The Five Tabby Cat Patterns

Picture of a Abyssinian Tabby Cat

As a current tabby cat owner, I can honestly say that my Tabby is the friendliest, most outgoing and most social of all the cats I’ve owned during my lifetime. So I wasn’t surprised to find out that a characteristic of tabby cats is their outgoing, loving personalities. I was surprised, however, to discover that there are five different patterns that can be found on tabby cats. Read on to see which pattern your tabby matches most closely.

What Is a Tabby?

The tabby pattern is the most common pattern found on cats’ coats. While tabby is not a breed in and of itself, it can be found on many different breeds, such as Abyssinian, Maine Coon and American Shorthair. The tabby cat pattern is described by the American Cat Fanciers Association as a pattern of alternating dark and light colors in the coat of a feline (also called the agouti pattern, named after the district in Baghdad, Iraq that sold similarly striped silk and for whom the tabby cat was named).

Three genes are responsible for the tabby pattern in a cat: Mc1R, Taqpep, and Agouti Signaling Protein (ASIP). Mc1R determines how dark or light the tabby cat’s coat will be. Taqpep denotes how the tabby pattern will be expressed in the cat’s coat. ASIP is the genetic marker that determines if the pattern on a tabby cat’s coat will be solid or banded.

The most common colors of tabby coat patterns are orange, black-based, gray, and brown. Tabby cat patterns can be found in both long- and short-haired cats.

Before we discuss the five different types of tabby coat patterns, let’s talk about something that is common to almost all tabby cats, regardless of variety: the M on the forehead. Ancient legends differ on the reasons why these cats are marked with an M. Islamic legend says that Muhammad touched his cat, Muzza, on the forehead, branding him (and all of his progeny and descendants) with an M. Christian legend says that Mary stroked the forehead of a cat who was lying next to baby Jesus, giving it, and its descendants, an M on its forehead. Egyptian legend says that the M on a tabby cat’s forehead denotes “mau,” which is the Egyptian word for cat.  Of course, what actually causes the M on the tabby cat’s forehead is the cat’s DNA/genetic pattern.

Other markings that can be found on all tabby cats include pencil-like marks on the face, and marks that look like they were made with eyeliner stretching out from the corners of the eyes.

Five Tabby Cat Patterns

It is believed that the tabby cat pattern evolved in order to help provide camouflage to cats in the wild. The five varieties of patterns that can be found within a tabby cat’s coat are:


Picture of a Mackerel Tabby Cat

The classic tabby cat pattern, also referred to as a “blotched” tabby, consists of wide stripes that swirl around the cat’s coat. Each side of the cat’s body usually has a shape in the form of a bullseye, and there is likely a shape in the form of a butterfly across the shoulders of the cat. The tail and legs of the classic tabby cat have stripes as well. The classic M-formation can be found on the cat’s forehead. The classic pattern is often found among American shorthair cats.


Picture of a Mackerel Tabby Cat

The mackerel is the most popular type of tabby cat pattern (and the one found on my cat, aptly named Tabby). There are narrow, unbroken, tiger-like stripes on the cat’s body is what can be called a fishbone pattern (with one long stripe running along the cat’s spine and other lines fanning out from that main line). The cat’s tail and legs are also striped. This tabby cat also sports the M on its forehead.


Picture of a Spotted Tabby Cat

A spotted tabby usually will have spots in no particular order and of no set size dotting across its back and sides. One example of such a tabby pattern is the Bengal breed of cat. Another is the American Bobtail. A mackerel tabby that has a broken line pattern instead of a solid line can sometimes be mistaken for a spotted tabby cat.


Picture of a Patched Tabby Cat

A patched tabby pattern is sometimes referred to as a calico or tortoiseshell patterned tabby cat. This pattern shows distinctive patches of red and brown throughout the tabby cat’s coat, with increased markings on the cat’s head and legs. Some people refer to the patched tabby cat as a tortie or torbie. They are unique in that their patches can be displayed in any of the other tabby cat pattern designs (ticked, spotted, mackerel or classic).


Picture of a Ticked Tabby Cat

A ticked tabby cat doesn’t actually display a striped pattern on its coat. It could have some stripes on its legs, arms and head, but usually in no particular order. The face of the ticked tabby will have the traditional tabby cat markings, however. Individual hairs on the ticked tabby will also show what is called the agouti pattern, which is simply alternating patches of light and dark bands on each hair in the cat’s coat. The Abyssinian breed is one example of a ticked tabby pattern.



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