The 5 Tabby Cat Patterns

A tabby cat is not a breed; it's actually a coat pattern and there are five different types of tabby cats. Learn the differences between tabby cat patterns right here.

A tabby cat with an ID collar on.
A tabby cat with an ID collar on. Photography by Shelagh Duffett/Thinkstock.

People sometimes call the average domestic cat a tabby, but tabby is not a cat breed — it is actually the pattern of kitty’s coat. And it happens to be the most common of all the feline coat patterns. Technically speaking, no matter what colors or markings you see on your cat, all felines possess the tabby cat gene. Other cat colors or patterns may hide those tabby markings, but they’re always present.

Orange ginger tabby cat itching. Photography ©foaloce | Thinkstock.
All orange cats are tabby cats and vice versa. Photography ©foaloce | Thinkstock.

First, some tabby basics:

Sometimes you can see those faint tabby markings on a solid-colored cat who is sitting in the bright sun. And have you ever seen a solid red or orange or cream cat without the familiar tabby markings? You won’t, because the gene that makes a cat red or cream also makes the tabby markings visible.

All tabbies have thin pencil lines on their faces, expressive markings around the eyes, and a distinct letter “M” on their foreheads. Some believe the “M” is for Mau, the word for “cat” in ancient Egypt. Others think the “M” stands for Mohammed, who loved tabbies. Still others believe it is the blessing of the Virgin Mary.

Related: What It Means to Be a Tabby?

There are five types of tabby coat patterns, each possessing its own unique markings. We’ve listed them below alongside photos of each.

See if you can figure out which tabby your cat is:


1. Classic Tabby Cat

The classic tabby has bold, swirling patterns along his sides — much like a marble cake.

This tabby is called a “blotched tabby” in some regions. The pattern of circular smudges on the classic tabby’s body closely resembles a bullseye.


2. Mackerel Tabby Cat

A mackerel tabby has narrow stripes that run in parallel down her sides. This is what some people refer to as a “tiger cat.” The body has narrow stripes running down the sides in a vertical pattern.

Ideally, the stripes are non-broken lines; evenly spaced. They branch out from one stripe that runs along the top of the cat’s back down the spine, resembling fish skeleton — which is why the term “mackerel” is used to describe it.


3. Spotted Tabby Cat

A spotted tabby has spots all over his sides. These spots can be large or small, and sometimes appear to be broken mackerel stripes. They can be round, oval or rosettes.

Often, a mackerel tabby with a broken pattern resembles a spotted tabby. It is not known whether these spots developed from a mackerel tabby or come from a separate gene.


4. Ticked Tabby Cat

A ticked tabby cat (sometimes called Abyssinian tabby or agouti tabby) does not have the traditional stripes or spots on her body, and may not, at first, seem to be a tabby. However, like all tabbies, this coat pattern has tabby markings on the face and agouti hairs on the body.

What are agouti hairs? If you look up close at the lighter parts of a tabby’s coat, you will see that the individual hairs are striped with alternating light and dark bands, known as the agouti hairs. The ticked pattern is displayed prominently in Abyssinians but also appears in mixed breeds.

Tabby Cat. A sick tortoiseshell kitten.
A tortoiseshell kitten. Photography ©Angelafoto | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

5. Patched Tabby Cat

This is the term used to describe a tortoiseshell (also called tortie) tabby. In the typical form, there are separate patches of brown tabby and red tabby on the same animal.

A tortie who also carries the tabby gene is often called a torbie. Patched tabbies can show any one of the above four distinct tabby patterns. The markings are usually more apparent on the legs and head.

Thumbnail: Photography by Shelagh Duffett/Thinkstock.

This piece was originally published in 2015. 

Read Next: The Science Behind the Fur: What Makes Black Cats Black

86 thoughts on “The 5 Tabby Cat Patterns”

    1. looking at the different tabbies i am still not sure about my two, one has a circle half way up on either side, the other, probably a spotted tabby. only way i can actually describe my two tabbies. is ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS and i feel confident thats a fair and just description. and in fact describes all cats.

  1. I definitely am a tortie tabby's human companion, according to this information. I love my baby. I am currently raising money for her bloodwork to be done, please send us your warmest thoughts/prayers/energies. I should look into different orgs to reach out to…

  2. One day a brown mackerel tabby strolled into our yard and let us know she was staying. Since she was one of the most common pattern/color cats, we named her JustaCat. Our sweet Justi.

  3. Since this about tabby cat patterns I am wondering why you chose to mostly frontal views of the cats. A good side view of the body is what should have been used. I found this information pretty much useless.

  4. Suzanne Williams

    Correction for image caption. It reads “All orange cats are tabby cats and vice versa.”

    This is incorrect. All orange cats might be tabby cats, but not all tabby cats are orange cats.

    Nice article discussing the different basic tabby variants!

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