Tabby cat with green eyes

Meet the tabby cat

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Everything you need to know about the tabby cat

By Emilie Heyl Content Writer

Updated on the

We have all come across a tabby cat before, but this cat, which is so present in our lives, is in fact not well known! Discover all the secrets of the tabby cat and its beautiful tabby coat.

There are many tabby cats and we see them so often that we don't even really pay attention to them anymore, and yet: there is a lot to be said about tabby cats… Did you know, for example, that there are several types of tabby patterns, some of which have no stripes at all? Or that they have characteristic markings on their faces?

If you have a tabby cat yourself, you may think you already know everything about these beautiful cats. But the tabby cat has more than one trick up its sleeve, and its markings hide many secrets worth knowing! Here's a quick overview of what you need to know about tabbies, which cat breeds are tabbies, and we’ve even gathered a list of names for your future tabby cat.

Tabby cat with a clear M-shape on its forehead ©Esin Deniz - Shutterstock

How do I recognise a tabby cat?

What distinguishes the coat of tabbies are the markings on their coat with a marbled or striped effect, with dark spots on a light background. It is these markings that distinguish the tabby, not the coat colour beneath the markings. Depending on the type of tabby, they can have all sorts of marbled, striped, spotted or even coloured swirls on the body, neck, shoulders, belly, and flanks. Tabby cats can come in all sorts of colours:

  • The black tabby
  • The brown tabby
  • The red tabby
  • The grey tabby
  • The orange tabby
  • The cream tabby
  • The silver tabby

And much more!

The most distinctive marking of a tabby cat is the M-shape on their foreheads. In general, they have striped markings on their eyes, cheeks, paws and tail, which give a nice visual effect that helps a lot with camouflage.

The different patterns of a tabby cat

Good to know: The tabby pattern has different variations triggered by an independent gene.

There are 4 varieties of tabby cats: the classic tabby, the mackerel tabby, the ticked tabby, and the spotted tabby. Let’s go more into detail.

The classic tabby: This variety has large, bold, swirling patterns along his sides, a bit like a marble cake.
The mackerel tabby: This variety has a fine striped tabby pattern reminiscent of a fish skeleton, the "mackerel". These are the most common tabby cats.
The ticked tabby: This variety has coloured stripes running down the length of the cat’s coat.
The spotted tabby: This variety of tabby has a pattern with small spots, which gives the cats a cheetah-like appearance!

No wonder it's so hard to tell the different varieties of tabby apart! And that's without taking into account whether they are tipped, smoked, silver or shaded.

The different variations of a tabby cat 

The tipped tabby: It is a ticked tabby with black stripes at the tip of the hair and a silver effect coat. The term "tipped" comes from "tip" or "end" of the hair. It is a coat that is mostly seen in the Chinchilla Persian.

The smoke tabby cat: They also have a black stripe at the end of the hair, but this stripe is longer, requiring the fur to be lifted to see that the base of the hair is clear.

The shaded tabby: It is halfway between a smoke tabby and tipped tabby, with one third of the hair being dark and two thirds being light.

The silver tabby: It has a very light or white base coat with a silvery appearance. Silver exists for all solid coloured coats, and this is how we find cream silver, black tortie silver, red silver…

Did you know: Ginger cats are always tabby!

The abouti gene (also known as ticked gene), which decides whether a cat's coat will be bi-coloured or single-coloured, triggers tabby markings in all ginger cats. This applies to all shades, from yellow to caramel, cream, ginger and marmalade.

Because females need two ginger genes to get this coat colour, compared to one for males, about 80% of ginger cats are male.

If your ginger tabby cat has a tipped, smoked or shaded effect on his coat, he is said to be a tipped cameo, smoked cameo or shaded cameo.

Ginger tabby cat ©Silarock - Shutterstock

Is a tabby cat a rare cat?

Although accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, tabby cats are very common, and can be found just about anywhere: in stray cats, of course, but also in many different breeds. In fact, the tabby pattern is very common among feral cats: this is not surprising, since stripes and other markings are a much better camouflage in the grass than one-colour coats.

The patterns they can display are varied: some have stripes or spiral markings, some have spots, and some have no markings at all. When you take into account the different colours they may have, there are many different combinations.

Those with a coat closest to that of wild cats are often the most popular, but also the rarest - and many of them are also among the most expensive cat breeds. This not only means that they are often quite difficult to obtain, but also that they are the most likely to be the target of thieves and animal traffickers. It's best to keep this in mind when purchasing a tiger or leopard looking cat...

What breed of cat is a tabby?

It is a marking that exists in many pedigree cats, including the Maine Coon for which it is the most common type of marking, as well as in the "alley cat". Here is an overview of cat breeds with the tabby pattern:

Origin and history of the tabby cat 

Experts suggest that the name 'tabby' comes from the striped silk called 'Attabi', made in Attarbiah in the Middle East. When Middle Eastern traders brought this silk to Britain, people quickly compared the pattern of the silk to the striped coat of the so-called tabby cat. Since then, more and more people have called the cat "tabby cat", which eventually evolved into the name we all know today.

The reason why some cats have a tabby or striped coat and others do not is because of their genetics.

Gorgeous tabby cat©Shutterstock

The agouti gene

There is a gene called the agouti gene, which as the name suggests determines whether agouti hair is present in the cat's coat. Each individual has two copies (or alleles) of this gene. Each of these alleles can take two different forms:

  • The "A" genotype, which results in agouti hair.
  • The "a" genotype, which gives plain hair.

As all cats have two alleles of this gene and each allele can take two forms, four combinations are possible: 'AA', 'Aa', 'aA' and 'aa'. However, the 'A' genotype is dominant and overrides the 'a' genotype. This means that only one 'A' allele is needed for the animal to actually have agouti hair. Therefore, cats with the combinations 'AA', 'Aa' or 'aA' have agouti hair and are tabby; only those with 'aa' have no agouti hair.

The genes for tabby patterns

Other genes are responsible for the distribution of agouti hairs in the coat. Thus :

  • Ticked tabby is due to the Ta gene;
  • Mackerel tabby is caused by the Mc gene;
  • Spotted tabby is caused by the t+ gene;
  • Classic tabby is caused by the mc gene.

Each of these genes can be either active or inactive: the combination determines which tabby pattern the animal displays. For example, a cat with an inactive Ta gene cannot be a ticked tabby. Conversely, in a classic tabby, the mc gene is necessarily active.

More precisely, some genes have an action that 'overrides' the others:

  • Ta overrides all others;
  • Mc overrides t+ and mc but not Ta;
  • t+ overrides mc but not Ta or Mc;
  • mc is overridden by all others.

For example, a cat in which both Ta and t+ are active is a ticked tabby, as Ta overrides t+. Conversely, an individual can only be a classic tabby if its Ta, Mc and t+ genes are all inactive, as otherwise the action of mc would be overridden.

It is important to note that all cats have these four genes, even those that are united: in other words, they too are genetically carriers of a tabby pattern. However, because their agouti gene is inactive, they do not have any agouti hair in their coat, so the pattern is not visible.

Other genes affecting the tabby pattern

In addition to those mentioned above, there are other genes that can enter the equation and alter the expression of the tabby pattern, or even mask it.

The S gene: The S (or spotted white) gene is responsible for the presence of white areas in the cat's coat. When the gene is active, the cat's coat has white areas of varying size that overwhelm the tabby pattern in places. In these areas there is no longer an alternation of agouti and plain hairs: all are completely white. In other words, the stripes or spots are present on the coloured parts of the body, but not on the white ones.

The C gene: The C gene is the one that is responsible for the colourpoint coat of cats. When it is active, it tends to make the colours and patterns that are normally present on the coat disappear. The only places where these are visible are the extremities, i.e. the legs, head and tail. A tabby cat with an active C gene will therefore only have spots or stripes in these areas, while the rest of the coat will appear plain or lightly marked.

The Wb gene: The Wb (or white band) gene is responsible for tipping, which is one of the coat effects of cats. The resulting coat is called tipped, and it is only found in a few breeds, notably the Chinchilla and the Burmilla. When this gene is active, the colour bands are progressively pushed back to the tips of the hair as it grows, whether the hair is intended to be plain or agouti. Thus, the entire coat gradually takes on the same hue, causing the stripes and spots to disappear. Instead, the coat appears to have highlights, with the tips of the hair coloured and the roots light.

Tabby cats with an active Wb gene are therefore born with a pattern, but this pattern tends to fade or even disappear over the months as the colour is pushed to the tips of the hair by the Wb gene. Some kittens are even born without any marking at all.

What do you think of the tabby cat?©Nataliya Schmidt - Shutterstock

The personality of a tabby cat: Are they friendly?

Some are independent, others prefer to curl up against us. All cats have their own personality, which is what makes them so endearing. Plus, tabby cats aren’t a specific cat breed, but a coat pattern, therefore if you want to find out more about a tabby cat’s personality, you’ll have to look at its breed. But remember, each cat is unique! 

Now, with that being said, many people often consider the tabby cat to be the most outgoing of all felines, as these friendly felines love to play and explore like no other. In addition, many cat lovers associate a high level of intelligence and slight playfulness with the tabby cat. Although this is the general temperament of tabby cats, some breeds have more pronounced traits than others.

How long do tabby cats live for?

Tabby cats are generally healthy, but like most domestic cats, they can also suffer from health problems including obesity, worms, diabetes, conjunctivitis, kidney failure and urinary problems. Fortunately, all these problems can be treated if you act quickly. Even so, tabby cats can live to be 20 years old or more if their owners take good care of them and stay indoors.

It’s important to keep in mind that tabby cats aren’t breeds but a colour pattern, therefore the lifespan of a tabby cat will depend on the cat breed.

What's a good name for a calico cat?

So you’ve just adopted a tabby cat? Congratulations!! Now, you might be wondering what to call your furry friend, well, we’ve put a list of 20 cool names for you to choose from.

  • Anna
  • Billie
  • Cedric
  • Charlie
  • Daisy
  • Freddy
  • Henry
  • Jazz
  • Jolie
  • Lola 
  • Marble
  • Nina
  • Olive
  • Peanut
  • Rose
  • Silver
  • Swinny
  • Tedd
  • Val
  • Zoe
Are you looking for more names? Here is Wamiz's top 50 cat names

Now you have all the information about tabby cats! Will you be able to recognise the characteristics of the next tabby cat you meet?

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