- Middle Eastern origins — While French and Spanish languages influenced the word, “tabby” can trace its roots back to a district in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, called “attābī.”
- Tabby cats aren’t a breed — While some breeds may be more likely to feature the tabby pattern, it’s technically a coat color and combination rather than a breed.
- There’s a lot of variety — Forget just stripes, there are four defined patterns and additional combinations with other coat types too.
When asked about breed, many cat owners may refer to their beloved feline as “just a tabby.” Well, the tabby gene is universal across all cats, and there are a variety of tabby markings that have shown up throughout history to make this unique coat pattern commonplace. Keep reading to learn how tabbies have left their mark — with a few different patterns — throughout history.
The four tabby patterns
While it may seem like there are infinite types of tabby cat patterns based on all of the variations, there are actually only four identified patterns around today. Tabbies of any variety are marked by an “M” shaped pattern on the forehead (although there are rare exceptions.)
Here are the four tabby markings that your feline might be sporting.
One of the most popular types of tabbies, mackerel tabby cats have vertical lines that stretch from their spine and down around their abdomen. These lines may be broken or solid and resemble tiger stripes. These distinct stripes are also featured on their legs and tail, sometimes making their tail resemble raccoons. Norwegian Forest cats and Maine Coon cats, both large breed domestic cats, are commonly mackerel tabbies.
👉 Did you know your fiery, fearless tabby (or any kind of cat) shares almost 96% of their DNA with tigers?
While a mackerel tabby can boast about being a mini-tiger, spotted tabbies most resemble another bigger cat, the cheetah. Like their extra-large cousins, spotted tabbies have spots — typically dark brown spots and a light brown coat — and may have stripes depending on which tabby genes are ultimately dominant.
While not a breed by itself, spotted tabbies are popular because they resemble exotic, larger cats. While spotted tabbies can show up in any breed, some breeds are distinct due to their spots. Cheetoh cats, a newer breed developed in 2003, are one example. These cats were selectively bred from Ocicats and Bengals (a combination of the Asian Leopard and domestic house cats.) Savannah cats, a hybrid breed of servals and domestic cats, are similar to Bengals.
The classic tabby pattern features bolder colors. In addition to the hallmark “M” on the forehead, classic tabbies have bolder lines and swirls, sometimes with distinct patterns around the shoulder blades or in addition to the features of mackerel and spotted tabbies. Many classic tabbies also have stripes around the neck, which are affectionately called necklaces.
While it may seem strange, ticked tabbies don’t resemble other tabbies on the surface. They sport stripes, just on individual hair. For the most part, ticked tabbies appear more solid than striped or spotted tabbies at first glance. Some may sport faint (or bold) stripes on the legs, tail, or spine, and some may not have the characteristic M on the forehead.
Certain breeds are more likely to feature ticked tabbies, including Abyssinians and Scottish Folds.
Mixed tabby cat patterns & colors
Tabby patterns go beyond the four standard patterns above. After all, each cat has a unique personality; their coat should be just as interesting. Here are some common, non-standard mixed tabby patterns!
Orange tabby cats
Sometimes considered a fifth pattern, orange tabbies appear in all four tabby patterns above and are typically male due to the orange coloring being a recessive gene. Orange tabbies can be darker or lighter, but typically these cats have white on their stomachs, paws, chests, and face. Like other variations of tabby cats, orange tabbies can have more prominent stripes or spots, or they can be subtle and difficult to see, particularly with longer-haired cats. Sherlock, one of our betterpet helpers and model for our best cat collars, is a good example.
This particular mash-up of coats occurs when a cat has tortoiseshell and tabby markings. Tortoiseshell cats — often called torties — are almost always female, and the coat pattern comes from the mottled colors that resemble a turtle’s shell. Torbies have both the mottled coloring of a tortie and the characteristics of a tabby in various amounts.
Like the Torbie, a cat with a caliby pattern has features of both a tabby and a calico. Calico cats are also very similar to torties in that they have numerous colors but in large patches with white areas. It isn’t uncommon for the patches of color to feature tabby markings. Like male torties, male calico cats, and thus male calibies, are extremely rare (but not impossible!)
Tabby cat genetics
The tabby gene is actually a combination of genes: the agouti gene locus and the tabby locus. These two genes and a modifier are responsible for your favorite feline’s fantastic coat. The agouti gene controls whether or not your cat has a tabby pattern, the ghost of one, as pictured below, or whether or not it’s recessive and doesn’t show up at all. Your cat will have one of four patterns depending on what is dominant and recessive with the agouti gene.
Health concerns with tabby cats
Interestingly enough, while many consider black cats unlucky , from a genetic standpoint, they may be more resistant to disease. For tabbies, though, this isn’t the case. Since tabby cats aren’t a breed, there aren’t any specific health concerns for this coat pattern.
Like all cats, ensuring your tabby cat gets enough to drink is important as cats are prone to dehydration. Their diet is also important, so make sure they are eating the right amount of food. And, lastly, provide plenty of enrichment.
Cat parents should pay attention to cat body language and make sure that they pick up on signs that your cat is feeling ill or unhappy.
Tabby cat temperament
As any cat parent knows, every cat is different and has a distinct personality (sometimes seemingly a different one every day). Tabbies transcend breed titles, and so do their personalities. While people tend to associate certain traits with coat color, cats, including tabbies, have unique personalities.
Dr. Dwight Alleyne
In my experience, I haven't seen any difference with intelligence associated with coat color. But I have noticed that tortoise colored cats tend to have a more sassy attitude.
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History of the tabby cat
Countries and civilizations have come and gone, yet the tabby cat remains. While their name is believed to have evolved from the Arabic word “attābī,” it was shaped overall by different European influences. The first instance of the word “tabby” appeared in England in 1638, along with various instances of the tabby cat in manuscripts and writings.
The hallmark “M” on a tabby’s forehead has also had plenty of folklore around it. This marking has numerous origins, from being touched by the Virgin Mary to being the symbol of an Egyptian goddess. In reality, it’s likely just the way the dominant tabby gene presents, but we’re personally partial to the idea that tabbies are touched by the gods.
Tabby cats, the CFA, and TICA
There are significantly more dog breeds than cat breeds and more organizations that hold dog shows and have standards for those breeds. Still, cats have the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) and The International Cat Association (TICA). CFA recognizes a total of 43 cat breeds, while TICA recognizes 73.
Like dog breeds, cat breeds have standards with these organizations — although, unlike dog breeds, sorting cat breeds into classifications is about as easy as herding our felines. With many cat breeds, though, the tabby pattern is accepted as part of the breed standard and is commonly seen in some breeds.
Regardless of whether your cat loves the runway or just loves running away from grooming, tabby cats are an excellent addition to any home and can trace their stripes, spots, and namesake back through history.
Frequently asked questions
What are the four types of tabby cats?
The four official tabby coat patterns are classic, mackerel, spotted, and ticked. There are variations, though, with blends between tabby and tortoiseshell (torbies) and tabby and calicos (calibies). Many people also recognize orange tabby cats as a type of tabby all on their own.
What kind of cat is a tabby?
A tabby cat is almost always signified by an “M” on the forehead. This distinct marking may be faint, formatted differently, or it may appear as lines rather than an M. Other signs include stripes, spots, or bold lines (like a thick stroke from a painter’s brush.)
What is the rarest type of tabby cat?
Ghost tabbies are rare; cats often grow out of their recessive stripes or spots as they reach adulthood. However, these cats aside, spotted tabbies with rosettes, like a cheetah, are also very rare.
Are tabby cats common or rare?
Tabby cats are widespread. The genes that produce the distinct tabby pattern aren’t isolated to domestic pets. Bigger cats, tigers, cheetahs, and leopards have the same patterns. Still, we wouldn’t advise entering their enclosure with treats and a friendly “Ppspspsps.”