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What Are Tabby Cats

6 min read

You've heard of them and no doubt you've seen them time and again. Tabby cats are adored all over the world, but do you know where their name comes from or what are the marks of a true tabby cat? Find out all this and more here.

From stripes to whorls and spots, the tabby cats strut their patterned fur all over the globe. But as familiar as they are to us, there are plenty of tabby cat facts far from the ordinary. In fact, once you get to know them, there is nothing dull about these kitties. Here are a few reasons why.


What is a tabby cat?

Many people think that tabby cats are a particular breed, but actually Tabby refers to the coat pattern, which can be present on lots of different breeds. In fact tabby cats will not let themselves be easily crammed into definitions. They sport different colours and sizes, exist across many breeds and wear different coat patterns.

But there are groups of tabby cats - the secret is the coat pattern. There is the mackerel tabby cat with long narrow parallel stripes running up and down the sides that are said to resemble a fish skeleton, which is where the pattern's name comes from. It is believed that this pattern was the original one for tabby cats.

The classic tabby is the most common of all the tabby cats. They have wider stripes that tend to curve to form circular patterns and three large stripes running from the shoulders to the base of the tail. Similar to the mackerel type, this pattern hasn't escaped food comparisons either as many people liken it to a marble cake.

The next two tabby cat types have decided to do without the stripes (or the food comparisons). The spotty tabby shows off their distinct round spots against a background of lighter fur and might even display a faint necklace line. And in contrast to all the tabby cats, a ticked tabby cat exhibits hardly any stripes or spots. Although their coat stripes are very thin and barely visible on legs, face or tail, these are tabby cats through and through. It's not the coat but the hairs themselves that are striped.

The mark of a true tabby cat

As we've seen, Tabby cats can have very different looks, but there is one defining feature that they all bear: the 'M' mark on their foreheads. This distinguishing feature is the stuff of legends and myths surrounding tabby cats around the world.

One story has it that the 'M' is related to the word 'mau' which in Ancient Egypt meant 'cat'. In Christian folklore, a tabby cat dutifully showed up to comfort baby Jesus. In gratitude, his mother Mary stroked the cat's head and left an 'M' mark on its forehead. Whereas in one Islamic legend a tabby cat named Muezza saved his master Mohammed from a poisonous snake. To mark their special place in the feline world, all tabby cats from then on were rewarded with an 'M' on their forehead.

But the true explanation for the letter 'M' mark tells us that it all comes down to genetics. The tabby pattern itself is the work of three types of genes that can be found in all domestic cats. This means that all cats are secretly tabbies - it's just more noticeable on those with patterned fur. If you've ever looked closely at any cat in the sun, you probably noticed the subtle tabby markings starting to show up. On the wilder side of the feline spectrum, the same genes give tigers and leopards their tabby pattern which helps them be such successful hunters. The patterns work as a camouflage when they're hiding in tall grass waiting for their unsuspecting prey.


Where does the word 'tabby' come from?

It is believed the name tabby comes from a type of striped silk called Atabi, which was made in Attabiah in the Middle East. As soon as the silk arrived in Britain, the similarity in pattern to the coat of the so-called 'tiger cat; was noticed and this particular cat soon started being called 'tabi cat' which eventually became 'tabby cat'.


The tabby cat's personality

When it comes to the tabby cat's personality, many owners seem to think there is something special about a tabby. Very often the tabby cat is considered the most outgoing cat of all, playing and exploring like no other. Other tabby owners think their cat shows sure signs of being a genius and therefore higher intelligence is another distinctive quality that cat enthusiasts associate with a tabby cat. On top of this, their cuddly personality has made them popular with kids and their parents alike. And if you've ever been around a red tabby, you know how feisty they can be. It turns out the mischievous Garfield has its origins firmly planted in reality after all.

The tabby cat in pop culture

Garfield is only one of the leading felines on the long list of tabby cats that have had a brush with fame - there is plenty of star power under those stripy markings.

From Freddie Mercury to David Bowie and Betty White, tabby cats have stolen plenty of famous hearts and featured in their songs and photographs, proving that tabby cats are never too shy for the spotlight. A true cat enthusiast, Mark Twain adopted his fair share of tabby cats during his lifetimes and it seems at one point he owned a total of 19!

A tabby cat made headlines around the world when he was elected as mayor of an Alaskan town. Mayor Stubbs served for 20 years until he passed away in 2017. There is also the proud tabby Cheshire Cat in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and although it doesn't seem like it, so is Loki the Grumpy Cat Instagram star, who has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. Plenty of show-stoppers indeed among the tabby kind!

No matter what cat breed you like, chances are you will find a tabby cat to your own liking. From the gentle Maine Coon to the mischievous Bengal Cat and the playful Abyssinian kitties, explore more tabbies with our cat breed library.