Categories: Tabby coat

What is a tabby cat?

A tabby cat can be any one of the following: a random bred domestic cat, a feral cat, a stray cat, a community cat or a purebred, pedigree cat and even a wild cat; all of which have or can have a certain type of coat. That coat is the original domestic cat coat which goes back to the beginning of the domestication of the North African wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica, aka African-Asian or Near Eastern wildcat) which itself had and still has a weak tabby coat.

Tabby Cat Facts For Kids. Photographs: copyright Helmi Flick.


As mentioned, the first domestic cat had a weak tabby coat. It’s is very similar to the one that we see today. The first domestic cat was a North African wildcat.

Comparing African wildcat and domestic tabby cat appearance

These cats evolved during 10,000 years of cat domestication. You will see paintings made by the ancient Egyptians of their tabby cat companions showing this coat. All of the early paintings only show this coat indicating that even some 4,000 years after the cat was first domesticated the tabby cat was the only cat that people owned. I suspect, though, that even the ancient Egyptians practiced some sort of informal selective breeding from time to time because they would have favoured the appearance of one tabby cat over another. This may have developed the tabby coat.

Picture of striped tabby cat. Picture in public domain.

Also when this early domesticated cat was transported to ancient Greece and Rome by Phoenician traders it spread across the European continent allowing it to breed freely with local European wild cats. When these transported cats began to mate with their European counterparts the result was a better defined and more high contrast tabby cat similar to the ones that we see today.

Although the first tabby cats had a rather poor striped and spotted pattern, today there are various types of tabby cat coat. There is the original mackerel or striped tabby which is the ancient type of tabby pattern, as mentioned, and which is close to the ancestral wild cat species. In addition there is the blotched classic tabby born out of a genetic mutation. The blotched tabby has swirls and blotches of dark markings against a brown or grey background.

The Hidden Wildcat in the Oriental Breed. Ticked tabby

These blotched tabbies first became visible in Britain in the Elizabethan era. This mutation spread quite quickly because it coincided with an era of great British expansion. The blotched tabby cat travelled with seafarers from the British Isles to all parts of the world quite quickly. The growth of the British Empire in the Victorian era encourage more spreading of the tabby coates cats to other parts of the world.

Tabby Maine Coon Brenainn. Photo: copyright Helmi Flick.

It appears that the classical blotched tabby cat became a favourite. The other types are, as mentioned, the mackerel tabby to which we should include the spotted, ticked and patched tabby coat. They are self-explanatory except for the patched tabby which is a two-tone tabby or tortoiseshell tabby sometimes called the Torbie. And the ticked tabby is a salt and pepper effect seen on the purebred Abyssinian cat and the jaguarundi wild cat.

Comparing torbie and tabby. The difference is clearer because we can see the orange of the torbie fur compared to the grey tabby fur of the tabby cat.

Origin of name

The origin of the name might interest people. It is believed to derive from the appearance of silk sold in Baghdad which is in an area that was described as the Attabiyah region. Attabiyah is a reference of the Latin “attabi”. Cats with this sort of marking became known as “tabbi cats” and this word was later modified to the word we use today, namely “tabby”.

Tabby Hair Srand


The genetics may also interest some people. The agouti gene (A) creates colour banding in the hair shafts. One band is yellowish and the next is black or very dark brown. The gene affects the way the pigment melanin is entered into the shaft from the pigment creating cell at its base (melanocytes). When fewer molecules of pigment are placed into the shaft it looks yellow compared to black when full pigmentation is created. The black pigmentation is eumelanin while the yellow pigment is called phaeomelanin.

Ticked Coat of Abyssinian Cat

A pattern is formed depending upon which band is near the surface. If there are a group of hairs with the black banding near the surface a blotch of black fur is seen by the viewer in that area. If the yellow/brown banding is near the surface a person sees brown fur. The tabby gene (Mc/mc) dictates the position of the banding and how the individual hair shafts are distributed over the body which creates either of the classic blotched pattern or the other patterns I have described.

Lithe, svelte red tabby Oriental Shorthair. Photo: ARN.

I would advise owners of tabby cats to have a close look at their cat’s fur perhaps with a hand-held magnifier. It will allow you to see the banding on the hairs and how they has a position to create the patterns.

Please read more

I would urge readers to use the custom search facility on this page at the top to find other articles about the famous tabby coat. It is the most common coat on all types of cat from feral to domestic. It is the original which is why I have gone into detail on other pages as well as on this one.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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