Many people refer to their cats as tabbies without really knowing what the term means.
Rather than referring to a specific breed, the word “tabby” is a reference to a certain coat pattern commonly seen in both domestic and wild cats. Tabbies often have stripes, swirls, or spots of color on their coats determined by their breed and individual genetics.
Though it’s difficult to make generalizations about tabbies because they come from so many breeds, many tabby cat owners say their cats are friendly, affectionate, and playful.
Also Read: Most Popular Names for Tabby Cats
Why Are Tabby Cats Special?
Every cat is unique but what makes tabby cats special is the beautiful patterns that cover their coats. Tabby cats exhibit a combination of stripes, swirls, and spots which, depending on the breed, may cover the cat’s entire body or be localized to patches.
There are five types of Tabby markings:
Though every tabby cat is different, there are certain types of markings most cats with this coat pattern tend to exhibit. Most tabbies have stripes across their faces, along their backs, and on their legs and tail.
What makes a tabby really stand out, however, is the distinctive M-shaped marking on the forehead.
This recognizable M-shaped marking is also seen on a number of wild cats, particularly jungle cats like cheetahs, ocelots, and tigers. Some say the M stands for the word Mau, the Egyptian word for cat.
Though tabby cats are not a specific breed, all domestic cats carry the tabby gene because their origins can be traced to wild cats that carry the tabby pattern.
In fact, the tabby pattern is a hallmark of the direct ancestors of the domestic feline, including:
- The African wildcat (Felis lybica lybica)
- The European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris)
- The Asiatic wildat (Felix lybica oranata)
The tabby gene is extremely diverse, involved in a wide variety of coat patterns. Though the striped tabby pattern is the most familiar, there are five recognized types of tabby markings. The tabby gene can also be missed with other marking genes to create cats with solid coats or a mixture of patterns.
Whether a cat show its tabby pattern or not depends on whether the cat has inherited a dominant agouti gene or a recessive non-agouti gene.
Cats that inherit the dominant agouti gene (A) will express a visible tabby pattern while cats that inherent the recessive non-agouti gene (a) will not. If a solid-colored cat inherits two copies of the recessive non-agouti gene (aa), it may exhibit “ghost striping.” This refers to a subtle suggestion of the underlying tabby pattern which is most visible in strong sunlight.
Tabby Cat Appearance
Though there are several distinct tabby patterns, most tabbies exhibit some degree of striping on their coats. Depending on the cat’s genetics, these stripes may be bold and clearly visible or they might be subtle and faded. Some tabbies only show visible striping on their legs and tail.
Other physical characteristics commonly seen in tabbies include:
- An M-shaped marking on the forehead
- Dark “eyeliner” around the eyes
- Pigmented lips and paws
- Thin pencil lines on the face
- Paler chin and belly than the rest of the body
- Banding on the legs and tail
While every tabby cat may not exhibit all of these markings, if a cat exhibits several from this list it’s pretty safe to say it’s a tabby. That being said, there are five different types of tabby markings.
1. Classic Tabby
The classic tabby pattern consists of bold swirls that create a “target”-like pattern on the side of the cat’s body. Some classic tabbies also have blotches of color, giving these cats a secondary nickname of “blotched tabby.” The American Shorthair breed commonly exhibits the classic tabby pattern.
2. Mackerel Tabby
The most common tabby pattern by far, the mackerel tabby is also called the striped tabby or the tiger cat. These cats have solid or broken stripes that run parallel down the side of the body along with rings around the legs and tail. Many tabbies with this pattern also have dark bands of color running across their bellies which have the nickname “vest buttons.”
The stripes on the cat’s body branch out from one large stripe that runs along the cat’s spine. Because this effect resembles a fish skeleton, this striped pattern was given the nickname “mackerel tabby.”
3. Spotted Tabby
Rather than exhibiting stripes or swirls, the spotted table is covered in spots of various size. Because these spots vary in shape and size, they often resemble broken mackerel tabby stripes. It’s unclear whether the spotted tabby was developed from the broken mackerel tabby or if it has unique genetics.
Two cat breed which commonly exhibit the spotted tabby pattern are the Ocicat and the American Bobtail. Ocicats are a domestic cat breed that resembles a wild cat – they are named for their resemblance to the ocelot. The American Bobtail is known for its stubby “bobbed” tail.
4. Ticked Tabby
The ticked tabby is one that doesn’t show the typical stripes or spots, except sometimes on the legs and tail. These cats have agouti hairs – hairs that are composed of several bands of pigmentation. Typically, an agouti hair has a dark base color that alternates with lighter tones.
The ticked tabby coloration is created by a blend of agouti hairs that gives the coat a salt-and-pepper appearance instead of clear stripes. Some ticked tabbies do, however, show residual ghost striping or barring on the face, belly, and lower legs. If the cat has an all-ticked pattern, it may give off the appearance of shimmering in the sunlight due to color variations in the hairs.
5. Patched Tabby
This fifth tabby pattern doesn’t refer to a specific type of marking but to the combination of tabby markings with other colors or patterns. A patched tabby may be a calico cat or a tortoiseshell that exhibits patches of tabby markings. A tortoiseshell cat with tabby patches is often called a “torbie.”
You may also come across an orange tabby which shows any of the 5 tabby patterns above but has an overall orange and white coloration.
Personality And Temperament
Because a wide variety of breeds exhibit the tabby coat pattern, it’s difficult to make broad statements about tabby cat personality. The best way to predict your tabby’s personality is to determine its breed.
In many cases, you can determine a cat’s breed simply by looking at it. Many breeds have distinct physical characteristics, though it may not be quite so simple of you have a mixed-breed cat.
If you want to determine your cat’s genetics, the Basepaws cat DNA test can help you do it. This kit compares your cat’s genetics against the largest cat DNA database in the world to help you better understand his breed composition. You’ll receive a report detailing your cat’s breed groups and a list of wild cats he’s genetically related to.
There is a long list of distinctive cat breeds that exhibit the tabby coloration, including:
- American Bobtail
- American Curl
- American Shorthair
- American Wirehair
- Egyptian Mau
- Exotic Shorthair
- Maine Coon
- Norwegian Forest Cat
- Scottish Fold
- Turkish Angora
- Turkish Van
The Abyssinian tabby is generally a friendly and affectionate breed but also quite active. These tabbies require plenty of exercise and mental stimulation to prevent them from getting bored and exhibiting destructive behaviors.
American Bobtails are also quite interactive and form strong bonds with family. These cats have a playful side – they love to play games with their owners – and they have strong hunting instincts. This breed is generally fairly quiet, though many chirp, trill, or click when they get excited.
The Birman is a large breed that typically grows over 12 pounds. While these cats typically display a pointed coat pattern, they can have tabby points. Birmans are a somewhat reserved and often jealous breed that tends to bond closely with one member of the family. They can be a tad territorial with other cats, but they are generally not aggressive.
The Oriental generally only weighs 8 to 12 pounds, but they are very slender with long legs and a long face. These cats are highly intelligent and can be trained more easily than other breeds. They also tend to be quite affectionate and love to spend time with their owners.
Scottish Folds are known for their small, rounded ears that are folded downward against the head. These cats come in a wide variety of colors and patterns, including the tabby pattern, and they can have medium-long to long hair. In terms of personality, the Scottish Fold is sweet-tempered and adaptable, but they do tend to bond with one person in the family.
Every tabby cat is unique in terms of genetics and breeding, so you’ll have to spend some time getting to know your own tabby. Stock up on cat toys and spend some quality time with your cat every day.
Fun Facts About Tabby Cats
- Orange and black tabby cats are often called “marmalade cats.”
- Morris, an orange tabby cat, starred as a commercial model for 9lives, a popular cat food brand, for decades.
- Some believe that tabby cats are the favorite cats of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was thought that cats belonging to witches were people who had been transformed into cats through magic.
- The average tabby cat lifespan ranges from 10 to 15 years. Indoor cats tend to live longer than outdoor cats by several years.
- Tabby cats with a striped pattern are often nicknamed “tiger cats,” for obvious reasons.
- The word “tabby” has different origins. Some think it comes from the Attabiy district in Baghdad, which largely sells patterned silks. In the 14th century, the word “atabis” was also used in France to refer to these patterned cats.
- Some of the most common purebred cats with tabby markings include Maine Coons, Abyssinians, Bengals, British and American Shorthairs.
- Professor and author Jim Willis had his own version the story behind the “M” marking on tabby cats. He wrote a story about these marked felines as part of his 2002 book, Pieces of My Heart — Writings Inspired by Animals and Nature.
- Garfield is another famous orange tabby, and also an American shorthair breed.
- Orange tabbies may develop little black freckles on their nose and mouth area, usually after the first year or two of their lives.
- Tabby cat patterns can come in four common types: classic swirls, mackerel, ticked and spotted. Some include a fifth type – the “patched” tabby which has patches of tabby markings.
- How big do tabby cats get? A Maine Coon Tabby cat can grow to up 10 to 16 inches in height for a male cat and the Norwegian Forest Cat weighs up to pounds at maturity.
- Aside from common tabby names such as Garfield, Morris, and Tiger, clever names for tabby cats may include things like Marble, Spot, Tigger, and even Tabby.
- Legend has it that a tabby cat helped keep the baby Jesus warm. When the baby was cold, Mary asked the manger animals to move in close to warm him. A tabby cat nestled right in next to the baby and Mary bestowed the cat with her own initial, “M,” on its forehead.
- Puss in Boots from the Shrek movie is another famous tabby cat.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are tabby cats affectionate?
The term tabby doesn’t refer to a breed but to a coat pattern commonly seen in cats, so it’s difficult to make generalizations about the tabby’s personality. Many tabby owners say, however, that their cats are friendly and affectionate.
How much does a tabby cat cost?
Again, because tabby is a coat pattern rather than a breed it’s hard to make broad statements. Some of the most expensive tabby breeds are the American Wirehair, the Scottish Fold, and the Norwegian Forest Cat. Mixed-breed cat with tabby coloration are generally the most affordable.
How long does a tabby cat live?
Generally speaking, cats can live as long as 15 to 20 years when they are properly cared for. Indoor cats tend to live longer than outdoor cats by several years.
Do tabby cats shed a lot?
It depends on the breed. Longhair tabby cats actually tend to shed less than shorthaired cats, surprising as it may be. That being said, longhair tabbies may require more grooming and coat maintenance.