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Get to Know the Tabby Cat: Ancient Origins and Camouflage Coats

Your tabby cat's history involves famous religious figures and wild ancestors.

Meghan Lodge  |  Jun 27th 2017

Considering that the tabby pattern is the most common of all cat coat patterns, you might have one, and you’ve definitely seen one. Cats with tabby-patterned coats are commonly referred to as “tabbies” or “tabby cats,” although that is not a breed. Tabbies come in five basic patterns — classic, mackerel, spotted, ticked, and patched. Our tabby cat would be considered a mackerel tabby cat with a broken pattern, as he has both spots and stripes. Like most tabbies, though, he has the classic “M” shape on his head. Isn’t that cool?! Tabby patterns are also excellent built-in camouflage, perhaps a leftover blessing from the domestic cat’s ancestors. Their colors and patterns break up the outlines of their bodies to help disguise them in the woods and tall grasses, making them harder for predators and prey alike to spot them.

A brown tabby cat in a tree.

If you have a tabby cat, you may have a piece of the beginning of cats. Some believe that the tabby pattern is the oldest cat coat pattern known to man, which makes perfect sense considering how well their coats blend with their surroundings. Camouflage is nature’s protection against predators and helps the cat sneak up undetected on prey. Wild cats, like the Bobcat, European Wildcat, Leopard Cat, and many more sport tabby coat patterns. When they are very still in the trees or fallen leaves, they can be very hard to spot.

A wild cat with a tabby cat coat pattern.

Tabby cats also come with their own folklore. One tale involved a tabby cat who fell asleep on the prophet Mohammed’s sleeve. Rather than disturb the sleeping feline, he cut his sleeve off when he went to pray. The cat later warned him of danger, so it is said that the “M” marking on tabbies is from Mohammed’s blessing, and the dark lines down their back from where he stroked his cat. Egyptians believed the mark was symbolic of the sacred scarab beetle or a reference to their Egyptian name, Mau. Catholics believed the “M” was a blessing from the Virgin Mary, after the cat killed a venomous snake sent to bite baby Jesus. Non-Catholic Christians have a similar tale, with a mother tabby cat curling up in the manger with baby Jesus to keep him warm.

A tabby cat relaxing in a bed.

Medieval England (circa A.D. 906) believed witches used cats as familiars, and their tabby cats would transform themselves into black horses that the witches rode. Because of these beliefs, women who were not of the accepted religious or went against society in other ways, such as practicing medicine, were persecuted, along with their feline friends. This led to a decline in the population of tabby cats, as well as black cats, in England, and has perhaps contributed to some of the public’s feelings about them today. Fortunately for the tabby cat and black cats alike, most people don’t give credence to old wives’ tales and folk tales about cats.

A gray tabby cat hiding.

Being true masters of disguise, some of you may have a tabby cat and not even know it! Some calico cats have patches of tabby pattern in their coat (called a “torbie”) and even some Siamese can have tabby points!

Do you have a tabby cat? What folktales have you heard about them? Tell us about it in the comments, and please share a picture!

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About Meghan Lodge: Fits the Aquarius definition to a fault, loves animals, and is always pushing for change. Loves ink, whether it’s in tattoos, books, or writing on that pretty sheet of blank paper. Proud parent of Toby (cat) and Axle (dog). I’m a former quiet nerd who’s turned bubbly animal-obsessed advocate.