Tabby cat

Common mackerel tabby, with the classic "M" on forehead, and striped pattern

A tabby is any cat that has a distinctive coat that features stripes, dots, lines or swirling patterns, usually together with an "M" mark on its forehead. Tabbies are sometimes erroneously assumed to be a cat breed.[1] In fact, the tabby pattern is found in many breeds of cat, as well as among the general mixed-breed population. The tabby pattern is a naturally occurring feature that may be related to the coloration of the domestic cat's direct ancestor, the African Wildcat.

In cat genetics, pattern is unrelated to color, and so the tabby coat pattern can show up in combination with a variety of coat colors, including tortoiseshell (Tortoiseshell Tabby cats are often called 'Torbies'). A cat's coat can be described as red tabby or gray tabby. Black and blue are colors that usually show up without tabby markings, but with some cats, a faint tabby pattern can actually be noticed. Bi-color cats can have the tabby pattern show up on the colored patches of their coat. For example, Tortoiseshell cats sometimes display a pattern where the red-based and black-based tortoiseshell pattern is mixed with tabby markings. White spotting of any level can also appear in combination with tabby patterns; however, white is the only coat color that does not have any tabby markings.


Tabby patterns

Ticked tabby pattern on Abyssinians

There are four tabby patterns that have been shown to be genetically distinct:[1][2]

  1. mackerel
  2. classic
  3. spotted
  4. ticked

A fifth includes tabby as part of another basic color pattern, the "patched" tabby, which may be a calico or tortoiseshell cat with tabby patches (the latter is called a "torbie").[1]

All those patterns have been observed in random-bred populations. Several additional patterns are found in specific breeds. A modified Classic Tabby is found in the Sokoke breed. Some are due to the interaction of wild and domestic genes. Rosetted and marbled patterns are found in the Bengal breed.

Spotted tabby pattern on an Ocicat

Mackerel tabby

The Mackerel Tabby pattern has vertical, gently curving stripes on the side of the body. The stripes are narrow, and may be continuous or broken into bars and spots on the flanks and stomach. Often, an 'M' shape appears on the forehead. Mackerels also feature a 'peppered' nose, where black spots appear along the pink tip of the nose. Mackerels are also called 'Fishbone Tabbies' probably because they are named after the mackerel fish.[3] Mackerel is the most common tabby pattern.

Classic tabby

The most commonly identified kind of tabby, the Classic (or 'Blotched') Tabby, tends to have a pattern of dark browns, ochres, and black. The uniform or nearly uniform striping around the circumference of the tail indicates feral origins in that particular cat's family tree.[citation needed] Classic Tabbies have an 'M' pattern on the head similar to that of Mackrel Tabbies, but the body markings are different, having a whirled and swirled pattern with wider stripes that make what are referred to as "butterfly" patterns on their shoulders, and usually a bullseye or oyster pattern on the flank. The legs and tail are more heavily barred and the pattern is variable with respect to the width of the bands.

Grey classic tabby, showing the bullseye pattern

Ticked tabby

The Ticked Tabby pattern produces hairs with distinct bands of color on them, breaking up the tabby patterning into a salt-and-pepper appearance. Residual ghost striping or "barring" can often be seen on the lower legs, face and belly and sometimes at the tail tip.

Spotted tabby

The Spotted Tabby may not be a true pattern,[citation needed] but a modifier that breaks up the Mackerel Tabby pattern so that the stripes appear as spots. Similarly, the stripes of the Classic Tabby pattern may be broken into larger spots. Both large spot and small spot patterns can be seen in the Australian Mist, Bengal, Egyptian Mau, and Ocicat breeds.

Genetic explanations

The tabby patterns are due to 3 distinct gene loci and one modifier:

The agouti gene, A/a,[4] controls whether or not the tabby pattern is expressed. The dominant A reveals the underlying tabby pattern, while the recessive non-agouti or "hypermelanistic" allele, a, prevents it. Solid-color (black or blue) cats have the aa combination, hiding the tabby pattern, although sometimes a suggestion of the underlying pattern can be seen (called "ghost striping"). However, the O gene for orange color suppresses the aa genotype, so there is no such thing as a solid orange cat.

The primary tabby pattern gene, Mc/mc, sets the basic pattern of stripes that underlies the coat. Mc is the wild-type tabby gene and produces what is called a 'Mackerel Striped' Tabby. 'Classic' Tabbies are cats who also possess mc, a recessive mutant gene that produces the blotched pattern.

The Ticked Tabby pattern is on a different gene locus than the Mackerel and Classic Tabby patterns and is epistatic to the other patterns. A dominant mutation, Ta / ta, masks any other Tabby pattern, producing a non-patterned, or 'Agouti' Tabby, with virtually no stripes or bars. If the Ticked Tabby pattern gene is present, any other tabby pattern is masked. Cats homozygous for the ticked allele (Ta / Ta) have less barring than cats heterozygous for the ticked allele. When a cat of this genetic make up is selectively bred for lack of barring and wide banding on the hair shaft the resulting pattern is referred to as shaded.


The English term "tabby" comes from the French tabis, "striped silk taffeta", "a rich, watered silk," from Middle French atabis (14c.), from Arabic attabiya, from Attabiy, a neighborhood of Baghdad where such cloth was first made, named for prince 'Attab of the Umayyad dynasty.[5]


Since the tabby pattern is a common wild type, it might be assumed that medieval cats were of tabby type. However, one writer believed this to be untrue, at least in England. Some time after the mid-17th century, the curious antiquary John Aubrey noted that William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury was "a great lover of Catts [sic]" and "was presented with some Cyprus-catts, i.e. our Tabby-catts". He then claimed that "I doe well remember that the common English Catt, was white with some blewish piednesse : sc, a gallipot blew. The race or breed of them are now almost lost."[6]


  1. ^ a b c A Tribute to Tabby Cats in all Their Manifestations. Retrieved on January 31, 2008
  2. ^ Cat Colors FAQ Cat Fanciers. Retrieved on January 31, 2008
  3. ^ "Glossary of Cat Terms". Retrieved 24 November 2009. 
  4. ^ Cats of a Different Color, Agouti.
  5. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  6. ^ Oliver Lawson Dick, ed. Aubrey's Brief Lives. Edited from the Original Manuscripts, 1949, p. xxxvi.

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