The mackerel tabby cat.
The mackerel tabby cat. Photography ©Keren_J | Thinkstock.

What Exactly Is A Mackerel Tabby Cat?

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Tabby cats (a.k.a. “tabbies”) possess a distinctive coat. It may seem like they are a breed unto themselves, but tabbies are not a breed. The term “tabby” refers to their striped fur pattern. Many tabby cats have the trademark “M” created by the stripes on the tabby’s forehead. Tabby kittens can get their fur patterns from either the sire or the dam, so the unique markings often emerge in the litters of cat fanciers’ breeding programs and those unplanned random cat romances. It is believed that a large percentage of feral cats are tabbies because the gene is so dominant and it’s most likely the dominant gene because the pattern is best suited for camouflage. There are quite a few varieties of tabby patterns (see all of them here!), but arguably the most popular is the mackerel tabby.

McGee is a mackerel tabby cat.
McGee is a mackerel tabby cat — more on him later! Photography by Denise LeBeau.

Holy mackerel — is that a tiger? All about the mackerel tabby cat pattern

Of all the tabby variations, the one most associated with traditional tabby markings is the mackerel tabby pattern. The mackerel tabby cat has stripes that run perpendicular to the cat’s spine and line his legs and ring his tail. They are sometimes referred to as “tiger cats” because their stripes resemble the only occurring-in-the-wild big cat with stripes, yes, Panthera tigris. While they may be referred to as tiger cats, the actual coat coloring of a tiger, an orange ground with black stripes, does not appear on Felis catus, or domestic cats. However, many cats of distinguished breeding boast the striking tabby coat: from the Norwegian Forest Cat to the Maine Coon.

So, a mackerel tabby cat pattern can appear on many different cat breeds and refers to the arrangement of stripes on the kitty’s body — specifically that the stripes run vertically down the cat off his spine. The stripes are often solid lines but they can be broken and they are born with them. This may seem like that’s all there is to know about tabbies, but read on!

Where did the name tabby cat, and the name mackerel tabby cat, come from?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term tabby originated from a type of silk taffeta with a wavy surface produced in Baghdad called ‘attābī, after the neighborhood it was created in. The French called it tabis and in the early 17th century, it made its way to English as tabby. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the word tabby crossed over from describing a type of cloth to describing a type of cat. And once it made that leap, the quick-witted tabby left textiles in the dust!

The tiger-stripe tabby pattern was dubbed “mackerel” because the stripes coming off of the cat’s spine resemble a fish skeleton.

Fun facts about mackerel tabby cats

There are two notable mackerel tabby traits that help make him a real standout. The “M” — as mentioned — refers to the inverted chevron markings above his eyes. Is it a mask? Are they eyebrows? Folklore reports it could be from an Islamic prophet, a blessed virgin mother or even an ancient sacred Egyptian icon. In reality, it’s probably just evolution.

The most prevalent nose color for tabbies is pink with a ring of black pigmentation, which can change.

Mackerel Tabby Cat, McGee.
Up close and personal with mackerel tabby cat, McGee. Photography by Denise LeBeau.

Tabbitude — what’s up with tabby cats and their attitudes?

What about the infamous “tabbitude?” Every feline parent is familiar with the ubiquitous cattitude. And it’s reported that tabbies have it in spades. So, is there any truth in it?

I met a wonderful mackerel tabby named McGee at my local animal shelter, North Fork Animal Welfare League. McGee is outgoing, loving and very playful — a bit too playful at times. He’d hop right up to the cat tower closest to your face, seeking copious amounts of affection. You’d be petting him and then chomp, probably just a little overstimulated. He wasn’t displaying any of the signs that he was an annoyed cat, he’d just get super excited; so excited that if you tried to move away from him, he’d jump down, rubbing his body against your legs.

Is McGee an ambassador for all mackerel tabbies? Not so fast! Gabrielle Stroup, shelter manager at NFAWL, says, “We have tabby cats come into our facility with a range of personalities. Many of them are from our community cat partners, where we take in the kittens from feral cats and adopt them out. In one litter, there are extremely friendly tabbies, extremely shy tabbies and everything in between. These are kitties who have the same mother, most likely the same father, and are all nurtured in the same way.”

So ultimately, while tabbies are considered the cattiest of cats, this is probably untrue. “Cats are individuals, including tabbies,” says Stroup, quelling the rumors about the tabby ‘tude!

And, of course, they’re all individually lovable. Mackerel tabby McGee is now demanding attention from his adoring forever family. And just like the saying, “a tiger can’t change his stripes,” it’s impossible to resist the cuteness that’s at the core of all mackerel tabby cats.

Thumbnail: Photography ©Keren_J | Thinkstock.

Tell us: Do you have a mackerel tabby? We want to hear about him/her!

Read Next: Siamese Cats Are Temperature-Sensitive Albinos, a.k.a. Walking Heat Maps

 

67 thoughts on “What Exactly Is A Mackerel Tabby Cat?”

  1. I have two tabbies that came as ferals that now come and go as they please. They really do have an attitude. No joke.

  2. Desiree Walker

    I have a beautiful male mackeral named DEVIL BOY !
    He is a wild one , but when he is ready to settle in for the night he is a sweet loving big boy. I have raised him since he was born and he is definitely my baby boy, even if he’s a LIL’ BIT of a DEVIL BOY ????. My life is so much better with him in it!! ❤️

  3. I have a mackerel tabby named Ramo (Ray for short) and he’s everything like the one described in the article. Over loving, always running, he loves to be chased and extremely loyal (wherever I’m at he lies down next to me) he recently just started to sleep on my lap if I’m sitting in a recliner. He’s perfect for our family he never scratches and is tolerant of all kids. If you’re a cat lover definitely seek out a mackerel tabby they are so much fun

  4. I had a cat that a friend told me was a Mackerel Tabby. Her most noticeable trait was that she never grew above 5 lbs and looked like a kitten for all her 16 years. She was extremely intelligent and loving.

    I have never figured out what breed she was.

    Does this breed sound familiar, and nameable, to anyone?

  5. We adopted a mackerel tabby six years ago from a no-kill shelter and named her Allegro. She walks into our bedroom vocalizing with a toy mouse in her mouth and puts it on our bed as a gift! She also enjoys eating one of my ferns (although I never see her eating it – it is clear that the fern is losing its fronds !) and stalks and eats any tiny insect that she finds on the floor. She is wonderful and we love her a lot! We also have a 14 year-old bluepoint Siamese named Aviva and they wash each other and get along well.

  6. I have 8 kitties in my care; 7 are tabby, of varying length fur and colors. What is the origin of the small dark spots on each side of the nose, just below the eyes? The orange tabbies I’ve had in the past didn’t have the spots.

  7. Amanda Aguirre

    We rescued our mackerel tabby at 4 weeks, we immediately went to the vet. They told us we had a little “boy”, so we named “him” Marbles (appropriate for “his” color). Well having an unfixed female unknown 2 year old cat already, I went back to the vet to get “him” fixed 3 weeks later. The office called before we made it home, turns out we had a girl! Well 3 years later, we brought home our Doberman puppy (clearly bigger than her) and what does she do but body slammed our 9 week old pup. Our house is full of laughter, we don’t have our other female cat anymore but our tabby, Russian blue and Doberman keep us entertained.

  8. My friend has a Mackerel Tabby named Monster, but he gets called The Mon now. He is fully grown yet only 6 pounds. He was the runt, but what he lacks in size he more than makes up in personality. He is the most affectionate, conscious, and frankly adorable little cat I have ever met. He goes for walks with us if we call him to come and he will “magically” appear on a tree branch ahead of us while we are en route. He has even come down from the branch to eye level and licked my nose a couple of times! He showed up in the pig yard one day and took me to see his Catnip plant. He looked back to see if I was following and waited for me until he knew I was coming. Then he rolled around at the base of it to show me he liked it. He has my friend and I both wrapped around his little finger. He’s every bit as engaging as a Siamese I once had, yet he very seldom vocalises.

  9. I have a mackerel tabby that adopted us. He thinks he is a dog and has a wonderful temperament. He is big and gorgeous and we love him. Before him the neighbors little tabby moved to our house as well.We were never cat people before but they seem drawn to us. Our dogs were very welcoming as well. Before everyone gets all judgmental, the neighbor was fine with it. They were gone all if the time and she enjoyed the attention we showed.

  10. Cynthia Louise Agard

    I have a mackeral kitty named Zeke. I sometimes call him Zeke. He’s a lion of a cat. He’s big for a tabby. He was the alpha male in our neighborhood, big, strong, agile, with thick skin. He had this one trick that serves him well. When facing an opponenent he likes to jump over them and turn around. Tricks them every time. He made his way on our upper deck and started eating Sari’s food. Sari was my petite rescue cat. With huge eyes and very wary. She could fend for herself so she just let Zeke be boss as long as he kept his distance but if he dared to try to attack her she screamed bloody murder and became very vicious. So he adopted our family. It was so much nicer to have a home and we are all very happy together. He’s the boss though. He has a way of getting in front of you or in your way that shows us that.

  11. Hey!! Thanks for the explanation! I’ve just adopted a tabby cat and “he” is as adorable as the one you described. Sometimes I call him “little tiger” and now it became clear the reasons I didn’t even noticed before!!
    His coat is a little different from the pictures I’ve seen, a little longer wich makes him more and more delicious to hug and pet! =^.^= thanks!!

  12. I’m a hard working sales executive and, bucking all of the cliche, I am a huge cat lover. All of my cat’s have been mackerel tabbies, very similar in colors and markings to McGee. I never knew that they were called “mackerel” so I was delighted to discover this! My last baby, rest her soul, was seventeen years old. She was my best friend, my love, my companion and it broke my heart to lose her. Then a few months ago, I went to see a kitten at a shelter and this beautiful tabby (which was not the one I had my eye on) jumped into my lap and stole my heart. I only wish I could take her with me on every business trip! Cats are truly special animals and we are lucky as humans to have created this special bond.

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  14. My mackerel tabby cat is the cutest and most playful thing in this universe! Her name is Mittens, her feet each have two black toes and three pink on the front paws, and two of each in the back. She has a bright orange spot in the middle of her forehead. She has three brown legs and one orange one.

  15. Stephanie McCurry

    Sounds like my Hunter Ray is a lot like McGee! Hunter Ray is a mackerel tabby. My soulkitty, Kitty Sunshine, sent him to me as she was getting ready to travel to the rainbow bridge. I adopted him at 8 weeks old and he’s now 1 1/2 years old. He’s been through it! He was SO sick when I brought him home but after tons of vet appointments, medicines, a surgery and taking supplements each day, he’s my healthy and happy studmuffin. He has Feline Leukemia but that just makes me love him even more. He is such a funny dude that makes me laugh on days that I don’t feel like laughing. He loves to help me do everything. He’s my little shadow and my best buddy. He loves to bite me, too. Just love bites tho. He’s partially blind in his right eye but that doesn’t stop him from running 100mph each day. I wouldn’t change one thing about him. He is my entire world and my Ray of Sunshine.

    1. Your kitty’s coloring sounds a lot like my Mia’s. She has a light orange foot, and if the fur on her back is parted in a certain way, the light orange underneath peeks through. She is the love of my life. I worked for an animal rescue, and have had many cats in my life, but Mia is by far, the most intelligent and funniest one of them all. She is a great companion and enjoys watching everything that I do. We are so fortunate to have these wonderful beings in our lives.

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  20. Sheri Van Strien

    Our Mackerel Tabby adopted us last September. Our white Lab treed him in our yard, so I put the dogs in and went to grab a ladder to help get him down. I turned around to find he followed me into our garage, and he has never left. He’s a beautiful brown tabby and has six toes on his front paws, one of which is malformed so it clicks when he walks. (He sounds like a pirate walking!) He started out so small and now lives up to his name, Moose. He is impossible to not love, even though he is the most mischievous of our four cats. He has an amazing personality! He communicates mostly using chirps and other sounds. He can meow, but he just chooses to be unique! He and Izzy, the dog who trees him, are best of friends now! They snuggle together in the kitchen all the time. He even helped me plant my garden this year! Or at least hung out while I did the work! He decided to come lay on my chest as I was writing this! I’m so glad he chose us!

    1. Hi Sheri– your kitty sounds very much like the grey/black mackerel tabby that showed up on our doorstep a month ago meowing for food and kept coming back…. of course we took him in. He chirps and purrs and meows a lot. I love having conversations with him! He can get a little overstimulated during playtime but is otherwise a sweetheart who loves being around us. I was never a cat person until he showed up. The 4am meows for playtime need to stop but otherwise he’s perfect :-)

  21. Just got a marvel tablet. Her name is eve. She’s 8 months old & very friendly. I’ve learned a few things like the biting. I now understand what it means. Also she eats alot and doesn’t seem to gain weight. Taking her to the vet for her shots she will ne an indoor cat. I really love her

  22. My Mackerel Tabby is more than just a pet. She’s is my kid and acts like it too! She came to me at 5 1/2 weeks old and she just turned 5. She is not independent at all. She is very needy, friendly, intelligent, and loveable. If I say the word “squirrley” (meaning squirrel), she runs to the window and looks out and from there she will follow the squirrel from window to window throughout the house. She has a sweet tooth. I stopped eating doughnuts because she would take her paw and pull my hand towards her trying to get a piece. If I’m eating a PB&j sandwich, I have to go into a room to lock the door. The 1st time I ever made one and left it on the bed, she took half and dragged it away. She teaches me more each day and with Ellie, it’s like being a full time mom. If I leave for more than an hour, she gets even more needy when I return. She has made my life 10x’s better and has taught me how to love myself back to health.

  23. Vivian Mansano

    I’ve adopted my mackeral last week, my Nietzsche is a baby boy. So far his health is fragile, because he was found in the sewers. But he’s getting better with medication. He’s very lovely, jumps on my lap all day, and very smart for learning the house rules. I’m totally in love with him.

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  26. I adopted my mackerel tabby Wookiee a couple years ago and he is the sweetest little guy you could ask for. He’s super affectionate and sleeps right next to me with his head on the pillow. He is also the most vocal cat I’ve ever owned, constantly”talking” to me. Wouldn’t trade him for the world

    1. I have my sweetheart Mackerel tabby named Meggie for 13 years and she sleeps with me every night and she’s the sweetest cat ever .

    2. I adopted a brown mackerel 5 years ago and he is the sweetest cat ever invented in the multiverse. He is now 9 years old and I am 81 so we are both each others forever homes. He sleeps right next to my head on his own little pillow.

      1. Awww! I love that you use the term multiverse as well. My sweet male tabby (Ollie/Oliver) naps in my bed but he rarely sleeps in bed with me at night. He tends to wake up for a drink or snack then decides to sleep elsewhere :( He’s my first cat (from a feral mama cat who also lives with me now), but she won’t let me pet her she’s just too wild. It has been almost a year that I’ve been working with feral tabby mama, and at one point she actually slept at the bottom portion of my bed while I also slept.

  27. I have one too. Weird enough her mom is a full blown ginger so i have no idea how she has all these colours but we have been noticing that her growth process is rather slow. She is still small no matter how much she eats. So I was wondering if that was because of the kind of that she is.

    1. Marianna Hampton

      I had a tiny one, 6 lb.. Her name was Peanut. She died at 18 due to kidney disease because a person I hired poisoned her with too much protein. She was one of the 2 cats I had at the time my little soulmates

    2. I also have a seemingly slow growing little female grey striped tabby. Her mama is feral (now lives indoors with me and 3 of her babies from previous two litters), and Baby’s Girl (tiny grey tabby) is barely 5 pounds. I just got her spayed. She’s not too affectionate as she spent the first 3-4 months of her life outdoors with her feral mama. I brought the feral mama and two kittens from her August litter inside in November, but they are pretty
      Indifferent towards me.

      Baby Girl eats the most out of all the cats I have! It’s baffling how she doesn’t gain weight but I think she got tapeworms from mama, I just need to give them another round of tablets again.

  28. On November 14, 2018 my family had to say goodbye to our 23.75 year old mackerel tabby named Evangelina “Evie”. I had her for 1/2 of my life and so it was extremely hard to make the final decision about her quality of life. She was the best cat companion (sorry April & Ella). Very loving and feisty at the same time. In the last years of her life, she became blind and her hind legs started giving out on her. If that cat could talk…

    1. I just got my first cat and he is a mackerel. His name is Louie he’s 8 weeks old and fantastic! I hope I will have him as long as you had your sweet kitty.

  29. I have a Mackeral furbaby name Thor. She is beautiful, loves playing fetch. Thor doesn’t like being picked up or pet unless she wants it…lolol Thor is totally a daddies girl

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  31. My girls and I adopted a rescue kitten about a month ago. They said he was an Abyssinian but he sure looks like a Mackarel Tabby. He is almost 5 months and his name is Richard Parker after the movie Life of Pi. We love him so much!

  32. I have a Mackeral Tabby female and she fits the profile perfectly. She isn’t real affectionate but will often come up and brush again my legs when I am sitting. When I try to pet her she will allow me to for 1 minute and then will bite lightly but enough to let me know to stop. She has now started trying to attack my legs when she wants to play and I am just ignoring that behavior. She is full mackeral tabby and has a large black stripe that runs down her back. Her chest is white and her paws are all white. Her name is Mittens.

  33. There is this story cat in my neighborhood and she always comes and plays with us. She is very lovable and I was surprised to see a cat that was very affectionate and lovable. I fell in love with her immediately. When she is at my door , I always come out to play with her. She also meows a lot so she basically gave her self the nickname Meow-Meow. All the kids love her , my mother doesn’t love cats but I sometimes see her with the cat and I know she likes her too. I decided I should do a little research and see what type of cat she was and now I know she’s a Mackerel Tabby Cat. I really hope she has kittens soon. I would to help her take care of her little ones!

    1. NO, NO, NO to having kittens. Shelters are full of unwanted litters trying to find homes. You will just be adding to the problem of overpopulation of cats that is caused by not getting them spayed or neutered. Thousands have to be euthanized due to lack of guardians that are perfectly healthy. If you want to be around kittens, look into fostering them at your local animal shelter, and you will be saving their lives-very rewarding. Mom cat needs no help in caring for her little ones. It’s a harder job than you think. They need to eat every 2-3 hours and then mom licks them to cause them to urinate-this is necessary if you foster, but you use a warm, damp washcloth to rub over their genitals after they eat. It’s a lot of work, but mom handles it without you even being aware of why she is licking (and drinking their urine). They are unable to go on their own at a very young age. If you are old enough to be a foster, it’s a full time job for the first month, before it becomes a bit easier. But above all, get your cat fixed so it isn’t able to reproduce.

  34. From reading this, I came to find out my kitten, Royalty, that I adopted is a mackerel. She is soon to be 3 months on the 26 of this month.

  35. I just learned from this article that my Tesla is a Mackerel! I had no idea there even was such a thing. He found me; was either a feral or wandered away from his litter and then couldn’t find his way back. He certainly has never acted feral; just the opposite. He’s VERY active and ornery but also very loving and affectionate. He loves having his belly rubbed and wants to “hold paws” with me. And chatty? Oh my goodness, yes! We carry on entire conversations!

  36. This is the best article I’ve ever read about tabbies!! Thank you so much! I have a Mackeral Tabby named Otis, who has lots of nicknames but the most common one that everyone calls him is “skinny tiger” because he walks just like a tiger (and, of course, looks like one too bc of his markings lol). He is very finicky on food though and ,therefore, is on the slim side. He’s the coolest cat I’ve ever known, though!! Even people who have never liked cats fall in love with Otis!! He lets you pick him up and he follows me all around my neighborhood when I walk my dogs! Everyone loves to watch me walk the dogs because they know the cat will be following a few yards behind us. Lol. The only thing at all that he does on the naughty side is he’s always trying to get my parakeet (but that’s only his tiger instinct), and he also softly “paws” at my feet or anyone else’s feet when he’s hungry and he even does it to the dogs! Lol. As if he’s getting on to them like they’ve got hands and a can opener or something, ha ha!! I love him so much!!! ❤❤❤

  37. My Mackerel tabby champion is a rescue my family adopted!!! He is a young adult and he’s everything this article is about. He loves to help me wake up the kiddos. He gives lovens and loves to touch your face. My champ can get over playful, but he’s a charmer. We love this boy and I am so happy we rescued him. Our Champion:)

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  39. Danny delgadillo

    Hello catsters how r u doing everyday im amazed at what I learn about the cuddly critters and the info is so thourgh thank u and keep up the good work meowing in Los Angeles CA

  40. Aw guys, you did a whole article on tabbies without actually showing the difference!! Whyyyy lol We raise Maine Coons and did a cool picture for our customers who are always asking us the same questions. https://www.facebook.com/ColossalCats.A.Maine.Coon.Cattery/photos/a.622077584534037.1073741834.589307247811071/942490932492699/?type=3&theater

    1. Hi Taylor ! Thanks for sharing that infographic. We actually do have some photos of all the different variations right here: https://www.catster.com/cats-101/what-it-means-to-be-a-tabby-cat

  41. i love your articles,, can caterwauling ,,also ,be from greiving ,,,his twin brothers death,,, ? i have twins since birth ,14 years,, cats,,,my mister died of kidney failure, last june,,,his brother,, is so lost and insure without him,,,hes doing ,,,what your saying ,,,caterwauling,,but also getting into fights with my other 2 cats, that grew up with..ive tried calming aids ,and the ones ive tried didnt work,,,

    1. He sounds like such a great pal. You could write a children’s book about him!
      This story would be perfect-I can just imagine the illustrations.
      Thanks for sharing your cat story. Really enjoyed it.

  42. We have been taking care of a feral cat that we named Snickers, and he is a Mackerel! He is gorgeous! He will now allow us to pet him and occasionally hold him. He got him neutered and vaccinated. There is a feral femal that will be spayed next, but she is a tortoiseshell cat.

  43. My mackerel tabby Derry is addicted to ‘Dreamies’, what should I do, cold turkey or wean him? It’s got to the point that he hardly eats his meat/fish, wont eat his biscuits at all. I’ve been giving him about 20 pieces a day…..p.s. he hardly touches water, even if fresh. Doesn’t like milk unless with my cereal! He is 2 in March!

  44. I am a tabby-phile and currently am owned by a mackeral and a silver tabby. The silver girl is shy while the mackeral is a crazy boy. He’s very friendly, chatty, and active. And a little bitey, like McGee. And like McGee, he seems to do it for fun, not annoyance. And I wouldn’t change a thing about him!

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