All About Tabby Cats and Their Color Patterns

Tabby cat on a cat tree indoors near the stairs.

Purple Collar Pet Photography/Getty Images

The name "tabby cat" brings to mind many different things for different people. The old phrase "alley cat" may come to mind with some people: the rough-coated, scar-nosed, tattered-eared lurker of alleys and dumpsters. Others will think of their favorite cats.

Tabbies are so ubiquitous that many people think of them as a breed. Not so; the tabby is a color pattern, most often stripes, but sometimes stripes and whorls or even spots and stripes. The tabby pattern is so popular that it can be found in many pedigreed cats today and is accepted in many breeds by the most popular registries.

Although there are many variations of each, the tabby pattern falls into four basic classes. A fifth includes tabby as part of another basic color pattern, e.g., the "patched" tabby, which may be a calico or tortoiseshell cat with tabby patches (the latter is called a "torbie"). Some pointed breeds also allow "tabby points" within their color standards. It is no surprise the tabby cat is ubiquitous. The gene for the tabby pattern can be found in all domestic cats. Look at a "coal black" cat in the sun someday, and see if you can find the hidden tabby markings.

Types of Tabby Patterns

  • Classic: This pattern usually has whorls ending in a "target" on the side of the cat. Many American shorthair cats demonstrate this pattern. The cat pictured in this chart has a very high color contrast, which shows his whorls clearly.
  • Mackerel (striped): This is by far the most common pattern, so much so that some people think it should have received the title "Classic." Mackerel tabbies have striped rings around their tail and legs, a "necklace" of stripes on the front of their chests and bands of solid or broken stripes running down the sides of their bodies. They will have a darker color in spots running in two lines across their tummies (called "vest buttons.") The ginger kitten in the chart shows an example of broken stripes. The same cat is shown above as an adult.
  • Spotted: The ocicat and the American Bobtail are good examples of spotted tabby pattern, although some moggies will also demonstrate this color pattern. The American Bobtail in the chart illustrates the spotted tabby pattern to perfection.
  • Agouti (Ticked): Most tabby cats will have agouti hairs as part of their pattern. If you look closely, you'll see different bands of color down the length of the cat's hairs. Cats with an all-ticked pattern almost shimmer in the sunlight, because of the color variation. The Abyssinian in the chart is a classic example of a ticked tabby or agouti pattern.

Breeds That Accept the Tabby Pattern

As mentioned, many breeds accept the tabby pattern in one variation or another. Indeed, a 21-pound "English tabby" was documented in having appeared at the very first cat show in the world held at the Crystal Palace in London in 1871. Here is a list of breeds which are allowed the tabby pattern in CFA:

  • Abyssinian (ticked)
  • American Bobtail
  • American Curl
  • American shorthair (the classic pattern)
  • American Wirehair
  • Birman (tabby points)
  • Colorpoint Shorthair (tabby points called "Lynx Points")
  • Egyptian Mau (the original spotted tabby)
  • Exotic (shorthaired Persians)
  • Javanese (Lynx Points)
  • LaPerm (has its roots in a "barn cat")
  • Maine Coon (probably the most popular pedigreed tabby cat)
  • Manx
  • Norwegian Forest Cat
  • Ocicat
  • Oriental (with 112 tabby combinations)
  • Persian
  • Ragdoll (Lynx Points)
  • Rex (Devon, Selkirk, and Cornish)
  • Scottish Fold
  • Siberian (another "natural" breed of tabby cats)
  • Singapura (ticked)
  • Somali (longhair ticked)
  • Turkish Angora (14 allowable tabby patterns/colors)
  • Turkish Van (six tabby patterns/colors)

Probably the most distinctive feature seen in common on all tabby cats is the "M" on their foreheads. You will also see this "M" on many of the big jungle cats, such as tigers, cheetahs, and ocelots.

From the ancient Egyptian days came the first legend about this unique marking. Cats were called Mau, most likely a reflection of their conversational sound. The word Mau also translated to seeing or light. Since cats' eyes appear so luminous at night, it was only a couple of steps further to associate these glorious animals with the moon, and their marking to reflect that relationship. The Egyptian Mau is a direct descendant of those ancient Egyptian cats; domesticated as an offspring of the African Wild Cat; it carries the "M" to this day.

Tabby in the Manger

Another wonderful legend about the origin of the "M" tells about Mary and the tabby cat in the manger. It seems that the baby Jesus was cold and fussing, and Mary asked the manger animals to move in closer to warm him. The manger was simply too small to accomplish that, but a little tabby cat came in and nestled next to the baby, and cosseted Him with purring and warmth. Mary was so grateful she bestowed her initial, "M," on the cat's forehead.

Mohammed and the Tabby

Islam legend tells us that Mohammed loved cats. One story says that he once cut off a sleeve of a garment when he had to leave to attend prayer rather than to disturb his cat, Muezza, who was sleeping upon the sleeve. It is said that the reason he loved cats so much is that one once saved his life when a snake crawled into his sleeve. (This may be a variation of the well-known Muezza story.) Legend also claims that Mohammed bestowed on cats the ability to always land on their feet. Writing of Mohammed tells about his vision of a woman punished in Hell for starving her cat to death. These stories have all come down to the assumption that the "M" symbolizes the enormous esteem which Mohammed felt for cats and that the sight of the "M" on a cat's forehead invokes memories of Mohammed. In any case, cats today are still generally protected and respected in the Islamic world and are even permitted inside mosques.

Beloved of Bast

Another favorite story of the magnificent "M" was told by Jim Willis in his story, Beloved of Bast, which is included in his book, "Pieces of my Heart—Writings Inspired by Animals and Nature." It tells the tale of an old brown tabby "barn cat" by the name of "Mother."

Another frequently quoted piece says that in Ancient Egypt, cats were worshiped as gods, and the cat has never forgotten this. Indeed, the Goddess Bastet was depicted with a cat's head and Re, the Sun God was often depicted as a cat.

Small wonder that tabby cats are particularly worthy of the esteem in which we hold them. Many of them are creating their own legends today, a fact to which many of you will attest.