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. Is the cat you’re talking about a Bengal? Those looked like tigers to me. What you just said is exactly how my cat is!!! Elliot is his name, and I nickname him Ellie Ellie.

  2. My cat was labeled as a Lynx Point Siamese, but has many of these qualities, including the M on his forehead. But he is gray, and his body is a solid color. He has striped legs and tail and white paws (snowshoe). So do you think he is a Siamese or tabby?

    1. Lynx points are sometimes called tabby points because the cooler parts of their body; muzzle, paws, tips of their ears, and the tip of their tail have tabby markings. He is a lynx point.

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    1. Hmm, somehow I’ve always been a solid gray kinda cat lover, since I was 4 yrs old. Maybe just trying to recapture my youth?

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  11. No, as I have a cat allergy, but you know all
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    1. my cat jasmine looks the same as the mackerel tabby on the picture (of course shes a mackerel if she looks like that lol)and her cat food bag also looks like that. this is confusing three things in a row are mackerel tabbies

      ok thx for the help

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  20. I have a beautiful White Tabby. 11months old and already 13 lbs. I got him from an elderly woman who had him and he is neutered, declawed and chipped. He was very stand offish at first but it’s been 2 1/2 months now and he is really coming into his own. My 2 1/2 year old Maine Coone Mix absolutely adores him…

      1. I took in two older declawed cats after their person went into a nursing home. They were never crippled. I do not like declawing but it does not necessarily make a cripple. One lived to be 20 and the other to be 18.

      2. I have rescued at least 6 cats that had been declawed and none of them were crippled with age. They were all fine and lived to be 15.

  21. This line is clearly incorrect – “All orange cats are tabby cats and vice versa”. So all tabby cats are orange? I don’t think so.

  22. I will have to look at my white cat closely. I could swear she doesn’t have tabby markings on her. Totally white with just a brown scratch on a pink nose.

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  24. I was rather confused by this article, although it contains excellent information, I could not make the logic work. After reading a different article explaining that most of the loci are x linked, it clicked. Thank you writing it, and i do recommend the edit. I suppose it was an editorial choice… Do you want to explain x linked genes… Maybe a link to more info?

    1. Hi Dawn,

      These pieces might provide more info:

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  27. This is very helpful I ♡ this website ???? I have always wondered what my cat autumn was and now I have figured it out (torbie) my cat is a very awsome cat she is an outside cat she has 4 kittens and now I know what she is ????????????

    Thank you for ur help!!!!

    1. Lily, do you mean your cat Autumn is a barn cat? Why else would she be outside? And please have her spayed as soon as possible.

  28. This is very helpful I ♡ this website ???? I have always wondered what my cat autumn was and now I have figured it out (torbie) my cat is a very awsome cat she is an outside cat she has 4 kittens and now I know what she is ????????????

    Thank you for ur help!!!!

  29. This is really cool,I have always wondered what my cat autumn was and now I know that she is a torbie. it is extremely helpful I ♡ it

    Thank you!!!

  30. This is really cool,I have always wondered what my cat autumn was and now I know that she is a torbie. it is extremely helpful

    Thank you!!!

  31. Mary-Lou Mayfield

    Our brown mackerel tabby has side marking that are somewhere between stripes and spots, so they look like fish scales!

  32. Currently me and my girlfriend have a orange tabby female named Embers. Before that I have had two other male tabbys, but they both tragically died.

  33. Barbara K. Feller

    Some of the cats u r showing r Not Tabbies. They r Bengals – rosettes, swirls, or combo of rosettes, swirls & stripes. Large ears “M” on forehead. Raccoon striped tail. Longer rear legs. When they walk sort of looks like a rabbit. Very, very smart. They follow u just like dogs do. U can teach them tricks, just like dogs. Long bodies. Can jump a far distance from a standing position. Mine shows me & tells me exactly what she wants

    1. none of these cats look like bengals to me ? from what i can tell, the pictures in this article are of a moggy, a moggy, a british shorthair, a moggy, a moggy (if anything, an egyptian mau mix), a somali, and a moggy.

    2. The cat you are describing is a Bengal? I thought those were tigers lol. What you just described fits my cat to the T!!! His name is Elliot, I call him Ellie Ellie.

  34. I know of a litter of 5 kittens whose mother is an orange striped (tiger) tabby. Three of the kittens have stripes like their mother. One is a deep orange, total body striped one without white; one is the same color with white markings; one is a lighter orange stripe with white – it is so light that it almost appears “buff”. The other two kittens ARE what I call “buff” – solid pastel orange without any stripes or spots. One is a little darker than the other and the darker one has no white markings. So, while I do not disagree with the statement that all domestic cats have the basic Tabby coat gene, I disagree that the red tone does not come in a non-striped/spotted variety. There are calicos and pastel calicos of which no stripes or spots can be seen in their orange color patches. I agree that orange cats, striped or not, are often males but this litter is out of an orange tiger female. I have also noticed that there are frequently calicos in a litter with orange tigers. Calicos are always female and I have often wondered if the tendency for orange tabbies/tigers to be male is nature’s way of balancing the genders in that coat color scheme. Buff must have a modifier gene which makes it appear that there is no stripe or spot in it.

    1. There are makes calicos, but they are very rare. The gene for calico is on the X (female) chromosome so a male calico would have to be XXY instead of the normal XY. I’m also thinking this means the gene for calico is recessive, but I can’t remember if I knew it or am I speculating.

      1. Hi there,

        Here’s some more info on calico cats:

    2. My calico’s colored patches have very prominent tabby stripes in them and she has an M-head. She has more white on her than color, so she’s definitely a tri-color tripawd (three-legged calico). She has a black tiger-striped tail. I find this unusual (the tabby patches) because all of the calicos I’ve ever seen have solid patches.

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  36. I have a tabby Mackel cat who has urine issues only on my basement floor since the earthquake we had two years ago in Maine we were the central area of the target of the worst. He only pees on the cement foor. Brought him to vets 3 times says UTI been put on meds works for a week hen right back to the same issue. Doesn’t do it where I can see it but goes back to the same areas.ive tried all the products in bottles any ideas?

    1. It’s not ideal, but I had fostered a cat and my resident cat was going in one spot where there was an accident and we put a litter box over the spot. I had read online someone was using dog’s weewee pads when their cat had the same issue.

    2. Hey, have you put your cat on special urinary food? You need a prescription from your vet, or i believe Purina sells one you dont need a prescription for. You could also try putting your kitty on a all wet-food diet. Best of luck.

      1. I also forgot to mention there are probiotics you can put in your cats wetfood, that are fish flavored. Tha will likely also help.

    3. I had this problem with a cat years ago and she’d stop it after a course of med called Clavamox.. The vet determined that the infection was very deep into the bladder and would need a whole month of treatment so by that time, she became toxic because that is a pretty strong med but in the end, it fixed her and she never had accidents again.. The fact that it’s done on the basement floor means that the cat has a burning sensation and the basement concrete is cool..Sometimes these cats will go in the bath tub due to it being cold and feels better than elsewhere..Good luck.

  37. Hi! My husband and I are moving from NY to Tampa in a month with our two cats – a three-year old tabby (stipres and spots!) and a 2-year old black tux. I knew we’ll have to get them up-to-date with their vaccines in Florida, but is it important to get them any kind of booster before the long car trip? They have always been 100% indoor cats, and will still be indoor cats, but I am a worrier.

    Any adivce???


    1. Hi Elizabeth — We suggest contacting your vet to see what sorts of shots they might need, if any. Best of luck with your move / on the car trip.

      1. I had a male tabby his name is Salem my granddaughter let him out he is 7 months old was spraying everywhere. He had an appointment this monday to get fixed ! He been gone 6 days will he come home ? He was very loved and he loved me

    2. My husband and I traveled with our cats from North Dakota to Maryland. They got extremely sick. The vet said it was like shipping cattle a long ways. And to be sure to sedate them next time. Now this was over 40 years ago and before Air Conditioners in cars. Not sure if that lead to the problem or not but be sure to talk to your vet before moving such a long distance.

    3. Darlene Bissonnette

      Be sure to administer heart worm medication for all 3 cats since they will be outdoors while you’re traveling. It’s a good precaution to keep them on these monthly preventative meds. Heart worm is fatal to cats who contract this horrible disease.
      Best of luck in your endeavors and drive safely!

  38. The term “mackerel” doesn’t refer to a fish skeleton – look at some pictures of mackerel to see why it’s used.

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