The Truth About Tabbies: Basic Tabby Cat Genetics
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, tabbies with white on their coat.) Below I will describe each.
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 cats' 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 can also be accepted in some of the purebred cats including Siberians, Devon Rexes, Sphynx, Norwegian Forrest Cats, Manx, Munchkins, etc.
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) then 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.
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.
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 being 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.
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.