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The Truth About Tabby Cats

Author:
tabbycat-2

Can You Handle The Truth?

Whether you can handle it or not, I'm here to tell it to you.  I figure there's nobody more qualified to tell the truth about tabbies than a tabby cat, right?  So here I am.  Speaking the truth about tabbies, whether you're ready for it or not.

I'm sick of tabbies being the default house cat in this culture.  Tabbies are totally marginalized by film and print media in this country.  If you want common, if you want generic, if you want your basic, dull-as-dirt cat, you get a tabby.  You'll get a black cat if you're going for spooky.  A white cat, maybe with long fur, if you want elegant; a Siamese if you want "exotic".  But if you want Jo (or Joe) Average, find yourself a tabby!

(Wow. Maybe the real problem here is that you humans are kind of racist.  Yeah, that's right, I said it!  I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't like other cats that much.  Cats are not naturally gregarious.  We are a noble, independent species, hunting by ourselves, living our own lives.  But at least I dislike other cats equally, without projecting crap like "elegance" or "bad luck" onto them.  Jeez, you people!)

But I digress. 

It's an outrage that tabbies are stereotyped as being "generic".  Sure, there are a lot of us.  But have you ever stopped to think about why that is?  Thousands of years of evolution, baby!  The mechanism of natural selection has seen to it that I am a finely-honed killing machine of deadly stealth.  You may think I'm "common", but if you keep reading you'll discover just how many different kinds of tabbies there are in the world.  We're a very diverse group.  And besides, instead of thinking I'm "ordinary", maybe you should consider me to be "well-adapted" or "genetically effective".  It's time to for you to appreciate me for the marvel of evolution that I am.

Tabby Coloration in the Wild - because it just works.

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My close relative, the African Wild Cat. Image credit: Sonelle at wikimedia commons

Our tabby stripes help us melt into the grass, the trees, and the shadows. We wait there, ready to pounce, unseen by unwary prey. Or, for that matter, by humans. One of my favorite things to do is to hang out in the yard, in plain sight, while Addy looks for me.

There are other animals with tabby-type coloration. Zebras are well-known for their black and white stripes. Tigers, my distant relatives, are characterized by their orange and black stripes. For both animals, their dark-and-light striping helps them to blend into their surroundings.

In domestic cats, the tabby pattern is believed to be inherited from our direct ancestor, the African Wild Cat. This cat, Felis sylvestris, is similar in size to the domestic cat -- 3 to 6.5 kg, or 6 to 14 lbs.

We're not "ordinary", we're marvels of adaptation!

This is me. Do I look familiar?

This is me. Do I look familiar?

This is me. Do I look familiar?

tabbycat-2

Different Types of Tabbies

We don't all look like Garfield, you know.

Tabbies are known for a distinctive mark on our foreheads that looks the Roman alphabet letter "M". Other than that, tabby coats are very divergent.

Abyssinian or "ticked" tabbies don't appear to have stripes at all. Each of their hairs is striped, breaking up the overall pattern for a more muted look.

"Classic" tabbies have a swirled pattern on their sides, like a cinnamon roll.

Mackerel tabbies, like the one shown here, are the most common (statistically, that is!). This coat pattern is characterized by vertical stripes which are sometimes broken into bars or even spots.

These three types are not always easy to distinguish visually. For example, I'm a mackerel tabby, but my body stripes aren't crisp, because my fur itself is striped, giving my coat (if I may say so, and of course I may) a beautiful subtlety. Unlike a cat on the extreme end of the "ticked tabby" spectrum, I have spots on my belly, and distinct stripes on my chest, paws, and tail.

Abyssinian Tabby. These cats have the "ticking" gene, showing their stripes on their tails, paws, and in the M on their forehead

Abyssinian Tabby. These cats have the "ticking" gene, showing their stripes on their tails, paws, and in the M on their forehead

Abyssinian Tabby. These cats have the "ticking" gene, showing their stripes on their tails, paws, and in the M on their forehead

tabbycat-2

Tabby Coloration

We come in two basic colors, and an infinite variety of hues

Humans have assigned us two basic colorations. The "classic" tabby color is black and brown. The "silver" tabby color is black and light gray or white.

This is, however, a typical human oversimplification. Tabby patterning exists in a limitless variety of shades, from dark brown to palest orange, and from black to blue-gray. Some tabbies are bi-colored, like my co-kitty, Piglet, whose tabby genetics show up on the colored portions of her coat. Others can be tri-colored, like calicos and tortoiseshells, who often show their tabby stripes in their orange and brown patches.

The cat in the picture is a "silver" tabby by coloration, and a "classic" tabby by markings. You people sure do like to confuse things!

Silver Tabby Cat

Silver Tabby Cat

Silver Tabby Cat

Black and Brown Tabby Cat

Black and Brown Tabby Cat

Black and Brown Tabby Cat

By now, you may be asking yourself, "How can tabbies possibly exist in so many patterns and colors?". Well, the answer to that question lies in our genes and how they express themselves. It gets a little complicated, and I know you're working with a mere human brain there, but do try to keep up, will you?

It helps to remember that capital letters represent dominant genes, and lower-case letters represent either recessive or inactive genes.

To start with, feline coat pattern and feline coloration are genetically independent of each other. That means that my tabby stripes are governed by different genes than those that determine my gray color.

The agouti gene, A/a, determines whether a cat is a tabby or solid-colored. This gene causes each individual hair to be variegated -- orange at the root and black toward the tips. In its recessive form, aa, the tabby coloration is masked completely and the cat appears to be a solid color. That being said, I've seen black cats with very faint tabby striping that shows up when they lie in the sun.

The primary tabby patterning gene, mc, is what determines the type of tabby pattern expressed on a cat's coat. In its dominant form, Mc, the gene expresses mackerel stripes. In its recessive form, mc, (remember, recessive means that a copy of the gene must be received from both parents) the gene expresses the "classic" tabby pattern of swirls or "bulls-eyes".

The gene for "ticking", Ta/ta, is a secondary tabby pattern gene, resulting in an tabby with no visible pattern except for the "M" on its forehead. Abyssinian cats are an example of this pattern. In its dominant form, this gene masks all the other tabby patterning genes. In its homozygous form, meaning that the cat inherited two copies of the gene, one from each parent, have even less barring than cats with one copy of this gene.

Tabby Genetics: Color

From deep red, to pale gold, to silver, and beyond!

Tabby coloration is governed by other genes. These genes interact with the patterning genes to create an infinite variety of unique individuals.

The gene for orange coloration, O/o, suppresses the recessive agouti genotype I talked about earlier. This means there is no such thing as solid orange cat -- gingers are always tabbies. Another interesting fact about the O/o gene is that it's an X-lined dominant trait. That means that a male cat with one copy of the gene (O/o) will be orange, but a female cat needs two copies of the gene (O/O) to be orange. If a female cat has one copy of the gene (O/o), she'll be a tortoisehell or a calico, with at least some tabby striping on her orange spots.

The gene for Black and Brown coloration is a little more complicated. In its dominant form, Bb/b, brown or "chocolate" color is expressed. A mutation called Ba, expresses a lighter shade of brown called "cinnamon".

What about lighter colored tabbies? I'm glad you asked. Lighter coloration occurs because of the Dense pigment gene, D/d. If a cat receives two copies of the recessive form of this gene, d/d, black fur becomes "blue" or gray, brown or "chocolate" fur becomes "lilac", cinnamon fur becomes "fawn", and orange fur becomes "cream".

Orange Tabby Cat

Orange Tabby Cat

Orange Tabby Cat

Tortoiseshell Tabby Cat

Tortoiseshell Tabby Cat

Tortoiseshell Tabby Cat

Other genes that affect tabby cats

actually, there are more, but these are the important ones.

There are a few more genes that determine a tabby cat's appearance.

The first one is the C/c gene, which determines whether coloration will take place at all. If a cat inherits two of the recessive copies of this gene, the c/c alleles, she will be an albino. The temperature-sensitive albino variant cs/cs is the "Siamese" mutation. Some cats with this variant have tabby striping on their faces, ears, paws, and tails.

There are other temperature-sensitive recessive alleles that are active in Burmese and Tonkinese cats, but since they're not tabbies, I won't go into those here.

The second is the W/w gene. This dominant gene suppresses all other coloration genes, meaning that any tabby patterning will be masked. Cats with the w/w allele will have normal coloration.

The third is the spotting gene, S/s This gene has variable expression. A cat with one copy of the dominant gene will have white on less than 50% of its body, and a cat with two copies of this dominant allele will have white on more than 50% of its body.

Finally, there is a gene that codes for fur length. This gene, L/l, expresses short hair in its dominant form and long hair in its recessive form.

Calico Tabby

Calico Tabby

Calico Tabby

CFA recognized breeds that accept tabby patterning

Addy's sister thinks that the idea of "pure-bred" animals dates back to a Victorian obsession with eugenics. I can certainly tell you that cats don't care about such things. I include this list to show just how popular tabby coloration is, and how irrepressible those tabby genes are.

  • Abyssinian (ticked)
  • American Bobtail
  • American Curl
  • American Shorthair (the Classic pattern)
  • American Wirehair
  • Birman (tabby points)
  • Colorpoint Shorthair (tabby points called "Lynx Points")
  • Egyptian Mau (the original spotted tabby)
  • Exotic (shorthaired Persians)
  • Javanese (Lynx Points)
  • LaPerm
  • Maine Coon
  • Manx
  • Norwegian Forest Cat
  • Ocicat - selectively bred to create the spots
  • Oriental (112 tabby combinations allowed)
  • Persian
  • Ragdoll (Lynx Points)
  • Rex (Devon, Selkirk, and Cornish)
  • Scottish Fold
  • Siberian
  • Singapura (ticked tabby)
  • Somali (longhair ticked)
  • Turkish Angora (14 allowable tabby patterns/colors)
  • Turkish Van (6 tabby patterns/colors)

My Phenotype

Because you're just dying to know, I can tell.

Phenotype refers to the genes that are visibly expressed, as opposed to "genotype", which is the genes inherited from both parents. The question marks refer to the genes that are unknown because the dominant form of the gene is clearly expressed, meaning that I inherited it from at least one parent, but what I inherited from the other parent is unknown.

Addy, who has way too much time on her hands, believes that my phenotype is:

A/? because I am a tabby, and not a solid-colored cat;

Mc/? because I am a mackerel tabby;

ta/ta because I have stripes all over my body;

B/? since I'm not brown, I express the dominant "black" coloration;

d/d because I'm grey, not black, I clearly inherited two copies of the "diluted pigment" allele.

Furthermore, since my coat has no white on it at all, she figures that I am

w/w because my coat expresses color;

s/s because I have no white spotting;

and

L/? because I have short hair, not long hair, I have the dominant allele for hair length.

My phenotype. A/?, Mc/?, t/t, B/?, d/d, C/?, w/w, s/s, L/?

My phenotype. A/?, Mc/?, t/t, B/?, d/d, C/?, w/w, s/s, L/?

My phenotype. A/?, Mc/?, t/t, B/?, d/d, C/?, w/w, s/s, L/?

Tabby Facial Markings. In this picture you can see my "eyeliner" and the "pencil markings" on my face.

Tabby Facial Markings. In this picture you can see my "eyeliner" and the "pencil markings" on my face.

Tabby Facial Markings. In this picture you can see my "eyeliner" and the "pencil markings" on my face.

This view shows that my fur is variegated. It's a creamy color at the root and darker toward the tip.

This view shows that my fur is variegated. It's a creamy color at the root and darker toward the tip.

This view shows that my fur is variegated. It's a creamy color at the root and darker toward the tip.

Piglet's phenotype

not as interesting as mine, of course

Piglet is my co-kitty. Why is she called Piglet? Well, if you ever heard her eat, you wouldn't need to ask! Addy calls her my sister, but just between us, I think she's adopted.

Piglet is a Maine Coon mix. Maine Coon cats are a naturally occurring breed that evolved to adapt to harsh winters. They have long fur, especially on their bellies, tufts of fur between their toes, and tufted ears. Their fur is somewhat shorter around their heads and necks, where it's harder to groom. This makes their coats much easier to take care of than many longhairs.

Like many Maine Coons, Piglet is has an easy-going temperament. She's also pretty big, weighing in at 16 lbs, but I made sure she never figured that out.

Addy thinks that this is Piglet's phenotype:

A/? because she is a tabby;

Mc/? because is a mackerel tabby;

ta/ta she has stripes;

b/b because she's brown

D/? because she's dark brown, instead of a paler color, she has the dominant allele for dense pigmentation;

Additionally, Piglet has the following alleles:

w/w because her coat has some color;

S/s because she has white on half her body, she clearly inherited only one copy of the "spotting" gene

l/l because she has long hair, she must have inherited two copies of the recessive allele for fur length.

Piglet, my co-kitty. She's a bi-color Maine Coon mix, brown tabby with white.

Piglet, my co-kitty.  She's a bi-color Maine Coon mix, brown tabby with white.

Piglet, my co-kitty. She's a bi-color Maine Coon mix, brown tabby with white.

Piglet's Phenotype. A/?, Mc/?, t/t, D/?, C/?, w/w, S/s, l/l.

Piglet's Phenotype. A/?, Mc/?, t/t, D/?, C/?, w/w, S/s, l/l.

Piglet's Phenotype. A/?, Mc/?, t/t, D/?, C/?, w/w, S/s, l/l.

Piglet's white spotting hides the tabby "M" on her forehead.

Piglet's white spotting hides the tabby "M" on her forehead.

Piglet's white spotting hides the tabby "M" on her forehead.

In this view, you can see some of Piglet's tabby facial markings -- her "eyeliner" and some "pencil markings".

In this view, you can see some of Piglet's tabby facial markings -- her "eyeliner" and some "pencil markings".

In this view, you can see some of Piglet's tabby facial markings -- her "eyeliner" and some "pencil markings".

Piglet's indistinct stripes: her fur is dark at the root and lighter at the tip. Addy's not sure what gene causes this!

Piglet's indistinct stripes: her fur is dark at the root and lighter at the tip. Addy's not sure what gene causes this!

Piglet's indistinct stripes: her fur is dark at the root and lighter at the tip. Addy's not sure what gene causes this!

tabbycat-2

The truth about tabby cats.

I hope I've been able to open your eyes about tabbies. Tabbies are a beautifully diverse group of cats. Our coats express an infinite variety of individual color and pattern; we can have short or long hair, we can have white spots or not, we can have starkly visible stripes or nearly invisible ones, and we come in every color from black and brown to red and cream. The one thing we have in common is that our coloration means we're well-adapted to our role as stealthy predators.

Tabbies been around for tens of thousands of years -- because we work!

All right, that's enough with the camera.

All right, that's enough with the camera.

All right, that's enough with the camera.

image credits

All images copyright Addy Bell, except for the following, which were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons:

Image Credit: Abyssinian Tabby

Image Credit: Black and Brown Tabby

Image Credit: Calico Tabby

Image Credit: Classic Tabby

Image Credit: Mackerel Tabby

Image Credit: Orange Tabby

Image Credit: Silver Tabby

Image Credit: Tortoiseshell Tabby

Got a great story about how incredibly awesome tabbies are? Share it here!

Enough about Tabbies. - What do YOU think about tabbies?

Tabby Cat on November 22, 2019:

I love tabby cats ik more cause i am one

Cat (Yeah, you read that right) on May 05, 2016:

So glad SOMEBODY is taking an interest in my kind! SO many people say that we're only kept for entertainment (these are the people who prefer dogs, and say that dogs care about their humans, unlike cats). Well, I love Mara and she is like family to me. Goodbye, humanspersons!

Maribel Forayo from Philippines on April 01, 2013:

That silver tabby cat is really cute.

mcspocky lm on March 28, 2013:

Cats are cool. I have taught most of the cats we have owned how to shake hands and lead like a dog. It just takes patience...

nanafisher on January 28, 2013:

I have had cats my entire life. I have always had more than one because they do better with a friend. Always a Tabby of some color in the mix, they are beautiful...

lionmom100 on January 25, 2013:

I have had several brown or black tabbies in my lifetime and now have my first orange tabby, who is also polydactyl. He is my orange boy.

Loretta Livingstone from Chilterns, UK. on January 19, 2013:

My boy was an orange tabby, but he was a very pale shade, more like apricot cream. With matching white paw tips and a neat white bib. He was very intelligent, and loving. I lost him three days ago.

rawwwwwws lm on August 05, 2012:

I have an orange tabby and he has characteristics of a human being and a dog lol! He is just adorable and loving, and really smart too! Great lens.

seemarahate on May 19, 2012:

I like lens ..Thanks for sharing

seemarahate on May 19, 2012:

I like lens ..Thanks for sharing

Afteretc on January 30, 2012:

I have 2 tabbies, wait maybe three my tortoiseshell has the signature M on her forehead and striped on her back legs.

SteveKaye on January 26, 2012:

I asked Olivia Felini, and she told me to tell you that I like Tabbies. Of course, Olivia is a Tabby.

Wednesday-Elf from Savannah, Georgia on June 03, 2011:

Just had to stop back by and congratulate CC again on this delightfully written and interesting Tabby Cat story. Hope Piglet isn't jealous of the attention CC gets! :-)

NYThroughTheLens on April 15, 2011:

Nice lens. I was adopted 11 years ago by the cutest orange tabby in the whole world and he is the most loving cat.

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on March 23, 2011:

Great lens! Very informative. I have my first tabby now and she is amazing. I'm thankful I adopted her and she adopted me. :-)

Craftybegonia on February 08, 2011:

Gorgeous lens! The models are gorgeous! I have a gray tabby named Lilly, so I am partial to tabbies anyway.

WindyWintersHubs from Vancouver Island, BC on September 26, 2010:

Tabbies are awesome and so is this lens. I had many cats growing up including two tabbies. We had an orange tabby when our children were growing up.

VeggieGeek on March 20, 2010:

A wild black and brown tabby kitten has just adopted me - he looks just like a little cheetah and acted like one when we first met - now he sleeps beside me purring loudly all night!

Addy Bell (author) on February 08, 2010:

@ElizabethJeanAl: So glad I could enlighten you. A cat is never just a cat, but is always better than just a dog, as my colleague Vladi has pointed out.

-- CC

ElizabethJeanAl on February 07, 2010:

I love my cat. She's the sweetest creature around. I never really think of her as a tabby. I just figured a cat was a cat. I know better now.

Thanks for sharing.

Lizzy

Babitah on January 21, 2010:

Very informative lens..

Five stars and favorited..

Addy Bell (author) on January 21, 2010:

@VladimirCat: I don't think Black cats are spooky ... I was just pointing out that humans like to perpetuate that stereotype. Thanks for visiting!

--CC

Vladimir from Australia on January 21, 2010:

As a sensitive feline of the beautiful black variety I was deeply hurt by your use of the word 'spooky'. However, I am nothing if not resilient, and a short nap snapped me out of the sulks (especially as you have lensrolled my catography) High Paw to you!

Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on January 18, 2010:

You're the first Promising Lensmaster for 2010! Blessed, featured and noted for the future. (squidoo.com/the-2010-promise)

Deb Kingsbury from Flagstaff, Arizona on January 17, 2010:

Oh, my (gray, striped, short-haired) tabby, Mindi, was anything BUT generic, average, or common. She was the sweetest little (well, eventually not so little) girl, who gave kisses and hugs and was so in tune with her people, never aloof or cranky. She was with us for 18 wonderful years.

Addy Bell (author) on January 15, 2010:

@Kapalbility: Addy's vet -- I mean, her allergist -- told her that allergic people build up a tolerance to their own cats, so they don't react to them as badly. Addy says that's when she decided to keep him.

Addy Bell (author) on January 15, 2010:

@Wednesday-Elf: I'll have you know Addy was never funny until she met me. I taught her everything she knows!

Kapalbility on January 15, 2010:

Here kitty kitty! We used to have a cat just like you. A bad one. Used to steal food (my food for that matter) from the table. You amazed me with your knowledge about tabbies, just like you. Fun Fact: tri-colored male tabbies are considered a good lucks here in the Philippines. So if you have a friend that meets those criteria, I'll keep him (although I'm asthmatic to cat hair, but hey, good luck IS good luck)! This is an awesome lens. :)

Wednesday-Elf from Savannah, Georgia on January 10, 2010:

I loved learning all about tabbies from the viewpoint of - what else - a Tabby! CC is very humorous, although I'm sure Addy was a tremendous influence in this area. Terrific pictures of tabby cats - and very informative. I had no idea there were so many different variations in tabbies. I once had a cat whose coat was like the coloring of a striped tiger cat, only instead of stripes, there were 'swirls'. I called it a 'marbled' look. Is that a tabby too?

Cynthia Arre from Quezon City on December 31, 2009:

Very fun and informative page on my cat of choice. (: My darling kitty is a marmalade tabby and he's the sweetest thing. I once asked him what that "m" on his forehead stands for -- he said it means "meow". (;

KimGiancaterino on November 22, 2009:

Our household is run by a delegation of tabbies. They're the sweetest kitties in the world. Blessed by a Squid Angel.

wilddove6 on November 18, 2009:

What a great lens on Tabbies!

I had a darling of a "Black/Brown" Tabby named Sushi. Now I know what colour she was and how she came to be that colour!

Very cool!

Wing high five!

Kathy McGraw from California on November 18, 2009:

Wow, I see why you won the contest...this was a great lens. I had no idea there was so much to a Tabby Cat :) Congraulations Addy you deserved this win ;)

Addy Bell (author) on November 18, 2009:

Thanks for all the comments!

GrowWear on November 18, 2009:

Congratulations Fresh Squid Contest winner for your truth about tabby cats.

drifter0658 lm on November 18, 2009:

This was too much fun

because I learned way more about Tabbies than I thought humanly possible.

Blessed!

kimmanleyort on November 16, 2009:

What an in-depth look at tabbys. I love the first person perspective. Congrats on winning the animals and nature contest. Well deserved!

badmintondouble1 on November 16, 2009:

Hilarious! As usual, Addy, you educate and entertain.

Lisa Marie Gabriel from United Kingdom on November 16, 2009:

This is an adorable lens and I am heading over to my Living With Cats lens to add it to the collection in the Mew Factor! 5* favourite

moskit on November 16, 2009:

Wow! There is a lot more to Tabbies than I thought!

I'm sure Charlie the Cheetah would feel proud to be a part of this great lens.

Lee Hansen from Vermont on November 16, 2009:

I've loved 3 tabby cats so far. Two are over the Rainbow Bridge, but the latest is the greatest and she's a nature lover and excellent hunter with a cool personality.

Mihaela Vrban from Croatia on November 16, 2009:

Excellent lens Addy! Your cat surely knows how to write! :) Blessed by an Angel!

justholidays on November 15, 2009:

Wow! What a wonderful and highly interesting lens! Deserves 5 stars not only for the bunch of information but as well for the marevlous pictures!

Dom.

admiralglass lm on November 13, 2009:

great lens. Good information nice photos, and i also love tabby cats.

Indigo Janson from UK on November 12, 2009:

What an engaging and informative read (and what a clever kitty to write it)! Very unique. I adore tabby cats and I learned so many things about them here that I never even knew.

Thanks so much for the mention for the Scottish Wildcat - if ever there was a tabby cousin who needed help this is her. Lensrolling back - after all our lenses are purrrrrfect partners! :-)

motorpurrr on November 10, 2009:

Love it! Thanks for giving tabbies a good word. Our basic brown tabby is the most wonderful cat on earth. She has a big loving heart and is a huge comedian. Whe I was down at the shelter we were talking about the tabbies there and they also said that the basic tabby is the best cat you can get.

It's like getting a brown horse, mouse or basic dog. The genetics are stronger than getting something that has been over bred to get unusual colors.

anonymous on November 10, 2009:

My sweet little Chessie (tabby) and I salute you! What a fabulous lens! Spreading my Angel wings for a gigantic blessing!

Yvonne L B from Covington, LA on November 08, 2009:

Well CC, I care for a beautifully delicate brown tabby called Blaze, a 20 lb orange male tabby named Dax and a long-haired solid black cat called Star Noir. Now I understand why our Blaze, who stumbled up out of a ditch on a busy highway, is so regal. All 3 felines really enjoyed your enlightening tale and they want me to work on their phenotype ASAP. Great lens.