What is a tabby cat?
Tabby is a common coat pattern among domestic cats which features darker spots, stripes or swirls on a lighter background as well as a prominent M on the forehead. It is not a breed, but a coat pattern and occurs in both mixed breed and purebred cats.
The name tabby is believed to have derived from Atabi, which is a type of striped taffeta (known as tabbi) that was manufactured in the Attabiah district of Baghdad.
Related: Tabby cat photo gallery
Harrison Weir, in his book Our Cats And All About Them, dated 1889, describes the origins as this:
The word tabby was derived from a kind of taffeta, or ribbed silk, which when calendered or what is now termed watered, is by that process covered with wavy lines. This stuff, in bygone times, was often called tabby: hence the cat with lines or markings on its fur was called a “tabby” cat. But it might also, one would suppose, with as much justice, be called a taffey cat, unless the calendering of “taffey” caused it to become “tabby”. Certain it is that the word tabby only referred to the marking or stripes, not to the absolute colour.
Genetically all cats are tabby, however, many possess modifier genes which inhibit this pattern from being expressed. The mackerel tabby (Mc) is the default (wild type) pattern, with the classic pattern being recessive (mc). Recessive genes require two copies (one from each parent) in order to be expressed. The spotted tabby is essentially a mackerel tabby with a modifier gene which breaks up the markings from stripes into spots. If cats were allowed to do their thing (so to speak), and no more selective breeding occurred, then they would eventually revert back to the default tabby pattern after a few generations. This is known as revert to type.
The gene for the tabby pattern is known as agouti and is dominant, the code for this gene is A/a (a capital letter symbolises that the gene is dominant, a lower case letter means the gene is recessive). So, if a cat inherits two recessive a genes, then it will be a non-tabby (solid) cat as the presence of the a/a masks the tabby pattern.
A/A = tabby
A/a = tabby
a/a =non-tabby (solid)
- The brown tabby has darker spots and stripes on a lighter background such as black spots/stripes on a brown background,
- The silver tabby has dark grey spots/stripes on a light grey background.
- The red tabby has dark red spots and stripes on a light red/cream background.
Other colours include cream tabbies and blue tabbies.
Also known as blotched or marbled.
Dark bold and clearly defined markings, on a lighter background. Lines, swirls, and whorls which are unbroken on the top of the cat and swirled along the sides, with barring on the legs and rings around the tail.
Clearly defined, vertical stripes going around the cat’s body. Mackerel stripes are narrower than those on the classic tabby. Legs have bracelets and the tail is barred.
Dark spots on a lighter background.
The ticked tabby has contrasting dark and light bands of colour on each hair.
Tabby cat M
All tabby cats have a distinctive M on the forehead. There are several legends as to how this occurred.
- When Jesus was born, lying in his crib, he started to shiver from the cold. A tabby cat jumped into the manger and warmed the baby Jesus by lying next to him. To thank the cat, Mary left the mark of her name, an M on the cat’s forehead.
- A cat by the name of Muezza was the favourite cat of the Prophet, Muhammad. One day when the call of prayers was heard, Muezza was asleep on the sleeve of the Prophet’s robe. Instead of waking the cat, he cut off the sleeve, leaving Muezza to sleep, stroking her on the head three times.
- A cat was attacking the Prophet, Muhammad, Muezza killed the snake, saving his life. The Prophet blessed the cat by resting his hand on the cat’s forehead, marking it with an M and giving all the ability to always land on their feet.
The tabby pattern is dominant over almost all other coat patterns with an exception for the white masking and white spotting genes.
Famous tabby cats
- Orangey – The orange tabby who played ‘Cat’ in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- Garfield – The cartoon character
- Stubbs – Mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska from July 1997 until his death
- Puss in Boots – The orange tabby from Shrek
- Milo – The orange tabby cat from the movie Milo and Otis
Tabby cat breeds
There are a number of breeds which accept the tabby cat pattern, and the tabby pattern is common among domestics.
- Abyssinian (ticked)
- American Bobtail
- American Curl
- American Shorthair (classic)
- American Wirehair
- Australian Mist
- Bengal (classic and spotted)
- British Shorthair
- Burmilla (ticked)
- California Spangled
- Cornish Rex
- Devon Rex
- Egyptian Mau
- Maine Coon
- Norwegian Forest Cat
- Scottish Fold
- Singapura (ticked)
- Somali (ticked)
Tabby cat names
- Candy cane