the guide to tabby cats

Tabby Cats: Everything You Need To Know

Tabby cats are arguably the most recognizable cats in the world.

Although we all say and hear the word “tabby” a lot when it comes to cats, what does it actually mean?

When we talk about tabby cats we are not actually talking about a breed of cat, we are talking about distinctive markings on a domestic cat.

The word tabby is referring to the physical description of the cat and one of the most recognizable features is the “M” marking on the forehead of tabby cats. 

Main Types of Tabby Cat

There are five main types of tabby cat.

While all tabbies have the same facial markings, there are different body patterns you may see.

Below are the most common tabby markings and how to tell the difference between them:

1. Classic Tabby

A classic tabby is a very common pattern and is what many people think of when they refer to a tabby cat.

The side of the cat’s body has bold swirls which are prominent and can appear like large blotches or a “target”.

There are three broad lines running along the cats back and there are normally rings around the cat’s neck.

A classic tabby also has button-like blotches on their belly, tails and legs (don’t mistake these for a belly button). 

2. Mackerel Tabby

This pattern is also very commonly seen; a mackerel tabby has thin stripes around their tail and legs.

They also have lines along their chest and solid or broken stripes on their body.

Across the shoulder and haunches there are faint lines that are in a pattern similar to a fish skeleton which is where the name mackerel comes from.

3. Spotted Tabby

A spotted tabby has circular or oval-shaped spots on their coat.

a spotted tabby

These spots can be small or large and usually appear as blotches. The spots can be random or in straight lines. 

4. Ticked Tabby

A ticked tabby is also known as Agouti, their fur has faint light and dark alternating bands.

a ticked tabby

You may not be able to see this unless you look closely at the lighter parts of the coat.

They also have the common facial tabby markings. The overall look of a ticked tabby is a salt-and-pepper or sand-like appearance without any obvious stripes or bands. 

5. Patched Tabby

A patched tabby has different colour patches (commonly brown, red, blue-grey or cream) across their fur.

Patched is often used to describe a tortoiseshell tabby.

They may also show traits of the other types described above.


Tabby cats can be a variety of colours, the most commonly occurring is black-based but brown, grey, cream and orange are also very common.

All in all, there are over 60 possible coat colour variations that can occur.

Orange tabby cats are typically male thanks to genetics. This is because the gene is on the X chromosome meaning male cats only need one copy of it to be orange while females need two. 


The name Tabby is believed to come from the name of a striped silk in Baghdad.

The cats were compared to the silk which was referred to as “atabis” and later, “tabis” which translated into English as “tabby” giving the cats the name. 

The “M” that is seen on the forehead of tabby cats comes with many religious stories.

Each story brings the same essence, for example, the Christian version of the story says the tabby cat came to comfort baby Jesus and Mary marked the cat with an “M” in gratitude, while in the Muslim version a tabby cat named Muezza once saves his masters life by killing a snake and from then on all tabby cats were remembered with an “M” on their forehead.

As fun as the stories are, there is a genetic reason for the M and the M is a standard part of the pattern of a tabby. 

Wild Cats 

We can see a lot of similar patterns to the ones seen on tabby cats on African wild cats.

This is because the tabby markings are best suited for life in the wild as they offer great camouflage making hiding and hunting easier. The tabby gene is more dominant than the other coat colour genes.

Many believe the tabby coat pattern has been in domesticated cats since the very beginning. The gene can be found in all domestic cats and even many black cats looked at in the sunlight can reveal tabby markings. 


As we mentioned, tabby is not a breed of cat but is a physical description. This means there are many breeds that accept the tabby pattern and you can find tabbies all over the world.

In fact, some estimates suggest up to half of the worlds cat population can be described as tabbies!

Here’s just a few of around 30 breeds that can be classified as tabbies, you may recognize some of them:

  • Maine coon
  • Persian
  • American shorthair
  • Siamese
  • Scottish fold
  • Turkish angora
  • American bobtail

Tabby Traits 

As a tabby is not a breed and the term covers a large number of cats it is difficult to outline specific behaviours attributed to tabby cats.

Every cat is unique and has their own personality so the below is a generalization based on the behaviours that are seen in the majority of tabby cats.

This is often an easygoing cat that is playful and generally well behaved.

A tabby cat is usually:

1. Socialable

Tabby cats enjoy being around others, they seem to be happy to share food with others and have a general community spirit.

The female tabbies have also been known to help take care of kittens that are not their own.

Tabby cats mix well with people, including children, and also tend to get on well with other pets (even when the other pets aren’t cats).

They are loving, affectionate and enjoy getting involved in the fun and games around the house. 

2. Requires Attention

A tabby loves attention and requires daily fuss from their owners. They enjoy getting scratches and pampering as well as playtime.

A tabby generally does not like to spend long periods of time left alone at home, some will display destructive behaviours when left alone as a way of showing their owners they do not like it.

You may also notice your tabby won’t leave your side when you return home and this is another sign they are unhappy when left alone for more than a few hours at a time.

3. Vocal 

Many owners find that a tabby has no problem using their voice to let you know when they need something.

These cats will be vocal when they want to come in or go outside, when they are hungry or their water needs topping up or when they want attention. 

4. Natural Hunters

Although they are cute and affectionate, tabbies are also great hunters when it comes to rodents.

They will chase mice and if they manage to catch the mouse they have a habit of playing with it rather than killing it. I guess the good thing is that you’re unlikely to have a rodent issue with a tabby cat around. 

5. Fun Loving 

A tabby has a love for playtime, they love playing with toys and running around.

a playful tabby cat

Having a tabby is great fun for the whole family, they can keep you entertained with their antics for hours. 

6. Grumpy

While tabbies are mostly light-hearted and relaxed, they can also be moody and overreact to small things.

This tends to happen when the tabby cat is still settling into a new home and finding their feet, you’ll likely find they relax and adjust to the situation once they are settled. 

Famous Tabby Cats

It is no surprise that tabby cats are no strangers to fame, in fact they have captured people’s hearts around the world.

From Freddie Mercury, Mark Twain, David Bowie and Betty White, tabby cats have been no strangers to celebrities and the spotlight.

A tabby cat was once elected mayor in an Alaskan town (and served as mayor for 20 years!).

You will also recognize the Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he’s a tabby too. 

Tabby Cat Summary 

complete guide to tabby cats

That wraps up our guide to tabby cats. These fascinating, charming cats are loved by many and we hope this guide has helped you discover a little bit more about them and their characteristics.

You can now tell the difference between different coat types and you know a bit more about the history and origin of the celebrated tabby cat. 

No matter your favourite breed of cat, you will likely be able to find a tabby cat that suits your preferences. Remember to look out for that distinctive “M” marking on the forehead.

As we know each cat has an individual personality, but generally, the tabby cat is friendly, loving and loyal and makes a wonderful addition to any family.

As an Amazon Associate I may earn a small fee from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you. This helps us run the site, so thanks for your support!