What Is a Tabby Cat?

Discover what it really means to be a tabby cat.

By Susan Logan-McCracken

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The tabby cat coat is actually two coat patterns, one superimposed over the other.
Orange tabby cat
Mackerel tabby markings show narrow stripes across the body and rings on the tail.
Classic tabby
Classic tabby cat coats show broad swirling lines on the body and thinner lines on the face.
Savannah Kitten
Ticked tabby coats, like on this Savannah, show up as spots or broken lines.
What does it mean to be a tabby cat? Tabby refers to a cat's coat pattern and not a cat breed. Although some breeds (such as the Ocicat, Egyptian Mau, American Shorthair, Bengal and Toyger) are distinguished by their tabby patterns, many mixed breeds also are tabbies. And in many cat breeds, the tabby pattern is one of many possible coat patterns.

The tabby coat consists of two patterns, one superimposed over the other. The first pattern is the ground color, which is the lighter color. This pattern is made up individual hairs that have alternating bands of yellow and black. These hairs are called agouti or ticked. The second pattern is the marking color. These are non-agouti, solid-colored hairs that make up the markings — the stripes, spots, blotches and swirls.

See what recent research into tabby cat DNA has discovered about these striped cats.

There are five distinct tabby coat patterns all distinguished by an “M” on the forehead.

Mackerel Tabby
Narrow  but clearly defined stripes that meet at the spine and go all the way around the cat's body mark the mackerel tabby's coat. Narrow rings or bars run the length of the tail, also called bracelets when they appear on the legs. Stripes that adorn the neck and chest are called necklaces. A broken stripe extends from the back of the head to the base of the tail.

Classic Tabby (called blotched tabby in Europe, Australia and New Zealand)
Broad, dense, irregular spirals mark the classic tabby's coat. Bracelets decorate the legs, rings accentuate the tail, while necklaces adorn the neck and chest. Swirls mark the cheeks and vertical lines run down the back of the head. Shoulder markings appear in the outline of a butterfly with dots inside. Three vertical stripes run from the shoulder markings to the base of the tail. The sides of the cat's coat are marked by solid blotches with one or more rings circling them, giving them a bull's-eye appearance. A double row of dots, referred to as buttons, appear on the chest and stomach.

Spotted Tabby
As the name suggests, spots of different shapes and sizes adorn the spotted tabby's coat. Spots can also run together to form the appearance of broken lines and blotches. A dotted line runs the length of the spine. As with the mackerel and classic tabbies, the spotted tabby has ringlets on the legs and tail. The belly also has spots, which are called vest buttons.

Ticked Tabby
All the coat hairs are ticked with various shades of the ground and marking colors. When you look at the cat from above, there are no noticeable markings, except for darker shading, which runs the length of the spine. However, the lighter underside reveals tabby markings and the face, legs and tail reveal distinct stripes. And the neck usually sports a necklace or two.

Patched Tabby
All tabby patterns can exhibit patching, clearly defined color patches on the coat. Intermingled patches of color, also seen in the tortoiseshell pattern, decorate the coat over the entire body and extremities.

Tabby colors include:

Brilliant coppery to brown ground color with dense black markings

Blue (often called gray)
Pale bluish-ivory ground color with deep blue markings

Red (often called orange)
Red ground color with deeper red markings

Cream (often called yellow)
Pale cream ground color with darker cream or buff markings

Pale silver ground color with dense black markings

Off-white ground color and white undercoat (the hair closest to the skin) with red markings

Brown patched
Brilliant coppery to brown ground color with dense black markings and soft patches of red on the head, body and extremities

Blue patched
Pale bluish-ivory ground color with deep blue markings and soft patches of cream on the head, body and extremities

Silver patched
Pale silver ground color with dense black markings and deep patches of red and/or cream on the head, body and extremities

With all these patterns and color combinations, tabby cats are beautiful to behold and their personalities often match their stunning looks, making them universally popular and beloved companions.
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What Is a Tabby Cat?

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Reader Comments

melanie    patrick afb, FL

10/17/2015 9:39:03 AM

what about the m on the morgan tabby ?

loren speed    merced, CA

9/6/2014 1:39:00 PM

I got some F5 savannah females and a bengal Foundation cat male. and the beautifuln mowe female. they were let out of their kennel cage now I have 50 beautiful cats running amok

Lauren    Chicago, IL

11/8/2013 6:43:54 PM

I'm having a hard time figuring out whether my mackeral tabby kitten, who appears gray (light gray with a tan underside and dark gray stripes) is a blue tabby or a silver tabby. I know nothing about her parentage as she was a rescue kitten from outside when she was 4 weeks. How do you distinguish?

M    Lake City, FL

11/7/2013 11:57:14 PM

Thanks for explaining everything about what it means to be a tabby cat! Really interesting!

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