The Truth About Tabbies

Tabby cats are everywhere! From our everyday lives to pop culture, anyone anywhere has come into contact with a tabby. Just where do these cats come from? What causes these pretty patterns? Find out…

What is a Tabby?

First off, tabby is a color pattern. There is no one single tabby breed or color. In fact, tabby cats come from many breeds and appear in many colors. Some breeds are exclusively tabby, while for some it is just one of the many possibilities in their feline rainbow.

Genetically, tabby comes from 3 genetic loci plus 1 gene modifier. A gene modifier is a bit of code in the genetics that affect the other genes. Additional modifiers can change what type of tabby the cat is–we’ll get to that later.

Tabby genes are recessive. Cats may carry a tabby gene that isn’t actually expressed on their coat. Kittens who are merely carriers of the gene appear to be tabbies with faint stripes, but then later seem to “transform” into solid colored cats as their mature coat comes in.

Types of Tabby

There are 4 types of tabby patterns:

Mackerel Tabby

Mackerel tabby is the most common type. Mackerel tabbies have vertical stripes that curve down the sides of their bodies, bars on their legs, and often have an “M” shape in stripes on their forehead.

brown mackerel tabby cat

Classic Tabby

The classic tabby is also known as the blotched or marbled tabby. Their stripes form swirls and circles, usually with a noticeable “bullseye” shape on either side of the body. Like the mackerel, they also have leg barring, stripes on their cheeks, and the “M” shape on the forehead.

orange classic tabby scottish fold


The ticked tabby (not to be confused with the ticked off tabby–that comes at bath time) has striping in the form of distinct color bars on every individual hair of their coat. The barring produces an overall “salt and pepper” effect. A great example of ticked coats is the Abyssinian cat.

abyssinian cat portrait


Spotted tabbies occur when there’s an extra genetic modifier in addition to the normal tabby genes. This modifier changes the stripes to spots, and the effect is quite dramatic! For an example of a spotted tabby, look to the Bengal breed.

spotted tabby bengal

Tabby is a very common genetic type that dates back to ancient wild cats. Some of the oldest kitties in the world, including the very first domestic cats in Ancient Egypt, were most likely tabby! The next time you see a beautiful tabby, remember you’re looking into the eyes of history.