for certain characteristics. Think of the unique Persian face, or the hairless-ness of the Sphynx. We humans had something to do with that. But we did not breed tabby cats for their stripes. Tabby cats came by their stripes naturally.
Our house cats are not that far removed from their wildcat relatives. Tabby-like patterns are found in our domestic cat’s closest ancestor, the African wildcat (Felis lybica lybica), and also in other close relatives, including the European wildcat (Felis silvestris), and the Asiatic wildcat (Felis lybica ornata).
Why do so many wild cats sport stripes and spots?
These wild cats, and others that tend to live alone and hunt alone (like cheetahs, bobcats, and tigers), rely on camouflage to make a living and to avoid becoming somebody else’s dinner. Stripes and spots are what biologists call “disruptive coloration.” They visually muddle things up, making it hard for other animals to discern a cat’s size and shape.
The trick isn’t unique to cats, by the way. The American Bittern, for example, which is a vertically striped bird, stretches its neck up and sways when approached by a predator, looking for all the world just like the reeds in which it lives. There are many, many examples of this strategy in nature.
Where did the word “tabby” come from?
The word “tabby” comes from the Muslim world, and a special silk fabric.
There is a district in Baghdad called Attabiya, that was known for making beautiful striped silk cloth. The district itself was named for Attab ibn Asid, who was the governor of Mecca in the early 600s.
The silk cloth produced by this district eventually found its way to England, and became very popular. English people called the cloth “tabby,” short for Attabiya. Interestingly, the French word for “striped silk taffeta” is “tabis.”
The stripes on tabby cats apparently reminded the English people of this special cloth. We know that people began referring to striped cats as “tabi” cats as early as the 1690s.
Famous tabby cats
- Tabby Morris the Cat became the mascot for 9 Lives cat food in 1969.
- Milo, from the 1989 film, The Adventures of Milo and Otis, was an orange tabby.
- Cartoon characters Heathcliff, Garfield, and Bill the Cat (from Bloom County) are all tabbies.
- The Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a tabby cat.
- Tabby cat Stubbs, the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, was elected in 1997 and served for 20 years until he passed away.
- Chessie, a tabby cat, was featured in the famous “Sleep like a Kitten” ad campaign for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O), to promote the company’s sleeper cars in 1933. Later, the company used Chessie and her kittens, Nip and Tuck, to promote war bonds for World War II.
- Ithaca Kitty started a craze for plush toys that lasted from 1892 until after WWI. The likeness of a gray tabby named Caesar was painted onto muslin in 1892 and sold as a three-piece pattern. The stuffed tabby made appearances at the World’s Fair in 1893 in Chicago and in the windows of Wanamakers in Philadelphia, and led to a surge in the creation of other stuffed animals.
Famous tabby-cat guardians
- Abraham Lincoln once owned a blue mackerel tabby named, predictably, Tabby.
- Mark Twain was cat enthusiast who owned a total of 19 tabby cats at one point.
- Koko the Gorilla, who was famous for learning sign language, was presented with a pet tabby kitten she named All Ball.
Interested in learning more about cat coat markings? Read:
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 “Cat Coat: Tabby and Genetics.” The Little Carnivore, The Little Carnivore, 26 Oct. 2021, https://thelittlecarnivore.com/en/blog/cat-coat-tabby-patterns-genetics.
 “Basic Cat Genetics.” GCCFcats.org, 31 Dec. 2016, https://www.gccfcats.org/Portals/0/BasicCatgenetics.pdf?ver=2016-12-31-113947-037.
 “Epistasis.” Genome.gov, https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Epistasis.
 “African Wildcat.” International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada, 17 Jan. 2019, https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/africa/african-wildcat/.
 “European Wildcat Felis Silvestris - ISEC Canada.” International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada, 19 Mar. 2019, https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/eurasia/european-wildcat/.
 Dewey, Tanya. “Felis Silvestris (Wild Cat).” Animal Diversity Web, https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Felis_silvestris/.
 “What Exactly Are Tabby Cats?” Purina, https://www.purina.co.uk/find-a-pet/articles/cat-types/fur-type/what-are-tabby-cats.