A tabby is a cat with a distinctive patterned coat that features
stripes, dots and/or swirling patterns. Tabbies are often mistakenly
assumed to be a breed of cat. In fact, the tabby pattern is believed
to a naturally occurring feature that may be the original coloration
of the domestic cat's distant ancestors. Tabby coloration is found
in many breeds of cat, as well as among the general 'moggy' (mixed-breed
or mongrel) population. When cats are allowed to breed randomly,
the coloration of the population tends toward brown mackerel tabbies
with green eyes, leading geneticists to believe that this is the
common wild phenotype of the domestic cat.
The word comes from French tabis, which was earlier atabis, and
in medieval Latin attabi. The initial origin of the word seems to
be from the Attabiyah section of Baghdad where a type of striped
silk was made that was later used to describe cats.
The color most recognizable as a tabby is called 'brown tabby' in
the US and 'black tabby' in the UK. Technically, the UK term is
correct, as brown tabbies are in fact black cats with an agouti
gene that causes the fur to break into patterns of black and brown.
However, the term 'brown tabby' is entrenched in US speech and unlikely
In cat genetics, pattern is unrelated to color, and so the tabby
pattern may occur in any cat color, including tortoiseshell (tortoiseshell
tabby cats are often called 'torbies'). White spotting of any level
can also appear in combination with tabby patterns.
There are three tabby patterns that have been shown to be genetically
distinct: mackerel, classic, and ticked, and a fourth variation,
spotted, that is still undergoing debate as to its cause.The mackerel
tabby pattern has vertical, gently curving stripes on the side of
the body. The stripes are thin and may be continuous or broken into
bars and spots on the flanks and stomach. Often, an 'M' shape appears
on the forehead. This pattern is also called 'fishbone tabby'. Mackeral
is the commonest tabby pattern.
Classic (or 'blotched') tabbies have a similar 'M' pattern on the
head, but the body markings are very different, having a whorled
and swirled pattern with thicker stripes that make what are referred
to as "butterfly" patterns on their shoulders and usually
a bulls-eye or oyster pattern on the flank. The legs and tail are
more heavily barred and the pattern is variable with respect to
the width of the bands.
The ticked tabby pattern produces hairs with distinct bands of color
on them, breaking up the tabby patterning into a salt-and-pepper
appearance. However, ghost striping or "barring" can often
be seen on the legs, face and belly.
The spotted tabby may not be a true pattern, but a modifier that
breaks up the mackerel pattern so that the stripes appear as spots;
the stripes of the classic pattern may be broken into larger spots.
Both large spot and small spot patterns can be seen in the Australian
All of these patterns have been observed in random bred populations.
Many tabbies have a distinct 'M' marking on their forehead. There
are several legends about where this came from. One relates that
the Virgin Mary bestowed an M on a tabby's head after it helped
keep the baby Jesus warm. In another legend, the prophet Mohammed
bestowed the marking upon his beloved cat's brow after it warned
him of danger, and the M remains today to remind us of Mohammed's
blessings upon cats. In reality, neither of these figures would
have used a Latin 'M': Mary spoke Aramaic and the first letter of
her name is the Hebrew letter Mem (?), and Mohammed's name begins
with the Arabic letter Miim(?)..