4 Things to Know About Tabby Cats

An orange cat on a dark hardwood floor, looking up.
An orange cat on a dark hardwood floor, looking up. Photography by Murika/Thinkstock.

Considering that the tabby pattern is the most common of all cat coat patterns, you might have a tabby cat, 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.

1. Those cool tabby cat patterns have a scientific reason

Closeup of a brown tabby cat's whiskers.
That tabby cat coat is actually good camouflage. Photography by darkbird77/Thinkstock.

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. 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.

2. The tabby cat coat may be the oldest cat coat in existence

A happy gray cat sleeping.
A tabby cat might have the oldest cat coat in existence. Photography ©infinityyy | Thinkstock.

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 (see above!).

3. There’s some fascinating folklore associated with tabby cats

An orange tabby cat with his eyes closed or eyes blinking.
There are tons of stories out there about how tabbies got the “M” on their foreheads. Photography ©Pshenichka | Thinkstock.

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.

4. Tabby cats were persecuted at one point in time

A tabby cat stalking and about to pounce.
Tabby cats were victims of false superstitions. Photography ©Daniel Rodriguez Tirad | Thinkstock.

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 religion 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.

Tell us: Do you have a tabby cat? What folktales have you heard about them? Tell us about your tabby cat in the comments!

Thumbnail: Photography by Murika/Thinkstock.

Learn more about your tabby cat with Catster.com:

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.

27 thoughts on “4 Things to Know About Tabby Cats”

  1. I have a tabby cat that has big ears and one gray spot on his belly with leppard spots and he is very mean .he loves to bit until he draws blood. I’m not sure wat other breed he is but he bites at me like I’m a piece of meat. How do I break him. I’ve tryed everything. And he’s really keen on hearing things with his big ears.

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  3. Hi We have two female tabbies, one grey tabby named Callie and a TortaTabby (that’s what the rescue called her) named Rosie. Callie loves attention, Rosie is crazy and always bugging poor Callie. They both love food, including people food (which they’re not allowed to eat), is loving food a tabby trait? Or are our cats just allways hungry?

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  5. When my sweet 10 year old Mackrel Tabby lies in my lap to nap. I can’t stop looking at the beautiful lines on her face. The perfect symmetry, the eye liner, the little nose with a beauty mark, she is perfection!

  6. I simply adore my 3 Tabby siblings who came to me at 4 weeks old as fosters for our local shelter–and never left. The shelter had named them Zip, Zap & Zarko….most shelters have a “letter of the day” and name the dogs & cats brought in using that day’s letter. There were 2 boys and one little girl…and I said hmmmm….2 boys and a girl…Peter, Paul & Mary…and that’s been their names ever since. Four years later, Peter & Paul and their mini-cat sister: Mary are the sweetest most loving angels a cat mom could ask for!

  7. I share my home and life with a nine-year-old mackerel-tabby/torbie girl named Isana. I never had to look for a cat because she found me! I started noticing a skinny kitten wandering around my apartment complex, so I started feeding her. A couple weeks later, she moved in and I told her “trust me; this’ll work out great for both of us” and the rest is history. Trained her to use a litter box; had to play the role of Mom-cat with help from veterinary websites on how to box-train a cat who had never seen a box before. She is an adorable lap-cat who sleeps right next to my shoulder every night. She likes to eat well and I enjoy feeding her, so she’s a little on the chubby side. I love her as a furry daughter who is my ‘baby.’ She is social around other people, likes to check out the back yard after meals and gets feisty with petting and brushing and she gets lots of attention! Known quite a few tabbies over my lifetime; they ARE THE BEST!

  8. We just had a young spotted Tabby turn up at our house. She is so beautifully marked with those spots.
    I have taken photos of her and
    And sent them to the local veterinarians.
    We have other cats inside so my husband fixed her a place of her own on the screened in back porch.
    Hope we find her owners..

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  10. One of my 4 cats is a tabby. His name is Tiger. His brother, Blacky is an all black cat. Their sister, Booties and their mom, Patches are both tuxedo cats. My cats are ferals, Patches had her kids behind my shed. When she brought them out into my backyard, I brought them all in to live in the house. Patches I had been working with and she had gotten to the point where she would walk into the house to eat and be ok with the door closed. On that day, she walked in to eat and the door closed behind her. Tiger was the easiest, he just hopped right onto my hand like “TAKE ME!” Then, Blacky, who fought me a little bit, but then said “well, since you insist, ok” then got on my hand, and away he went. Then it was time for Booties…who absolutely did NOT want to go. She really fought…and tried to get away by going into a cypress tree. When I finally got my hands around, she was screaming at me. I carefully and gently got her out and put her in a box, then off went the box into the cat room where her brothers were. Then, I got Patches out of the kitchen and put her in there. I had a dog at the time, and I didn’t want the dog hurting the cats. After my dog died, the cats got the run of the house. Anyway, Blacky was mad at me…for a week, he would hiss at me every time I came in. Booties was more mad…she did it for a month. But, then, in time, they both realized that they actually have a REALLY good life here. Tiger and Blacky love to jump on my lap and sleep. Booties started doing that too recently. All of them LOVE getting attention…Patches has finally after 3 years started warming up to my brother. Tiger likes him too. As for Booties and Blacky? They still run away and hide when he is over. Patches used to do that too.

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  12. I have had 4 beautiful Manx cats 4- 30 years ,,, Awesome cats more dog like then cats. They went just about everywhere with me .Loved water, liked 2 play in the bathtub with shower running . Playing fetch was always a blast !!! Going 4 walks to the park, and getting 2 go 2 the store & pick her OWN food!
    Tomarrow morning I am going to go pick~up two 8 week old tabby sisters,,,
    We love all animals, We have two medium size dogs that have been missing a kitty ,and tomarrow we will all be happy ????????????????

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  14. kristen tully

    i love my tabby cat named Sabrina. She is friendly has m on her forhead. very brown black and she loves water. She comes in the shower with me on the tub rail.

  15. My two tabby cats, a male and a female, are close to the same age and often find them cuddled up sleeping together. I notice they make grunting sounds often and my female cat makes lots of trilling sounds, which I was surprised at when I first brought her home from the pet shelter. Love these two cats!

  16. I have 3 cats right now one is a tortie, one is a brown striped tabby and the third is a grey tabby. I love cats, I’ve had per cats my entire life.

      1. I took in a pregnant 4 mo old stray (tabby!) over the summer who then had six kittens, they can totally become pregnant at 4 months. It’s recommended to spay kits by 3 mos for exactly that reason! Male kittens are shooting live ammunition by 4 months too!

        I kept one, he’s a *long-haired* mackerel, so cool!

  17. Most of my cats have been Tabby markings. Our last 2 adoptees (that we have now) are both Tabby and so close in color that we can only tell them apart by the fluffy tail on one and feathery tail on the other (both girls). Our very first cat that we got as a kitten was a tabby with white paws so we called her Mittens.
    Our friend is partial to orange tabbies and has had several over the years.
    I read once that Tabby cats were like black cats and least likely to be adopted from a shelter (most preferred a flashy calico or other colors). Cats are like people, it is what’s inside (not the outside) that counts!

  18. Ive always loved Tabby cats. When I was a kid we had a tabby and I was told, and at the time totally believed, that the m mark showed that it was my cat because m is the initial letter of my name. Though I now know this is not the case I still find myself drawn to them because deep down I still think of them as Mels cats.

  19. I own 8 cats – 2 red tabbies, 1 grey/brown tabby, 1 black (also a tabby?), a1 torti, and a tuxedo. My red-heads are the friendliest. I have had multiple grey tabbies in the past.

    I have also fostered multiple kittens in the past, many of them being tabbies.

    Each tabby I have known has their own little quirks about them, but they are ALWAYS good friends.

    1. My Jasper is a black tabby. Each of his hair shafts is whitish but the tip of each hair shaft is black. He looks black until he is in the sun and then you can see his faint tabby markings.

  20. I rescued four kittens that were born in the woods. Shockingly one four month old kitten was pregnant and had seven babies. I also rescued the mother cat that was having all the babies in the woods. Got these babies all fixed and adopted through “Critter Harbor” in Superior, Wisconsin. I kept the first one and one of the last ones that were born in the woods. One is a beautiful tabby that I’ve had for ten years. All he cares about is being loved and food. He also loves playing “fetch.” He’s still afraid of other people so, he hides when someone comes over. He is the most loving cat I’ve ever had.

  21. I’ve always been drawn to orange tabbies, but have never heard the fokelore. What wonderful tales!! Proof how revered and respected cats are.

  22. Tabbies are the best cats – at least they have always been my favorites. I went to catholic school and definitely grew up with the Virgin Mary legend. Whatever the mean may mean or not mean, they are still gorgeous!

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