By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 27 March 2011)
All striped domestic cats are tabbies, and experts believe that the tabby is the wild type (original coat type) of all domestic cats. This coat type was probably selected for because it provides good camouflage for hunting and avoiding predators.
According to Breton and Creek (2003), tabby cats get their markings from the dominant agouti gene. In addition to the stripes on their bodies, typical tabby markings include lines around the eyes and on the cheeks, and a letter “M” on the forehead. The darker stripes of a tabby are non-agouti (solid), whereas the background fur is agouti (banded with alternating stripes of lighter and darker colour).
Types of Tabby Cats
Starbuck and Thomas (1999) list the four tabby subtypes that result from additional genes modifying the expression of the agouti gene:
- Classic Tabby/Blotched Tabby: Swirling or marbled patterns
- Mackerel Tabby: Narrow parallel vertical stripes down the sides of the body
- Spotted Tabby: Spots (large or small) or broken parallel stripes over the sides of the body; caused by the same gene as mackerel, but with the stripes broken up due to additional genetic influences
- Ticked Tabby: Tabby markings on the face but no stripes or spots over the body (the unmarked fur is agouti); found in breeds such as the Abyssinian, Somali, and Singapura, as well as various non-purebreds
The four tabby patterns come in the following colour schemes:
- Blue: Dark gray or blue-gray stripes on a lighter gray or off-white background
- Brown: Black or dark brown stripes on a brown or grayish background
- Cream: Darker cream (peach or sand-coloured) stripes over a lighter cream background
- Red: Dark orange or marmalade stripes over a cream background
- Silver: Black, gray, cream, orange, brown, lilac, or fawn stripes on a white or off-white background (those with orange stripes are known as cameo tabbies)
According to Sarah Hartwell (2010) of the UK Cats Protection organization, a number of breeds and subtypes have been developed through a refinement of certain tabby patterns. For example, Toygers were created via selective breeding to produce a pattern of stripes that more closely resembles that of a tiger, whereas breeders of red (orange) Persians have sought to blend the stripes together as much as possible in order to create a cat with a solid-coated appearance. Shaded cats are a selectively bred tabby variant producing darker-tipped fur over a lighter ground colour.
Patched Tabbies (Torbies)
Patched tabbies (also known as torbies) have coats that comprise a blend of tortoiseshell (red and black) and tabby patterns. In some cases there are also white patches on the coat (calico).
Like tortoiseshell and calico cats, patched tabbies are nearly always female because the genes that trigger the tortie pattern require two X chromosomes (the red fur gene on one and the black fur gene on the other). Because males have only one X chromosome (the typical male pattern is XY), they can’t produce both red and black patches in the same coat except in the case of a genetic abnormality that gives the male an extra X chro
mosome. However, such males are rare (Rubin, 2009).
Ghost Tabby Markings on Kittens
Kittens of various breeds may be born with ghost tabby markings, or very faint stripes and/or marbled patches. These typically disappear or at least fade significantly as the cat ages (see the photos below for a picture of a kitten with ghost tabby markings).
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Breton, R., & Creek, N.J. (2003). “Cats of a Different Colour.” Tenset.co.uk.
- Lawrence, K., Cat Fanciers’ Association. (2008). “Understanding the Basic Genetics of Cat Colors.” Kids.CFA.org.
- Hartwell, S. (2010). “Spotted Cats.” MessyBeast.com.
- Rubin, D., Dr. (2009). “Why Are Calico Cats Female?” PetPlace.com.
- Starbuck, O., & Thomas, D. (1999). “Cat Colors FAQ: Common Colors.” Fanciers.com.