Swirls, spots, and stripes—oh my!
As with tigers and their stripes or cheetahs and their spots, domestic tabby cats, too, are known for their distinct coat patterns. “Tabby” is common lingo for cat lovers, but the real meaning of the word might get lost the more it’s used. Tabby is not a breed of cat, but many cat breeds sport tabby patterns.
“A tabby’s genes can be traced back to ancient African wild cats who had similar patterns as your tabby does today,” says Angelica Dimock, DVM, managing shelter veterinarian at Animal Humane Society in Minnesota. “Because of this, most cat breeds today have tabby genes even if they do not show any tabby patterning.”
So even your seemingly solid black cat might have a trademark tabby coat—it just blends in since it’s all the same color, explains Leslie Lyons, PhD, professor of comparative medicine at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.
Still, certain cat breeds are more known for their tabby patterns than others. Below we break down all you need to know about tabby cat breeds.
What Is a Tabby Cat?
“A tabby cat generally refers to a randomly bred cat that has a pattern of stripes, swirls, spots, or blotches of coloration in the fur coat,” Lyons says.
The pattern may present itself on a variety of colored coats, with gray, brown, and orange being the most common. One thing tabby cat breeds across the spectrum share? “M” marks the spot! Dimock says an “M” shape on the forehead is characteristic of all tabby cats.
However, since the tabby trait is so often found in our feline friends, you’ll see many variations in how the pattern appears.
Types of Tabby Cats
The Classic (Blotched) Tabby
A classic tabby cat, sometimes referred to as a blotched tabby, wears the swirl pattern that may first come to mind when imagining a tabby cat.
The Mackerel Tabby
Mackerel tabbies are the tigers of the tabby cat, rocking a stylish coat of stripes that stands out amongst other tabby variations.
The Spotted Tabby
Spots make the appropriately named spotted tabby shine. Spots are similar to the stripes but are broken, stopped in their tracks before coming through fully as they do in the mackerel tabby, thus appearing more like spots.
The Ticked Tabby
“Ticked tabbies may have bands or stripes on their legs and tail; however their body will not have any distinct markings,” Dimock says. “This is due to their hair having multiple colors on each strand which ‘dilutes’ the distinct tabby markings.”
Lyons identifies the ticked tabby as the rarest of the group, with an Abyssinian—or “tabby Aby”— being a good example of the ticked trait in action.
The Patched Tabby
Cats with both tortoiseshell (aka tortie) and tabby patterns are designated the patched tabby, or “torbie.” Since torties are not solid colored cats to begin with, “torbies” may have four to five different colorations on their coats, Lyons says.
5 Common Tabby Cat Breeds and What Makes Them Special
Though they may look similar and fall under one of the common types of tabby cats, tabby cat breeds boast very different personalities. Since the tabby trait is a pattern only, your tabby cat’s personality depends more on their breeding. These five common tabby cat breeds are beloved for more than just their swirls, spots, and stripes—oh my!
The American shorthair is a classic tabby cat with a proud history of protecting property from pests, arriving in America aboard the Mayflower and instantly feared by mice everywhere. The breed has evolved into a much-loved family pet, but their hunting instincts are still intact and should be stimulated with interactive toys and food puzzles regularly to keep them content.
Though they are most recognized for their flowing fur and flat faces, Persian cats may turn heads with a mackerel tabby coat as well, though they probably won’t be mistaken for a tiger anytime soon. Fierce only in their love for their families, Persians prefer nothing more than being pampered and doted on by those they adore. And all that fur ensures they receive plenty of attention—Persian cat parents should brush their pet daily and introduce baths at an early age to continue as an integral part of their grooming routine throughout adulthood.
Cat owners desiring more to love need look no further than the Maine coon, the largest domestic cat breed out there. Standing tall beneath their signature pointy ears and a coat of pure floof, their imposing size is no more than a mirage. Gentle giants at heart, Maine coons love staying close to their family—though, thankfully for your lap, they aren’t typically lap cats. Maine coons often sport mackerel tabby coats, which, tabby or not, require monthly if not weekly bathing to stay silky and smooth.
Don’t panic: the spotted Bengal may seem like she came straight from the jungle, but only part of her lineage came from a wild cat parent. The rest came from your everyday household cat, and that’s where today’s Bengal generations reside. In order to be a domestic cat, Bengals must be F4, meaning four generations removed from their wild cat ancestor and are not recommended for inexperienced cat parents. These cats may have a bold personality, meaning they’d likely appreciate coming along on adventures with you—on a leash, of course.
The poster child of the ticked tabby, the “tabby Aby” Abyssinian is lithe, elegant, and graceful, gliding through life eagerly at your heels. Social and curious, Abyssinians are known to shadow their owners to keep up with what’s happening around the house, so don’t be surprised when they claim perches or climb cat trees to peer at you from above. Relatively low maintenance, the Abyssinian is simply along for the ride, and they sure look good doing it.