Tabby cats are often mistaken as a certain
of cat. The term
tabby actually refers to the stripes, dots and swirling patterns of the
cat's coat. The tabby pattern is believed to be the original basic cat pattern,
and the closest to their
ancestors. Tabby coloration is found in many breeds of cat, as well as among
the general 'moggy'
(mixed-breed or mongrel) population. When cats are allowed to breed randomly,
the coloration of the population tends toward brown mackerel tabbies with green
eyes, leading geneticists to believe that this is the common wild phenotype of
the domestic cat.
The word comes from
French tabis, which was earlier atabis, and in medieval
The initial origin of the word seems to be from the Attabiyah section of
Baghdad where a type of striped silk was made that was later used to describe
Tabby colors and patterns
There are three tabby patterns that have been shown to be genetically
distinct, classic, mackerel and ticked, and a fourth variation, spotted, that is
still undergoing debate as to its cause. The color most recognizable as a tabby
is called brown tabby in the US and black tabby in the UK. Technically it is a
black cat with an
agouti gene that causes the fur to break into
patterns of black and brown. While the name "black tabby" is more correct, the
brown tabby moniker is firmly established in the US and any change is doubtful.
It is possible to have a black, blue, red, and cream in classic, mackerel,
ticked and spotted patterns. Chocolate, cinnamon, lilac and fawn generally only
appear in the ticked pattern, most commonly in the
The mackerel tabby pattern is the most common as the gene for this is
dominant to the classic pattern. The mackerel pattern is what people commonly
think of when they think of tabby. It has vertical, gently curving stripes on
the side of the body. The stripes are thin and may be continuous or broken into
bars and spots on the flanks and stomach. Often, an "M" shape appears on the
breed often appears in brown mackerel tabby.
Classic (or blotched) tabbies have a similar pattern on the head of the cat,
but the body markings are very different. They have a whorled and swirled
pattern with thicker stripes that make what are referred to as "butterfly"
patterns on their shoulders. The legs and tail are more heavily barred and the
pattern is variable with respect to the width of the bands.
American shorthairs are often exhibited in silver classic tabby.
The ticked tabby pattern produces hairs that have distinct bands of color on
them, breaking the tabby patterning up into a
salt-and-pepper appearance. However, ghost striping or "barring" can often
be seen on the legs, face and belly. It is difficult to produce a cat with a
solid ticked coat.
In order of genetic dominance, the ticked pattern is dominant to the mackerel
pattern, which is dominant to the classic pattern. However, all of these
patterns have been observed in random bred populations.
The spotted tabby may not be actual pattern, but a modifier that breaks up
the tabby markings. The stripes of the mackerel pattern are broken to the extent
that they appear as spots, rather than stripes.
Tabby patterns are dominant over all other patterns except for
white masking and piebald white spotting or
It is possible to have a tabby pattern exhibited in the color patches of a
tortoiseshell pattern. These cats are called torbies or tabby torties.
Many tabbies have a distinct 'M' marking on their forehead, which is the mark
of the true tabby. There are several legends about where this came from,
including one that the
Virgin Mary bestowed an M on a tabby's head because the cat helped keep the baby
Jesus warm. There is another legend to explain the M, where the prophet Mohammed
bestowed the marking upon his beloved cat's brow after it warned him of danger.
According to the legend, the M remains today to remind us of Mohammed's
blessings upon cats.
Gallery of tabby types
Red mackerel tabby showing the classic 'M' mark on forehead.