What It Means to Be a Tabby Cat

Although cat lovers can all agree on their love for the tabby cat, many aren’t quite as clear as to what “tabby” really means.

A brown tabby cat. Photography by Casey Elise Photography.

It’s common to talk about tabbies as if they represent a cat breed. But they don’t. In fact, the word tabby denotes a coat pattern. And they don’t represent just one breed; the pattern is common to many breeds.

The origin of the word tabby has an uncertain history. Some claim the name is associated with a type of striped, patterned silk called Atabi made in Attabiah in the Middle East. Others claim that it comes from the translation of the French phrase “striped silk taffeta,” the root of which is tabis, meaning “a rich watered silk.”

Tabby cat coat colors and patterns

A tabby cat stalking and about to pounce.
Tabbies come in many different coat colors. Photography ©Daniel Rodriguez Tirad | Thinkstock.

Tabbies come in many different colors, including brown, gray and a variety of red shades often called orange, ginger or marmalade. Some have stripes and others spots and many a combination of the two. You can tell what color a tabby is by looking at the color of his stripes and tip of his tail.

The tabby pattern is determined by the agouti gene, which causes the individual hairs to have bands of light and heavy pigmentation, and the tabby gene, which denotes the type of tabby patterns, namely stripes, blotches or spots of hairs of solid color.

Research done by feline geneticists Carlos Driscoll and Leslie Lyons at the beginning of this millennium confirmed five genetic clusters, or lineages, of wildcats from various parts of the world (such as Africa, Europe, China, Central Asia and the Middle East) and dating back some 10,000 years to be the ancestors of today’s ubiquitous domestic tabbies. And, it’s easy to understand how a coat with stripes and spots could camouflage well into natural surroundings.

tabby coat patterns

A classic or blotched tabby cat.
A classic or blotched tabby cat. Photography ©VladislavStarozhilov | Thinkstock.

1. The classic tabby coat, sometimes called blotched, has wide, dark stripes curving over the flanks and the shoulders and three large stripes running from the shoulder blades to the base of the tail. It’s often likened to a marble cake.

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

2. The mackerel tabby has either continuous or broken stripes running perpendicular to the spine, like a fishbone.

The spotted tabby cat.
The spotted tabby cat. Photography by Tierfotoagentur | Alamy Stock Photo.

3. The spotted tabby has distinct round spots against a background of lighter fur.

A ticked or agouti tabby cat.
A ticked or agouti tabby cat. Photography ©grase | Thinkstock.

4. The fourth tabby coat pattern is called ticked or agouti. The coat on the body has almost no stripe. However, the legs, tail and face sport very thin stripes.

Facial features of tabbies

A tabby cat with an M marking on his forehead.
A feature common to tabbies is their facial markings that include a distinctive M on their foreheads and expressive pencil-thin striped markings around the eyes, affectionately referred to as “eyeliner.” Photography by Casey Elise Photography.

Another distinguishing feature common to tabbies is their facial markings that include a distinctive M on their foreheads and expressive pencil-thin striped markings around the eyes
affectionately referred to as “eyeliner.”

This is where legend pushes genetics aside with these intriguing notions as to how these markings came about.

  1. The prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was an acknowledged cat lover. It is said that the M marking on the forehead of the tabby cat was created when he rested his hand on the brow of his favorite cat.
  2. Christians believe that when newborn baby Jesus wouldn’t stop crying, a cat climbed into the manger and started to purr, sending him off to sleep. In gratitude, the Virgin Mary marked the cat’s face with the first letter of her name.
  3. A non-religious version suggests that the M is a set of frown lines, the result of a cat staring at a mousehole in concentration, waiting for a mouse to emerge.

Tabby cat personality traits

When it comes to personality traits, tabbies are considered friendly, happy-go-lucky cats, intelligent, sassy, very affectionate and wonderful companions. Red tabbies, often called orange, ginger and marmalade tabbies, can be feisty and bossy. But this trait is linked to coat color (as in fiery red) and not to the tabby pattern.

No matter the science behind tabbies, if you’re a cat person, you’ve undoubtedly been enchanted by a tabby cat, whether it’s your own fabulous feline, a tabby that “works” in a local store or even a cartoon tabby such as Garfield who identifies with the very human trait of hating Mondays.

Famous tabby cats

Garfield. Photography by carlos cardetas | Alamy Stock Photo.
Garfield. Photography by Carlos Cardetas | Alamy Stock Photo.

1. Garfield is the world’s most famous cartoon orange tabby.

2. The first Algonquin Cat was an orange tabby that hotelier Frank Case named Rusty. The cat was a stray and had wandered into the hotel seeking refuge from the rain. He was renamed Hamlet by actor John Barrymore, who had played the Danish prince on Broadway. All the male Algonquin cats since have been named Hamlet, and the current feline is Hamlet VIII.

Orangey the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Orangey the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Photography by Ronald Grant Archive | Alamy Stock Photo.

3. Orangey was the orange tabby that starred with Audrey Hepburn in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

4. Tabby cats feature in a myriad of advertisements on TV endorsing their popularity as beloved family members.

Winston Churchill loved orange tabbies.
Winston Churchill loved orange tabbies. Photography PA Images | Alamy Stock Photo.

5. Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice, loved orange tabbies. It was his dying wish that a marmalade-colored tabby with four white socks and a white bib and named Jock should reside in perpetuity at Chartwell, his ancestral home in Kent, England. The incumbent cat at Chartwell is Jock IV and visited by ailurophiles from around the world.

6. Morris, an orange tabby, became the world’s first spokescat for 9Lives cat food and has been one of the most recognizable tabby faces in the United States since 1969. The current spokescat is the fifth to represent the brand.

Tell us: Do you have any tabbies? What types of tabbies are they?

Thumbnail: Photography by Casey Elise Photography.

This piece was originally published in 2017.

About the author

Ziggy and Tory “work” as feline muses for Sandy Robins, an award-winning multimedia pet lifestyle expert, author and pet industry personality. They like to disrupt the workflow by playing fetch with wand toys and directing food operations in the kitchen. Learn more about Sandy at sandyrobinsonline.com.

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40 thoughts on “What It Means to Be a Tabby Cat”

  1. I have a tabby with hairs on the points of her ears and she carries her tail curled up over her back at all times. I can’t seems to find out if this is typical, or special to her. She is smart and affectionate. Any answers out there?

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  10. Where we used to live there were tons of stray cats. There was a house down the street that had a female kitty that was not fixed. They would let her have babies and then toss the babies outside after they deemed them “Old enough”. I fed the kitties but one became very attached and moved to our porch. He is a ginger tabby. My hubby named him Wildfire. We bought him a house and had him fixed. We would have fixed the others if we could afford it but we couldn’t. My husband ended up getting a job in another stated so we decided to take Wildfire with us. He had a lame leg so he was the best choice. He needed us. Shortly after living here (as in a few days) something happened . We came home from the store and Wildfire couldn’t walk. He couldn’t even hold his head up. we rushed him to the kitty ER since it was a weekend night and they didn’t know what was wrong. We didn’t have much money so they gave us a bunch of meds, an injection of liquids under his skin and sent us home. By the second day things seemed worse and I thought for sure he was done for. I even called a local vet and made an appointment to have him put to sleep as he could not eat or drink for himself or hold up his head. In fact he had seemed worse. He could not get to the potty box so I made diapers for him and kept him wrapped in a blanket. I gave him water with a dropper and fed him wet cat food that I blended with pedialyte from a baster and then something happened. He slowly started to get better. He took hi sfirst sep on Friday (almost a week later!). He wanted to live, he fought so hard and all the feedings love and his own will kept hi getting better and better. My husband swears that my will to keep taking care of him and trying to get him better even though we had an appointment did a lot to help him get better and maybe it did. I like to think we both did it. Wildfire and I as a team worked hard to make him better. When he still couldn’t walk I did physiotherapy and that is when his back legs really started working more.He always moved his little front legs but his back had just ceased to exist. We are convinced he had a stroke as he still walks slightly tilted but has become stronger. He plays now, can feed himself, use his potty box and even tries to win over his kitty brothers though they don’t want to play with him yet. His sickness freaked the soe. Our girl doggy loves him though. Wildfire is a wonderful example of what strength of will can do Every day when I pick him up and hug him and feel his strong heartbeat I a happy that he managed to live. He has even managed to get up on a chair by himself as well as the coffee table once. I have two tabby kitties, Wildfire and Boo who is a grey kitty and they are both awesome. People often think of tabbies as noting special but they are amazing!

  11. I adopted an orange tabby feral cat a year ago. He will be 2 yrs. old in Feb. 2019. He is so sweet and lovable. He loves to cuddle and sleeps with me every night lying very close to me. He listens when I tell him to “stay” until I fill his food dish. He used to jump for the food as I opened the can of cat food. I believe it was because he had to fight his way in to get his food when he was in the feral colony the first 6 mos. of his life. He has calmed down considerably with training. I just love him so much. His name is “Buffy”. Wherever I go, he follows. His colors are gorgeous! He’s a deep ginger color with all white paws and white below his chin. I am so lucky to have found him in a pet store who supports feral cats for adoption.

  12. My orange tabby is affectionate and knows how to manipulate me. I have had him about 10 years. He was under 2 years when he found me. His name is Thomas Earl Seymour because I just kept seeing more and more of him. He was good-natured, even when I had to use the soft paws nail covers; then he finally quit sharpening his claws on the carpet and was no longer required to wear them. He developed struvite crystals a few years ago and is now getting food with added taurine and encouraged to drink lots of water. He has not had a relapse.
    He is a blessing and I am happy he is a part of my (77) golden years.

  13. Over the past 25 years, my husband and I have had about 8 cats, mostly tuxedos, 1 silver gray and just got one tabby. We love them all -those gone and the ones still alive. I just wanted to point to those who have admitted here letting their animals suffer horrible deaths because they don’t want to lose their beloved cats that loving them is sparing them pain as much as possible. So if you see them suffering, do the right thing and take them to the vet for a humane, fast and painless end of life. It’s the least you can do for your little animal. Thanks.

    1. Would you put your mother down if she was suffering? Why is it humans think they have the right to decide when an animals life should end? Humans suffer & beg for doctors to end their lives, but that’s inhumane. Animals can’t ask you to end their suffering. They also can’t ask you for more time. And if you’ve lost several cats, maybe you aren’t doing everything you can to get them better. Maybe if you loved you cat like that lady loved hers & was willing to spend the time & make the effort, you wouldn’t have been through so many.

  14. I am crying at this time, because your story is simular to what I am goin through at this time with my Tabby called DJ. I can’t bare the thought of him not here on earth with me and I feel so sorry I can’t afford to take him to the Vet. , you see I just became homeless and going through tough times and I am disable. I thank you for taking time to write your story to help people like me cope with aniexty of facing when that day happens, I’ve been feeling helpless, but this cat shows me strenght, to see DJ is like seeing God’s beauty and wonders in this world. Much Grateful!!!????????????

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  16. I just lost my Orange Tabby Fluffer who was my best friend for 14 years 8 months. I’ve only been married 5 years and my wife was almost as devastated as I was. He died in our arms two days ago. I wish I could say it was peaceful. It kills me how much pain he was in. He was 24 pounds at his height, and wound up with Diabetes. That led to several strokes, seizures, ear infections,and, ultimately, organ failure. The vet had suggested putting him down last year when he had a stroke and I said no, that’s his choice, not mine. And he made a recovery that while not 100% was at least 80%. My wife says he fought off death because he knew how much I loved him and he didn’t want me to suffer if he gave up. So he fought death and won. Just two weeks ago he was running around chasing his sister. Then he must have had a stroke in the night when I didn’t see because a day after that he was stumbling around, falling down stairs, generally confused. People who aren’t pet people don’t get it. I would have given up everything I had to save him. I would have traded years of my life to add years to his. I tried protecting him as best I could and gave him the most loving environment I could. He was so sweet. He loved everyone. He even wound up liking weeks in a row just snuggling my wife and then weeks with me, and weeks where he did his own thing. He was a funny, smart, beautiful cat. I’m actually going to get a few tattoos for him: paw prints on my heart, and one that looks like him with a poem under it. I’ve lost relatives and it hurt less than this. I definitely do want more cats, I love them, and I told my wife he’d want me to pay it forward to give another cat that kind of love and it’d be a betrayal of the love he gave us not to. But not right now. The greatest thing he did for me other than love me unconditionally is teaching me how to be a better human. How is it cats and dogs can teach us to be better people? It’s just amazing.

    1. I can really relate to your story. My brown tabby, Carrie is 15 years old and surviving diabetes so far since feb 2016, but it has been extra challenging for her since we had to put down our other catdue to cancer. Carrie has been acting so depressed at times. But been showing her a lot more extra attention and love to help her get through it. Not sure if we are seeing the beginning signs of her own decline that might have happened eventually this year or some time next year. But I could tell that when the other Cat was still around she seemed to have more of an appetite and more energy. I try to spend more time with my remaining pets than I usually did. I hate that I have to leave them here alone sometimes to go to work or out of town.

      1. … and you’ll probably never find a cat just like him again, but special in other ways. Your next cat can have a totally different personality. My wife and I are proud owners of three indoor cats. Two are tabbies, and one is an English short hair. Eight years ago we decided to get a couple of rescue cats. An orange tabby (male) and a gray/white English short hair (female). They are special cats, very well behaved(especially for cats) and would listen to us when told not to do something (amazing for cats). Our orange tabby displays the cutest begging behavior, standing up on his two hind legs and putting his paws together moving them up and down, anytime he wants something, food, a door open, or anything else. He also is a copy of Garfield, the cartoon cat, in every way. In contrast, our English short hair is the most wonderful, loving cat we have ever had, we lovingly call her “our lap kitty”. Then, along came Mia! She is a rescue cat we got as a kitten, when our other two were 5 years old. She is a gray tabby with a feisty attitude and a stubbornness like we have never seen before (a force to be reckoned with). However, we accepted her into our family. Now comes the difficult part: our two originals, Sampson and Delilah, which have a great nature and are very well behaved, are picking up all of the bad traits of the new tyrant. We have our hands full keeping them straight. Cats are so special and unique! We understand and are so very sorry for your loss.

    2. I am crying at this time, because your story is simular to what I am goin through at this time with my Tabby called DJ. I can’t bare the thought of him not here on earth with me and I feel so sorry I can’t afford to take him to the Vet. , you see I just became homeless and going through tough times and I am disable. I thank you for taking time to write your story to help people like me cope with aniexty of facing when that day happens, I’ve been feeling helpless, but this cat shows me strenght, to see DJ is like seeing God’s beauty and wonders in this world. Much Grateful!!!????????????

    3. I’am like the old lady in the shoe, I got so many cats now, I don’t know what to do; I lve in Louisiana where fleas are my worst ???? eenmy, to my cat babies, my income is so small, but I would do anything to keep them housed warm in the winter and free and wild,sheltered in the summer, I feed two other cars at my minimal job,I named sister Summer, and brother winter, mostly because of their colors and personalities, I live them all, I dream of a cat planet where they are all safe from harm;so far it’s just a dream; I grieved with you at your story of your beloved friend; I pray we get them back in the next life;

    4. You loved and he loved. Just beautiful! I know the pain. I begged and pleaded with God to let me change places with JB. I only had him a year but the love I felt for that boy was indescribable. God kept me around I guess because during JB’s illness – four kittens ended up in our basement (the house apparently isn’t well sealed). My ex-husband took one of them, and I guess I’m here still because the three littles were going to need me. We now have a total of seven cats. I love the craziness of it all.

    5. Adam Smith, A lot of us can relate to the love you had for your cat. They are great companions. I’ve rescued, fostered, adopted and lost many. Saying goodbye to a beloved pet is not easy, even for us adults. But, that’s life. A time for birth, living, and dying. One of my three cats (black/white tuxedo) is laying next to me as I type. My orange tabby and brown tabby are curled up within sight. I totally get it.

  17. I based my children’s book “The Kitten’s Christmas Lullaby” on an Italian folktale. It recounts that the M on a tabby’s forehead stands for the Virgin Mary.
    I have always lived with tabby cats and have two presently – a gray and an orange.

  18. I hate how your website tells that orange tabbies are bad. This is incredibly rude and untrue. I have 24 orange tabbies, 12 greys, 16 marmalades! I love them all. They are not feisty or bossy. So there!

    1. Hi there — 
      This is an article on orange tabby cats that you might enjoy: https://www.catster.com/cats-101/orange-tabby-cat-facts

    2. Sorry they are bad. Mine (which I have had for 4 years) attacks me when I’m sleeping and also when I’m walking around the house. This cat draws blood and even though he is healthy, I have infections and even sepsis due to his bad behavior. He can be a sweetie when he wants to. I have tried every kind of intervention and nothing works!! Any suggestions are appreciated. He is outdoor during the day but I have to lock him in at night due to the feral fights.

      1. Wendy

        Your guy sounds like a feral orange tabby I adopted, my roommates pit was terrified of him. I found that the long sticks w/ feathers really helped get out his excess energy and then he was less aggressive. I added 3 cat trees as I found he just had a lot of pent up energy. Bach’s calm pet remedy also helped as I think part of his agression was due to anxiety. I had to be consistent with the squirt bottle when he bit & scratched me, which was typically in play but is still problematic. I didn’t think I’d be able to keep him although consistency & patience paid off and he became a wonderful cat.

      2. I am not sure that it is just marmalades that are bad. I have a beautiful grey and white tabby that I found on the street when he was a couple of weeks old. He is now 8 and a loving boy, BUT when I get out of the shower in the morning, afternoon and evening, he growls at me and takes chunks out of my legs. He doesn’t do it after my bedtime shower though. I think he does it after the other showers as he doesn’t want me to go out. It can’t be separation anxiety as there is always someone at home and we have another cat. Apart from that e is a darling. My other is a grey and white spotted tabby who just sits on the toilet seat when I am showering.

    1. I love this info, but is it true? No sites I have visited state this. Please get back soon, it is important!

      P.S I LOVE TABBIES. I already have 3!

  19. Jackie in Seattle

    I, too appreciate and love tabbies. I shared a home with one for 12 years; he succumbed from type2 diabetes we treated together for 3 years. He was a young stray 1-1/2 years?) that showed up in our garden when my husband was salmon fishing and cleaning them in the yard…’nuf said. I also , very soon, acquired a mom cat with 4 feral kittens, 6 weeks old. As they got older and weaned, mom decided she didn’t want their company…so……Tabby actually took over “baby sitting” them. When they occasionally escaped into the yard, he was out there, maneuvering them back into the house. He curled up with them, if they needed that. It was amazing. The kittens eventually became social; Tabby and one of them formed a relationship….rather Marcus relied on Tabby to curl up with. Tabby was sometimes cranky about it all, but let Marcus sleep with him. This went on for 11+ years. When Tabby passed on, Marcus was a bit lost. I took extra pains to cuddle him. He became my lap cat and my pal Here’s to tabbies and orange cats.

  20. My current cat, Spunky, is a tabby and actually the first tabby cat I ever had. My first cat was a Siamese and my second a Tuxedo. I can honestly say that Spunky is the most playful, affectionate, smart and loving cat of all. Love my Spunky cat and now feel the tabby cat is the best of all.

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