Tabby Cat Colors & Patterns: Classic Tabby Cats, Mackerel Tabbies & More!

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Tabby cats are one of the most diverse and universally beloved types of cats. Probably because they are SO cute. But they’re not all the same! Tabby cats come in so many tabby patterns and tabby colors. There are orange tabby cats, grey tabby cats, brown tabby cats, and even other fur colors too. Cats with myriad tabby cat patterns also grace us with their presence: mackerel tabby cats, classic tabby cats, spotted tabby cats and more. Tabbies are unique due to their varied patterning and their charm!

Tabby cat coat pattern examples
Tabby cat coat pattern examples: A mackerel tabby, a classic tabby, a spotted tabby, and a ticked tabby, as well as a torbie and a caliby

What is a Tabby Cat?

A tabby cat is a cat that is expressing the “agouti” gene, which allows an ancestral striping pattern to be displayed on the cat’s fur. The stripes are a result of a pattern of ticked fur and non-ticked fur on the cat.

Tabby Cat Meaning

When someone says “tabby cat”, they are referring to a cat with the physical characteristics of this type of cat, as opposed to, for example, a solid-colored cat, a bicolor cat, or a calico cat.

Tabby cat characteristics include:

  • M shaped marking on the forehead
  • Dark eyeliner markings around eyes
  • A ring of lighter fur around eyes
  • Banding along spine and around legs and tail
  • Characteristic patterning on body
  • Lighter colored chin and belly
Tabby cat M facial markings
Tabby cats have characteristic facial markings such as the the M on their foreheads, and eyeliner markings

Tabby Kittens

Tabby kittens look just like tiny tabby cats! Sometimes, tabby markings are more apparent on black tabby kittens and fade as the kitten grows.

The gene responsible for the tabby cat pattern is called the agouti gene. If a cat is carrying the agouti gene (“A”), some form of tabby will be visible. If a cat is carrying a non-agouti gene (“a”), then the cat will be solid colored UNLESS the cat is red. Fun fact, orange cats always have tabby stripes. Even if the stripes have been bred to be difficult to see, the striping is still present due to the interactions between the genetics.

tabby kitten
A tabby kitten displays the markings of the tabby cat coat pattern, but it may be more difficult to distinguish.

Because cats can carry the agouti “A” gene without it being expressed, such as a cat with high-grade white spotting, it is possible for a cat who is not a tabby to have kittens who are tabbies. This is especially true if you have a pregnant mama cat and you don’t know who the father is (a common occurrence when fostering cats and kittens). Calico mother cats, tortoiseshells, bicolor cats, black cats, and white cats can all give birth to tabby kittens. Fun!

Tabby kittens
Tabby kittens

Tabby cat colors

Tabbies come in every color that cats come in! The most common are orange, grey (also called blue), and brown. The dilute gene can also be applied to tabby cats. This lightens both the main fur color and the tabby stripes. Tabbies can also come in cream, lavender, cinnamon, chocolate, fawn, silver, and even black, with subtle stripes.

Let’s take a look at some different color tabby cats!

Orange tabby cat

Orange tabbies are some of the most well-known and widely loved cats in modern culture.Orange tabbies like Garfield, Healthcliff, Crookshanks, and Puss-in-Boots have played irreplaceable roles in our favorite stories and comics.

Orange tabby cat
Orange tabby cat

You can see stunning dark orange stripes intermixed with lighter orange fur on the stunning orange tabby cat above. Note the banding on the legs, lighter chin, and lines emanating from the outer corner of the eyes that mark this sweetheart as a tabby.

Orange Tabby Kitten

There isn’t much that’s cuter than a fluffy little orange kitten.

orange tabby kitten
orange tabby kitten

These two kittens are showing us distinctive stripes on their legs, as well as pale fur around the eyes and a clear “M” shape on the forehead of the top kitten.

Grey tabby cat

Technically, grey tabbies are actually “blue” by cat standards. But since most people aren’t versed in cat lingo, it’s more common to hear them called grey tabby cats. These “blue tabby” sweethearts have dark grey stripes on a lighter gray background. The fur around their eyes and on their chins and bellies may be light grey or cream with a slight warmth of a reddish hue. Grey tabby cats can any eye color, though we observe grey tabbies with golden eyes most often.

Grey tabby cat
Grey tabby cat with a broken mackerel tabby pattern

grey tabby kitten

Grey tabby kitten
Grey tabby kitten

brown tabby cat

Brown tabby cats are some of the most common and most beloved house pets. They come in every size and shape, and have a wide range of personalities. Brown tabby cats can have yellow, green, amber, hazel, or copper eyes, and their tabby stripes can be in any of the four tabby patterns.

Brown tabby cat
Brown tabby cat

Brown Tabby Kitten

Brown tabby kittens are born with blue eyes that will turn another color around 8 weeks old. These cuties look like little brown bears! Depending on their patterning, their stripes may be hard to see when they are tiny and become more visible as they grow.

brown tabby kitten
Brown tabby kitten

Silver tabby cat

A silver tabby cat has black or dark gray stripes on light gray background fur. Silver tabbies are distinct from grey tabby cats in that silver tabby cat fur is white where the root of the hair meets the skin. Silver tabbies have variable pigmentation on each strand of fur; they may be ticked, shaded, or smoked.

A silver tabby cat may also be called a white tabby cat, or a grey and white tabby cat. If the silver tabby has very dark stripes on a very light background, some may refer to it as a black and white tabby cat.

One of these silver tabbies has darker stripes and one has lighter stripes, both on a very light silvery background. The stripes on the silver tabby pictured with darker stripes has shaded or smoked fur, and the silver tabby with lighter stripes has tipped fur, which means that only the tip of the fur strand has pigmentation. For more on cat fur, check out our overview on cat fur colors, patterns, and genetics.


Tabby Cat Patterns

Tabby cats of all coat patterns have a few characteristics in common. Tabby have a distinct “M” marking that appears on the forehead. Tabbies have eyeliner-like stripes around their eyes, as well as stripes on their cheeks. The tabby cat pattern universally includes a striped down the cat’s back, and banding on the legs and tail

Tabby cat patterns differ mostly in the markings on a cat’s body. Tabby cat coat patterns are usually separated into four categories. The four tabby cat patterns currently recognized by the Cat Fancier Association are mackerel tabbies, classic tabbies, spotted tabbies and ticked tabbies.

Classic Tabby Cat

A classic tabby cat is also called a marble tabby or a blotched tabby. This coat pattern consists of swirling shapes that create broad bands and spirals on the sides of a cat, and butterflies on the shoulders of the cat. There may be dots incorporated throughout the pattern.

Classic or marbled tabby cat pattern

Classic tabbies typically have stripes on their necks. They will always display the tabby “M” shape on the forehead and liner markings around their eyes.

Classic tabby cat personality

Class tabbies have some of the most affable, entertaining personalities in the cat world. They are enthusiastic, mischievous, and exploratory. Classic tabbies tend not to “look before they leap”, and may end up in all sorts of trouble as a result. They tend to dive headfirst into what they are doing, often with hilarious results. If you love a classic tabby, he will thoroughly love you back, and have you laughing on the daily to boot.

Mackerel Tabby

Mackerel tabby cats are named after the mackerel fish. Thin stripes go out from the spine and around the cat’s body like ribs, resembling the skinny rib bones of the mackerel fish. These stripes also ring the cat’s tail and legs. The stripes on a mackerel cat are similar to those of a tiger, so they are sometimes referred to as tiger cats.

Mackerel tabby stripes can be solid lines or broken lines. Mackerel tabbies will also have the typical facial markings that grace every tabby – the classic forehead “M”, eyeliner markings, and cheek stripes.

Mackerel Tabby Cat Example
A mackerel tabby cat has fine fish-bone stripes, broken or unbroken, around its abdomen.

Mackerel tabby cat personality

Mackerel tabby cats come in all different personalities, but are frequently intelligent, companionable, observant, relaxed, and curious. These super-stripy felines make excellent pets and will happily prowl around your home, hanging out nearby as you work and play.

Spotted Tabby

Spotted tabby cats, as implied by the name, have spots instead of stripes. Where mackerel tabbies may have stripes that are broken but still identifiable as stripes, spotted tabbies occur when the mackerel stripes become completely broken into spots. Sometimes a spotted tabby cat will have elongated oval spots instead of perfectly round dots. If the spots on your spotted tabby are shaped like dark rings with a lighter area in the center, these spots are called rosettes.

Spotted tabby cat example
A spotted tabby has all the common markings of a tabby cat, such as striped legs and a forehead “M”, but instead of stripes it has spots on its body.

Spotted tabby cat personality

Spotted tabbies have wonderful personalities. These rarest of tabby cats are affectionate, clever, relaxed, and friendly. They are fabulous companions and make loyal, loving pets.

Ticked Tabby

Ticked Tabbies are different from most other tabbies because they do not have stripes or spots to identify them as tabby cats. Stripes are not readily apparent on these cats, but each hair has alternating bands of color. This gives the cat a fuzzy appearance to their coloring. Breeds that are especially known for being ticked include Abyssinian and Somali cats, but the pattern also appears in many mixed breed cats. These tabby still have striped legs and typical tabby facial markings, including the “M” on the forehead.

This brown tabby cat has beautiful ticked tabby fur.

Ticked tabby cat personality

Ticked tabbies are sometimes more reserved and aloof than other tabbies. However, they are extremely loyal to their chosen humans, and are perfect companions for the work-from-home cat lover.

Tabby Pattern Mixes

Torbie Cat

The term “torbie” or “torbie cat” is a shortening of “tortoiseshell tabby”. These are beautiful female cats with mixed black and red fur and minimal or no white spotting. For a tortie to become a torbie, she must have the tabby pattern visible in the red patches, the black patches, or both.

Sometimes the two colors of fur are intermixed so thoroughly that no pattern is visible at all. Some torbie cats very much resemble typical brown tabbies, with small areas of red intermixed. If there are large enough red patches, the tabby pattern will always be visible in them.

torbie cat example
A torbie cat is a tabby-tortoiseshell mix: a tabby cat that displays both brown and red fur, without large spots of white. The tabby patten can be in any pattern described above.

Caliby Cat

Caliby, as you may have guessed, is a combination of the words “calico” and “tabby”. Calico cats differ from tortoiseshells in that calicos have white spotting, and toritoisehll cats have minimal or no white spotting. Caliby cats are thusly different from torbies, in that they have a higher degree of white spotting.

Most calicos will have hints of the tabby pattern on their face or in larger patches of color. However, in some calicos the tabby pattern is not visible or barely noticeable. In animals considered to be caliby cats, the pattern is readily apparent.

Caliby cat example
A caliby cat is a calico-tabby mix: a calico who has the brown tabby pattern showing instead of black patches like on a typical calico cat.

The History of Tabby Cats

The tabby cat pattern origin was centuries ago. Some time during the Miocene era, ancient cats split into roaring and non-roaring varieties. Modern house cats are descended from the non-roaring line. In the 14th century, the Attabiya district of Baghdad produced beautiful striped silk cloth. The name “tabby cat” was derived from the word “Attabiya” and came to mean the striped cats commonly found around town.

Tabby Cat History Origins
Tabby Cat History & Origins

Tabby Cat FAQs

What is the Origin of Tabby Cats?

Tabby stripes emerged in the Near Eastern wildcat first, a common ancestor of today’s beloved house pets. The name “tabby” emerged when the stripy cats were compared to a popular striped silk pattern in the Middle Ages.

What are tabby Cats Known For?

Tabby cats are known for their intelligence, their loyal and loving personalities, and of course for their stripes. Famous fictional tabby cats include Garfield, Heathcliff, Puss-In-Boots, and Crookshanks.

What are Tabby Cats Descended From?

Tabby cats are descended from the African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica. Today, there are approximately 71 recognized breeds of domestic cats.

What is the Most Common Tabby Pattern?

The most common tabby pattern is the mackerel tabby, followed by the classic tabby. The ticked and spotted tabbies are the rarest tabby patterns.

How do I Know What Kind Of Tabby Cat I Have?

If your tabby has long thin stripes, he is a mackerel tabby. If your tabby has splotchy whirls, he is a classic tabby. If your tabby has spots, he is a spotted tabby. If your tabby has the tabby “M” but no stripes, he is a ticked tabby. Scroll up to see image examples of each type and color of tabby.

Is Tabby a Breed of Cat?

Tabbies are not a breed of cat. The term tabby refers to a coat pattern that can be present in many different breeds. In fact, all domestic cats possess genes for at least one of the four tabby coat patterns. Depending on the specific genetics of the cat, the tabby pattern might not show at all. Or, the pattern might be one of the four primary tabby coat patterns described above.

Do Tabby Cats Have A Distinct Personality?

Tabby cats are known for being friendly, intelligent, affectionate, funny, and loyal. Orange tabby cats in particular have a reputation for having a great sense of humor and being very talkative. Marbled or classic tabby cats have a great sense of humor reminiscent of the Three Stooges.

What Is The Lifespan Of A Tabby Cat?

Tabby cats have an average lifespan of 13-17 years, just like most other cats living indoors. If a tabby cat lives outdoors, he will typically have a shorter lifespan due to the dangers of being outdoors unsupervised.

What is the price of a tabby cat?

Since tabbies are so prevalent, you’ll be able to find one at your local animal shelter for the standard adoption price, which is usually under $100.

Are tabby cats rare?

Tabby cats are very common. All cats carry a gene that codes for the tabby pattern. Cats with solid colors have other genes that have superseded the tabby pattern, but the gene is still there. A non-tabby cat can and often does have tabby kittens.

Tabbies are for Cat Lovers

Tabby cats are well-known for their big personalities. These tiny tigers come in many different colors and patterns. They have personalities that are friendly, relaxed, smart, and loyal. Each cat is unique and will have a special charm that no other cat can replicate, and your personal tabby friend will forever hold a place in your heart.

References

These books are great resources for more information on cat genetics, coats, conformations, and breeds.

Robinson's Genetics for Cat Breeders and Veterinarians Robinson's Genetics for Cat Breeders and Veterinarians
$80.74

This book is a great reference for anyone studying feline genetics.

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05/14/2022 03:44 pm GMT
The Cat Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide The Cat Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide

The Cat Encyclopedia is a comprehensive cat compendium packed with facts about cats and kittens and beautifully photographed profiles of different breeds. This book also offers information on the science and history of house cats. 


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