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The Truth About Tabbies: Basic Tabby Cat Genetics

Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.

Coat Pattern: Mackerel Tabby | Color: Blue | Breed: Devon Rex

Coat Pattern: Mackerel Tabby | Color: Blue | Breed: Devon Rex

4 Types of Tabby Coats

When learning about cat genetics, it's probably a wise idea to start where the domestic cat started—with the tabby gene. The tabby gene is an amazingly diverse gene that can cause a variety of coat patterns, the most familiar of which is the striped tiger pattern we can see on many domestic cats, both purebred and not.

Tabby comes in four distinct types. There are mackerel tabbies, classical tabbies, ticked tabbies, and spotted. Tabby can also be mixed with other marking genes to create cats that display both (i.e. tabby calicos, pointed tabbies, and tabbies with white on their coat.) Below I will describe each.

1. Mackerel Tabbies

Mackerel tabbies are probably the most familiar type of tabby. These cats are sometimes referred to using the slang term "tiger cats" and are the ones we're used to seeing with stripes lining their body. The stripes are always vertical on the cat's body, ringing the tail, and lining the legs.

As with other tabbies, these cats can come in just about any color variation, but the pattern of the stripes will always remain the same regardless of what color they are. These cats are probably most noted in feral populations, but they can also be accepted in some of the purebred cats including Siberians, Devon Rexes, Sphynx, Norwegian Forrest Cats, Manx, Munchkins, etc.

2. Classic Tabbies

Classic tabbies are tabbies whose stripes are thicker and travel horizontally across the cat's body, often swirling and creating spirals and bull's eyes. In the Bengal breed, this effect is called Marble or Marbling. It can be found displayed in Bengals, Maine Coons, Turkish Angoras, and several other breeds. It also pops up from time to time in feral or moggy populations (moggy being a borrowed word meaning a mutt cat.)

This pattern appears to be the most recessive of the tabby patterns, meaning both parents must at least carry the gene to produce it, unlike the other tabby patterns which are far more dominant. It is much more likely for a litter of mixed kittens to be Mackerel patterned (even if neither parent are) than Classically patterned. However, Classic tabbies and Mackerel tabbies mix well in breeding programs and don't need to be bred only to their likenesses to reproduce themselves.

3. Ticked Tabbies

Ticked tabbies are an ancient and possibly the original domestic tabby variety. They are mostly noted in the Abyssinian, Somali, and Singapura breeds, but like the rest of the tabbies, they can pop up elsewhere. Ticked tabbies do not have the stripes and spotted coat patterns of the other tabbies.

Instead, the entire cat will appear to be one uniform color until you get up close. Upon closer inspection, you can see that each individual hair is banded with two or more colors starting at the root and ending at the tip. This can cause them to have a sandy or salt-and-pepper-like appearance.

4. Spotted Tabbies

Spotted tabbies are exactly what they sound like. Instead of stripes, these cats sport little spots and sometimes rosettes. This coat pattern can be readily seen in Egyptian Maus, Ocicats, and Bengals. Though it can appear in other breeds and the domestic population, they're generally not encouraged in a breeding program unless the breed is known for spots (this means that showing them will be a bit easier.) That being said, spots are very attractive, and some breeders are purposely trying to create them in other breeds. These cats can come in any color, but the spots are generally black. Some spotted tabbies can even be black cats with darker black spots on them (this gene is called the Melanistic gene).

There is some debate about whether or not spotted cats are in fact tabbies. Regardless, in the Bengal breed, they're often bred to Marbled (Classic tabbies) and usually create more spotted cats (and sometimes more classic tabbies as well). Further research will need to be done before this puzzle can be solved.

Mixing the Tabby Gene

The tabby gene can be mixed with other coat pattern genes to create a variety of different things. Often times in feral populations, tabbies can be seen as white cats with blotches of tabby coloration on them. This is acceptable in some purebreds.

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Read More From Pethelpful

When the tabby gene and calico gene display in the same animal, you can get a calico with stripes or spots over their normal coloration. When the tabby gene shows up in the pointed breeds, it will come out looking like a cat with a light body and dark-colored head, ears, paws, and tail, but the tail will be ringed and the face will have stripes. This all being said, the tabby gene is an ancient and well-documented one that is likely never to become unpopular. It is the perfect gene to study when being introduced to the big and wonderful world of cat genetics.

A Simple Explanation of the Domestic Tabby Gene


Abby on February 21, 2019:

Do just Egyptian mua cats have the beddle Scalp on there forehead

Tiffany Manning05 on June 22, 2018:

hello, I have a tabby/ calico mix female see is a rescue. she seems every bit like she is 8 weeks old she has her teeth shes playful and very social. But she seems like she is on the small size which makes me unsure of her age. any thoughts? oh and she seems to have a hard time with dry cat food is this normal?

Ask on April 11, 2018:

I have a orange and white male and a female gray tabby. Would it have been possible for them to give birth to a black and white female cat? We joke that the tuxedo kitten we fostered/adopted and raised from a bottle is their baby... technically speaking is it possible? Just curious for curiousity sake.

Mary Marvin on September 22, 2017:

I inheritated a drop off,black a grey tabby, black stripe down back, long thin tail with 4 inch tuft at end, never have seen anything like it, also very vocal? Large mutt?

chirita on August 16, 2017:

There is no calico gene. It arises from a female cat having one X chromosome with a red allele and another X chromosome with a black allele. Since male cats have only one X chromosome, they get either black or red, but not both, unless there is a mistake made during development that causes them to be XXY.

Cat M on July 29, 2017:


My cat has spots along each side of his belly, stripes horizontally across his legs, stripes ringing his tail, horizontal stripes on his face, and a big thick stripe all along his spine. He also has blue eyes!

Can you get a mixture of different tabbies in one cat??

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on July 15, 2017:

Very well done and interesting! All of our kitties are "moggies," but we love them dearly, despite the fact that they have broken most of the 'rules' of color and pattern. LOL

One important point to note, though; nearly ALL tabbies sport a letter "M" in their patterns, right on the forehead.

This "M" stands for 'mischief.' :-D For some reason, our tabbies seem to get into things more than the others...hahaha

Trip on July 15, 2017:

Is it normal for a brown and tan tabby MALE to have a white that covers the bottom of his muzzle/chin? Or would that be considered an "abnormal" tri-colored male?

db1 on April 22, 2017:

None of this material is original. Credit your sources.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on December 14, 2016:

I swear, that "M" on the foreheads of tabby cats stands for "Mischief!" :-D

jana on November 17, 2016:

i got what i thought was just a black cat. from a farm when i got her home, she was only 7-8 weeks. and took a better look at her . and she appears to be black untill she moves different directions and under her coat looks like a type of tabby. kinda looks likea black tiger but hidden. just wondering the type of breed she may be? vet visit tmrw!

Jennifer on July 26, 2016:

I have a tabby Manx kitten. He has mackerel markings. His body is cream but his head is the darker orange. I have never seen this before. Has anyone else? on July 18, 2016:

My brown tabby queen with medium fur length and solid black tom with short fur had 3 kits. They were all girls. One was dappled red, one was white lined with silver and one was solid black. This startled me, is there anyway to track their genetics?

kimberley on June 28, 2016:

my tabby cat like water why is that

kb on March 16, 2015:

Anybody know if this is a rare colour. Peach coloured with grey ears? I was looking for pics but haven't seen any. Moms tabby, dads solid black.

Charlituna on December 07, 2014:

good kitters...all the Charlitunas in this house, yellow "M''s (current number 4 "Cha-Cha"). central Florida....with his brother from another mother (Barnibear the pomeranian).

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on July 27, 2014:

It really depends on your vet. Some vets will fix them as soon as they're weaned, claiming this reduces hormonal issues, but it comes at a higher risk during the surgery itself. Usually it's more normal to wait until they are 4-6 months of age. Any older and they have a chance of coming into heat and getting pregnant.

The only time I have really recommended de-clawing is in cats that get a lot of foot infections, which is rare and usually only found in furless individuals. That being said if it absolutely needs to be done it should be done when the kitten is as young as possible because the older they get the more used to having nails they have and when you take them away they usually resort to biting (HARD) to defend themselves! I have seen this a lot... so normally I would recommend getting them used to having their nails clipped or having "soft paws" applied. Nail clipping only needs to be done once every two weeks, every week if you want to keep them really short and if you get thm used to it young they usually don't care too much.

Good luck!

sandra grover on July 27, 2014:

My cat is a true calico. She has a star on her left eye is is very hyper she is three months old I rescued other cat is five andalso a rescue cat. They just love each other. When can I get her fixed?and is it mean to have them de clawed? Zoey is and he did fine.there indoor cats.thanks

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on February 23, 2014:

Sure, you can reach me at ohratsrattery @ hotmail . com (just erase the spaces - I don't need spambots finding my address!)

lisa hill on February 21, 2014:

I have a kitten I'm not sure what breed he is ?? I think he might be calico and tabby? ? Do you have a. Email I can send you a picture?

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on January 30, 2014:

Sorry about my slow reply! This comment must have gotten by me somehow... but no, I didn't forget the Harlequin. It's an unrecognized title for what show breeders would call Tabby and White. The amount of white can be minimal or it can be like these Harlequins you mention. Very pretty either way. :) This piebald gene - what causes the white - can sometimes be a bit tricky to work with if you're trying to go for a very specific amount of white - but it is possible!

And what a wonderful story! It's amazing what some of these cats can get themselves into and what people will do to help them out when they're lucky enough. Thank you for taking on rescues. I am sure they really appreciate it! (Not to mention it helps keep the feral population low when these guys get all fixed up!)

tlmcgaa70 from south dakota, usa on January 04, 2014:

great article, very fascinating...but you forgot the harlequin tabby. at least this is what i have seen them called. mostly white with large spots that have the tabby marking. i have one now and had a second one earlier. i rescued Patches many years ago. he was an adult cat, i figured 5-8 yrs old. he also had a hole in the roof of his mouth. the vet figured a bone or stick jabbed through then an infection enlarged the hole. he was severely starved and dehydrated when i found him. he was an amazing cat and became my mascot, greeting each new rescue, and helping them settle in and become comfortable. very sweet cat who loved everyone.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on November 30, 2013:

Well a three month old cat is going to eat more than a cat who is over a year or two - he's a growing boy after all! And besides this the more active the cat is the more calories he's going to need to keep up his weight. So long as he's not struggling with obesity I say give him what he wants, it's normal. :) (Oh and the wet meat is a great idea - keeps them so much healthier in the long run when they have at least a little bit of actual meat in their diet.) Good luck with him! He sounds like a handful!

ejthomas on November 30, 2013:

We adopted a 3 month old classic tabby from ASPCA 4 months ago. (Our 16 year old tabby had passed a few months prior.) "Our baby" has a frightful appetite ...MORE than twice that of all our previous animals. His energy level is amazing, and we are constantly impressed by his "gymnastic abilities." He is presently the length of any of our "mature" cats of the past ever were. He seems to be ravenous all the time!! (A can of FancyFeast in the a.m., a can in the p.m., and a bowl of dry chow is available all day.) He is lean and lanky, ..not an ounce of fat on him! Is this normal for (an indoor) Classic? ...Should I give in and feed him more?

BSAR on August 31, 2012:

I can tell anyone who's asking that female cats regularly and do indeed get pregnant at 4 months onwards, we have many rescue cats coming in that have fallen pregnant right at 4-4 1/2 months, so please desex your cats and if you suspect a mating has happened, get an emergency spay done asap to avoid more kittens being added to the over population.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on August 26, 2012:

Phoebe: Your cat is poorly marked whatever it is. It might be a cross. A dorsal stripe down the back is usually seen on mackerals. However it could show up on others. Spots (even if they look like bull's eye with a dot in a doughnut) would make the cat a spotted. Classics will have horizonatal stripes. Hope that helps.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on August 26, 2012:

Lala: There is no real way you can tell if your cat is a mau or Bengal cross. This is left to an educated guess based on the structure of the cat's body, its personality, and what other cats in the area look like. If you hear someone's mau or Bengal tom cat got out then you probably have your answer. :)

XXxEmoKittyxXX: SPotted tabbies are rarer than other forms of tabby but they're still fairly common - probably as common as a calico or something along those lines.

curious: If you cross Maine Coon with a Siberian you'll probably just end up with a big fluffy cross. Siberians don't produce the allergens in their saliva that most cats do. Although this is a genetic trait I can't tell if its a dominant gene or not I just don't know that much about it. Sorry.

gwenjolie: Sorry for my late reply! Female cats cannot get pregnant unless they are successfully bred by the male at least three or four times (which gives their ovaries the heads up to start the process.) Also a female maturing at 4 months would be a very rare thing indeed. Most cats mature at 6-9 months. Hope all went well with you! For anyone in a similar situation emergency spays (for the next day or soon after) is an effective way to make sure you don't have kittens. Waiting until later in the pregnancy will be more stressful on the cat and will result in aborting somewhat formed fetuses.

funny cat: I haven't heard of that specifically but it could be a mixing of the melanistic gene, the pointed gene, and the tabby gene. It'd be unusual but possible.

funny cat on March 17, 2012:

Our tabby cat has just had six kittens, three black, two tabby (like the mother) and one that has a black body but a tabby head. Have you ever heard of a cat with this colouration? What could have caused it?

Bon on February 02, 2012:

Beware and congrats! I too had an orange female, however at 4 wks she started panting when playing with her sibs for short periods of time. I took her to the vet and the majority of her abdominal organs were located in her pericardial sac (sac around the heart). I managed to get her to 4mos so the surgeon could attempt to fix her but we lost her anyway. As you know genetics can be fickle so take any sign of abnormality to your vet for a consult. Good Luck!! Hope all is well.

sara cat lover 1 on January 26, 2012:

i love cats i just want to skwees one how about u i can not have one that is so mean i can not have one when i see a cat i have to say come her kitty cat i us to have one but it ran away and peaple found it and they selled it i was so mad i just wanted to jump on them and hit them but i didn't for some resinso goog by .

Admin on January 16, 2012:

My cat just had an orange female kitten :D :D :D

curious on September 27, 2011:

What would happen if you cross a maine coon with a siberian. would it make the maine coon less allergenic?

XXxEmoKittyxXX on August 11, 2011:

im am 13 and i think i have a spotted tabby but im not sure..... so are they rare in a sense?

Lala on April 18, 2011:

I adopted a kitten that is exhibiting the look and behaviors of a Mau......she has big ears, a wide-eyed, worried look, she is fast and fearless, loves water, and most notably has the tail twitching common to the mau. I also have a calico tortie to compare her to and the differences are striking. My calico is dreamy-eyed and stand-offish....she likes attention, she just doesn't want you to actually TOUCH her, where the baby jumps on my chest and rubs herself all over my face.....the baby is very affectionate. Additionally, my calico has a pretty normal "Mrrrrowwow"-type of meow and the baby sort of "chirps", also like the mau. I know their personalities make them different, but their differences go beyond just their personalities and difference in age. Is there any way, short of genetic testing (which i wouldn't do to her)to be sure if my baby is a mau or a cross-breed?

Kathi Mirto from Fennville on November 08, 2010:

They're all quite amazing. I enjoyed the tabby tale and no matter which type they may be, they're all loveable!

Mary on October 02, 2010:

Thank you so much for your informative page. Had two kittens dumped at our place this summer and have been intrigued by their unusual markings. The grey tabby male has the cinnamon bun swirls, which I had never seen before, green eyes, and a bushy tail. The white female has blue eyes, faint grey tabby markings in a Siamese pattern, and an extra toe on one forefoot. We assume they are siblings despite their completely different markings. Vet thought they were about 6-8 weeks old when dumped. have turned out to be the best cats ever, despite the occasional half-eaten frog left in the kitchen.

Shimmer Kitty on July 04, 2010:

Thanks for the information! I am on a "quest", as some people call it, to learn about cats. I already have two, but my grandmother is thinking about getting one, and I was looking up breeds. I think a tabby would be best for her. Thanks so much for the info! ^w^

Phoebe on June 07, 2010:

Hi, Thanks for informing me. I am a little confused though, I have a 7month old kitten who is a tabby. I am trying to find out what type he is, to me i thought he was a Mackerel although i think he could be a classic (marabled). He has one very long stripe going down his back and he has markings like bullets that spirel in, is sounds like a classic to me, although some things about a mackerel he has. Any way can you help me? we don't know what the parents were cause we resuced them, all we know is he had 2 brother who looked the same, and also a sister who is completely black (we rescued her too). thanks for yo time

Gbean on May 06, 2010:

I just acuired a lovely black shelter kitten that upon our first view was solid black; but I've come to find that she has a very subtle black on black tabby pattern. It's not quite a black smoke, as the stripes are shiny jet black alternating with a duller charcoal-y ruddy black. The undercoat and coat close to the skin is more of a mousy charcoal color than white. It's quite handsome though.

kayla on April 28, 2010:

I have a cute kitty =)

Georgie's mom on April 11, 2010:

Wow! This is by far the best of all cat pages I've seen :D. I've learned so much about cats in general, and what I have learned about my own dear sweet Georgie helps a lot! His father is half-Siamese and half of some sort of Tabby, and his mother was a mixture of some different types of TabbyCat.... Georgie has a small, pointed head, a large 16 pound body-particularly large in his haunches, has these flaps of skin behind his legs that my neighbour told me were called "dew claws", he is bright orange in colour, with Ginger eyes (more green in the sunlight, but mysteriously close to his fur colour!)....Georgie has some faint Bengal spotting in his hind area, and Makerel stripes on the rest of him; he looks like a hybrid Tiger-Sphynx! He has nose-to-forehead stripes and cottony-white paws and really big ears (he looks like he's grown into his ears, but they are still quite .... big!) He has rings on his tail, which has a kink at the end of it.......something which I have read that is an undesirable Siamese trait that is being "bred out". My baby is so cuddly and affectionate at night, and just loves to sleep not just with, but ON my kids or myself! He is gentle, and communicates by staring and meowing....if that doesn't work though, he nips us:( He also loves to play fetch, and purrs REALLY loud when he is happy! He sounds like a buzz-saw. He has been neutered, but there seems to be a young feral female cat who is interested in him!!?! They hang out every evening, she rowling and in heat, and he relaxing on his table in our backyard! Poor girlfriend! She calls for him every night, he hangs around outside, but hasn't a clue as to what she really wants! Georgie has also befriended a family of cats born to a neighbourhood feral; he used to call out to them every evening at dinnertime, and they'd come, and Georgie would share his food with them.... not common territorial male cat behaviour! He also let them play in "his" yard....As the feral kittens grew though, he let ALL of the males know it was time to leave and find their own space- all except for one black&white male that my kids named "Dice":) So Dice is Georgie's buddy for some reason, and he has some sort of "understanding" (?) with his lady-friend /:) Watching Georgie's social activities beats the heck out of TV! Of course I have a life of my own, but my darling fur-ball has such a specialplace in my heart

sweetKitten from England on April 02, 2010:

The Ragdoll munchkin is beautiful!

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on December 29, 2009:

Stephanie: Maus and mau crosses aren't too uncommon to come across. She might just be that or perhaps an oriental cross or something similar (though you didn't say she had huge ears so maybe not.) Is she fixed? I find that belly flap thing to be a hilarious concept because most fixed male cats will develop this flap regardless of breed and some females will as well after being spayed! I'm sorry to hear she's got a feral temprament, all the more reason to suspect she's probably got bits of everything in her. They go wild fast (sometimes as quick as 2-3 generations!)

tabbylover: I never claimed tabby was a breed... in fact I mentioned numerous breeds tabby is found in...

tabbylover on December 28, 2009:

how ever Tabby is not a breed. It is a color of their fur.

Stephanie on December 28, 2009:

I have a tabby that i've been trying to figure out what her actual breed is. She's got the loyalty and speed of an Egyptian Mau and the 'flap of skin' by it's hind legs and stomach. She's short Tabby with cheetah spots not stripes except on the tail her head is smaller than her body

She lays with me and has never taken to anyone else refuses to be touched or held by another ever since she was a kitten.. everything that internet says leads to her being a Mau...

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on October 01, 2009:

Ah well, the stripes on her legs would be horizontal regardless what she is. :) And all tabbies do show some ticking as well, so that's normal. Still seems as if you have a crazy quilt of a cat!

Brittany on October 01, 2009:

Haha... that was helpful! Her stipes are horizontal on her legs but her stipes on the side are vertical. On closer inspection, the parts of her coat that are not stiped, spotted, or pure white are actually ticked white, gold, and black!

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on September 30, 2009:

Hi Brittany, why yes, your kitty is deffinately some sort of tabby. Tell me, are her stripes going vertical or horizontal? If they are going horizontal then she's not particularly strange, she's just a classic tabby with some spotting, which happens sometimes. However, if as you say she's a mix between the classic, mackeral, and spotted patterns then that's a bit different. This is an anomaly. It doesn't usually happen... but sometimes crops up, usually in chimeras or cats with other gene "defects." Chimeras are basically an animals who have two separate sets of DNA. It happens in people when during the early stages of a pregnancy something goes a bit wrong and one twin absorbs another, effectively creating one usually normal baby. The only difference is a blood test may have different DNA than say a skin, hair, or tooth sample. In cats this can be seen when patterns that shouldn't be seen on the same animal are, or even when a male calico pops up (in that case the sexual organs will have a different DNA than whatever's controlling the coat pattern.) It's not a breed thing, more of a mammal thing. ;) She's probably a happy little mongrel. Just be happy you have a very unique little critter! The only thing different between a cat with a gene defect like chimerism and a normal cat that you may be concerned about is genetic testing (for diseases and whatnot) can be a real pain! But luckily cats are much less likely to need that sort of testing than dogs or humans. Thank you for the interesting comment!