What Exactly Is a Tabby Cat?

Find out what exactly a tabby cat is and how they get their distinctive pattern.
By: Paula Fitzsimmons
Tabby cat

You can probably recognize a tabby cat when you meet one—their distinctive striped coat and M-shaped forehead marking are often unmistakable. Tabbies aren’t limited to one pattern or color, however. Their coats can consist of patches, swirls, and dots, and they come in a variety of colors.

Tabbies aren’t bound by breed, like Persian or Siamese, either. The term “tabby” refers to a cat’s color pattern – like tortoiseshell and calico – and is present in a number of breeds. You may very well be living with a tabby cat and not even know it!

Find out what exactly a tabby cat is, and how they get their distinctive pattern, below.

How Tabby Cats Get Their Patterns

When the pigment in each hair shaft of a cat’s coat is in bands of light and dark, the result is a tabby pattern, says Carol Barbee, an all breed teaching judge with the American Cat Fanciers Association (CFA). “If hair shafts are filled with solid pigment, the cat will not be tabby.”

Any breed can acquire the tabby pattern, and scientists have identified three genes involved in tabby-pattern process: Agouti Signaling Protein (ASIP), Mc1R and Taqpep.

The Mc1R gene determines a coat’s level of darkness, and the ASIP gene controls whether the cat’s coat will be be solid or banded.

“If a cat has the dominant form of the ASIP gene, the pigment will be in bands in the hair shafts and the tabby pattern will show,” Barbee says. “If a cat has two recessive non-ASIP genes, the hair shafts will be solid and the tabby pattern will not show.”

The Taqpep gene controls how patterns in a cat’s coat are expressed. A cat’s pattern will not change throughout its life, and is present at birth, says Dr. Robert Grahn, a forensic analyst with the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at University of California at Davis.

A Closer Look at Tabby Cat Patterns

Tabbies come in four basic patterns – mackerel, classic, ticked and spotted.

Mackerel tabbies are the most common pattern, and the pattern most closely resembles a tiger.

“The stripes are in straight lines on the body in a fishbone pattern. There are stripes on the legs and tail, an M on the forehead, stripes on the cheeks, one or more necklace stripes under the chin and spots on the belly,” says Barbee, who also serves as the CFA’s genetics committee chair.

Classic tabby cats have wide stripes in a swirl pattern, with a “bulls-eye” on each side and a butterfly-shaped pattern across the shoulders, she says. Classic tabbies also have stripes on their legs and tail, an M on their foreheads, and a dark “spine line” that runs from the neck to the tail. The most popular of these tabbies is the silver American Shorthair.

“We see them a lot in TV and print advertising,” she says. “American Shorthairs come in many other colors as well. Maine Coons are most often brown tabby but we are now seeing them in other colors and patterns.”

Ticked tabbies contain no spotting or striping on the body, but the extremities and head may have stripes, says Grahn.

“Abysinnian and Singapura cats are ticked tabbies. It is also a popular color in Oriental Shorthairs,” says Barbee.

Lastly, spotted tabbies are covered in random spots on their backs and sides.

“Some of the breeds which can only be a spotted tabby are the Bengal, Egyptian Mau, Ocicat and Pixiebob,” Barbee says.

All four patterns can be present in a variety of colors, including brown, blue, chocolate, red, and cream, she adds. “The most dramatic is the silver tabby. This occurs when a gene is present that removes all the color from the light bands and creates a pattern of black stripes on a silvery background.”

Does the Tabby Pattern Influence Other Traits?

There is no connection between a cat’s color pattern and other physical qualities, including weight and hair length.

“Tabby cats can be lean and long, short and round, or anything in between. They can be short haired or long haired,” says Barbee.

The tabby pattern also has no impact on a cat’s personality, a trait linked to breed and other factors.

“Each cat has its own individual personality, shaped by not only breeding but also the environment in which the cat is raised,” says Grahn.

Tabby cats come in a myriad of shapes, sizes, breeds, colors and personalities. Their color patterns help give them a distinctive look that adds to their overall attractiveness. Look beyond the coat, however, and you’ll still find a creature worthy of your affection.