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Everything you should know about Tabby Cats

Everything you should know about Tabby Cats
Written by Elizabeth Italia, UW-AAB
—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸

With gorgeous and unique patterns, tabby cats are a cat-lover favorite. While some look like tiny tigers, others look like a swirly marble cake.

Did you know that even most solid cats are actually undercover tabbies? What causes this? We’ll tell you everything you need to know about tabbies.

What are tabby cats?

Tabby cats have a pattern of alternating dark and light colors along the hair shaft. Typically, the hair starts to grow with full color, then lightens up, and darkens up again, giving an individual hair a banded pigment.

Because of this, some areas of a tabby cat’s coat may have stripes, swirls, ticks, or solid spots.

Tabbies can have short or long hair, and come in any of four patterns:

  1. Classic tabby - Swirling patterns on the sides. Looks like a marble cake.
  2. Spotted tabby - Oval markings (not stripes).
  3. Ticked tabby - Also called an Abyssinian tabby or agouti tabby, most of the tabby markings are on the face.
  4. Mackerel tabby - Narrow strips that run parallel. Often called a tiger cat.

Why do all tabbies have the M striped marketing on their head? What about the dark stripe coming from the outer corner of their eyes?

Although there are religious and mythical explanations, both traits are standard genetic components of a tabby pattern, and likely help with sun glare when hunting (think about a sports player putting black under their eyes).

What are the most common breeds that include tabby cats?

According to Cat-World, there are many breeds that accept tabbies. Just a few popular ones include:

Abyssinian, American Bobtail, American Curl, American Shorthair, Balinese, Bengal, British Shorthair, Cornish Rex, Devon Rex, Egyptian Mau, Himalayan, Maine Coon, Manx, Munchkin, Norwegian Forest Cat, Ocicat, Persian, Ragdoll, Scottish Fold, and Siamese.

Is it true most cats that appear solid are actually tabbies in disguise?

Yes. This is true for multiple reasons.

Firstly, all cats originated from a cat species with stripes. While scientists don’t all agree on which cat it was (likely Felis silvestris or Felis lybica) they do agree that all cats carry the tabby pattern somewhere in their genetics.

Secondly, the A gene is responsible for patterns on cats. The dominant version, A or agouti, creates a ticking or band of colors on a hair. That’s where the tabby pattern comes from. The recessive version, a or non-agouti, creates a solid-colored hair.

Since the A is dominant and a cat needs to inherit it from only one parent to get the tabby pattern, most cats are tabbies. No matter how faint, you’ll likely be able to make out stripes on black, gray, and orange cats’ tail, legs, or head when they’re laying in the sun. These are called ghost tabby markings.

Are all orange cats tabbies?

Yes. The orange color gene is called an ecstatic gene, masking the non-agouti gene (a) whenever it is present (basically telling the solid gene “No, you will not be expressed.”).

The result? The orange cat is always a tabby. The reasoning tabby is the default is because of what was mentioned above, that all cats originate from a cat ancestor with stripes.

How many color varieties of tabby cats are there?

All cats originate from two colors: orange and black. There can be varying amounts of pigment through a cat’s fur which can make these colors more or less pronounced. Just like human skin, there is not only one shape of orange and black.

In tabbies, the black and red shades are connected to these genes:

  • Dense (D), dominant
  • Dilute (d), recessive, and is basically a lighter version of the dense color; ex. A gray cat is actually a diluted black cat.
  • Dilute modifier, (Dm), dominant, but only affects a cat that is dilute. If they carry this gene, the dilute color will become even lighter!

Tabbies come in these 12 color patterns:

  • Black Series
    • Dense
      • Black
      • Chocolate or brown
      • Cinnamon or light brown
    • Dilute
      • Blue (or silver)
      • Lilac
      • Fawn
    • Dilute Modifier
      • Blue-based caramel
      • Lilac-based caramel
      • Fawn-based caramel
  • Red Series
    • Dense
      • Red
    • Diluted
      • Cream
    • Diluted Modifier
      • Apricot

    What color eyes do tabby cats have?

    They can really have any color.

    What are tabby cats’ personalities like?

    There doesn’t seem to be a connection between coat color and personality, but there are perceptions people have developed. Cat personalities really depend on their early lives, as well as paternal genetics, which we very often don’t know.

    Are there any diseases that seem to be genetically tied to tabby cats?

    No, but skin issues are extremely hard to spot with any of the tabby patterns. Make sure you brush tabbies every few days to keep an eye on their skin and look out for:

    • Fleas and ticks - Treat with topical flea and tick meds year-round.

    • Ringworm - Not a worm! This fungus commonly looks like a scaly, round dry patch of skin. Topical and oral treatments are available. Talk to your vet.

    • Allergies - Food and environmental allergies most commonly present as inflamed scratches or wounds on the neck. Just one occasional mark isn’t a usually a big deal, but if you find repeated marks or your kitty can’t stop scratching, see your vet.

    • Wounds - Any wound can be at risk for infection. Monitor cuts, scrapes, and sores and call your vet if the mark isn’t healing, has discharge, or an unpleasant smell.

    According to Merck Veterinary Manual, the most commonly reported congenital and inherited defects in cats are:

    • Cerebellar hypoplasia (CH) aka Wobbly Kitten Syndrome - Underdeveloped cerebellum (which controls mobility and balance)
    • Eye and eyelid defects
    • Heart defects
    • Cryptorchidism - One or both testicles absent
    • Polydactyl - Extra toes

    In Closing

    The pattern on a tabby cat is a daily reminder of domestic cats’ original ancestors. If you own a tabby, take pics of them in the sun and you’ll see even more variation to their colors and patterns. Whether striped, spotted, ticked, or swirled, these beauties are all unique in their own ways and make the perfect addition to any home (or pride).

    Sources:, Tabby Cat Breeds, Coulors & Markings., Basic Cat Genetics., Cat Coat Genetics., Skin Pigmentation in Cats.


    Article by  🙋‍♀️
    Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist