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The Tabby Cat Explained: Our Little House Tigers

The Tabby Cat Explained: Our Little House Tigers

You’ve likely encountered a tabby cat at some point in your life. These little house tigers wear a common pattern for domestic cats. It’s the most recognizable cat in the world, but some may be surprised to learn it isn’t an actual breed. So, who are these little tigers kitties, and where do they come from? 

Keep reading to learn what a tabby cat is and why they’re so popular. Let’s get roaring…or meowing, rather.

What Is a Tabby Cat? 

A tabby is a common coat pattern in domesticated cats. They often resemble the markings of a tiger. Some people mistakenly think they’re a breed, but it’s referring to the specific coat of a cat. And they always have an “M” on their forehead between their eyebrows; it’s their signature mark.

The term tabby referred to “striped silk taffeta” from the French word, tabis. It can be dated back further to the 14th century to the French word atabis, which is thought to in reference to a district in Baghdad, called Attabiy, which made silk. However, the term tabby wasn’t used to refer to striped cats until about the 1690s.

Now, “tabby cat” is a widely-used term, primarily for the striped kitties we’ve described. However, we’ve heard some people use the term for any cat, particularly strays or sassy ones.

Tabby cat coats show up in four different patterns. You’ll find a mackerel, ticked, spotted, and classic tabby. Mackerel is the most common pattern with vertical and curved side stripes, like a zebra pattern. On the forehead, there’s an M-shape. And there are dark lines from the cat’s cheeks to their eyes.

The spotted tabby takes on the look of a cheetah. It has stripes and spots. The ticked pattern has a subtle pattern, making it the most difficult to identify. Ticked is a sand-like design. Finally, the classic tabby has a swirled pattern over the entire coat.

What Color Is A Tabby Cat?

The tabby cat coat pattern shows up in several different colors. You’re likely to see them with black-based or gray coats. The pattern can also be brown, gray, cream, or orange. You will even sometimes see calico tabby cats that have orange, gray, and brown fur in the striped pattern.

Orange is on the X chromosome for cats. Therefore, 80 percent of orange tabby cats, affectionately known as gingers, are male. Females require two X chromosomes to get orange fur, which makes it rare and why there are only around 20 percent recorded. However, females aren’t rare in other tabby coat patterns.

calico tabby
Tabby cats come in gray, orange, or mixed base colors like calico, shown above.

What is a Ghost Tabby Cat?

A ghost tabby cat refers to an all-gray or all-black cat with faint striped markings only seen in special lighting circumstances or when they are very young. Ghost tabby kittens are more common, and as they grow up, the striping fades away into their solid coat color. However, some cats hang onto their stripes, and these ghost cats are considered rare.

All-gray tabby cats are referred to as smoke tabby cats. All black tabby cats are sometimes called “melanistic black tabby cats.” Melanistic refers to excess pigment in the skin, causing a black-on-black situation where some of the black hairs are just ever so slightly darker.

ghost tabby kitten
All black tabby kittens generally lose their stripes as they grow, earning them the name “ghost tabby.”

How Long Is A Tabby’s Fur?

Tabby cats can have short, medium, or long fur. Many cat breeds have tabby stripes or markings, regardless of their length of fur. For instance, Maine Coon cats are long-haired tabby cats, whereas Egyptian Maus are short-haired striped cats.

There are also ragdolls, a long-haired breed, that have tabby pattern features. Their coat is unique and has various colors and bi-color shading around their face, legs, and tail. Ragdolls are also known for their blue eyes. However, if a ragdoll looks like a tabby cat it’s likely not a pure-bred ragdoll but instead has a parent that is a different domestic breed.

what is a tabby cat
“M” marks the spot on the forehead of short or long-haired tabbies.

What Is the Difference Between a Tabby Cat and Other Cats? 

The only difference between a tabby cat and other cats is the markings on their coats. Since these cats aren’t an actual breed but a cat coat category, there are no distinct differences in traits and characteristics. However, their striped coat can have advantages when it comes to hunting.

The patterns on tabbies can keep them camouflaged when they’re outdoors. Similar to tigers and leopards. This helps them blend into their surroundings, like grasses and shadows, and potentially sneak up closer to prey before the pounce, increasing the likelihood of success. So, if your tabby is an outdoor or indoor-outdoor cat you’re probably greeted with rodent gifts from time to time. Or if you have the misfortune of a mouse in the house, your kitty will likely eradicate the situation quickly. 

What’s Special About Tabby Cats? 

Since tabby cats are quite common and appear across a wide range of breeds, they are a beloved symbol of the feline world. Most people have encountered a tabby, and most cat owners have had the pleasure of caring for at least one. (Our family has had several!) If you go to a shelter to get a cat, you’re guaranteed to see tabby cats.

Like most cats, tabbies can be friendly, cuddly, and excellent family pets. They tend to be social and get along with all ages, including children. And they like to play. So, having toys available is essential. 

The beautiful coat of a tabby is gorgeous and eye-catching, no matter which breed we’re talking about. From the American Shorthair to the Bengal cat, these felines are iconic to cat lovers worldwide. Plus, who doesn’t want a cute little tiger kitty?

How Long Do Tabby Cats Live? 

A tabby cat’s life expectancy isn’t explicitly tied to its markings. Instead, it depends on its breeding and care. But typically, tabby cats will live between 12 and 15 years old. However, they can live to be over 18 years old.

With regular vet check-ups, vaccines, and a healthy diet, cats can live longer than those without. It’s also important to note that outdoor cats are at greater risk of health issues and predators. So, indoor tabbies are more likely to live longer.

If you have an indoor-outdoor cat, we recommend microchipping in case it gets lost. And we highly encourage you to avoid declawing any cat

kitten playing with a toy
The little indoor tigers are adorably playful and worth every minute of our attention.

Our Little House Tigers Are Worth It

Tabby cats, our little in-home tigers, are the cutest happy felines to come home to. They’re fun and can play for hours. But they’re also cuddly and excellent family pets. It’s easy to see why they’re a popular pattern among cat owners.

What’s your favorite tabby coat pattern? Let us know in the comments below!

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About Caitlin Morton, Petrics Co-Founder

Cait has had animals her whole life, from family cats and dogs as a child, to caring for the class reptiles over breaks, to getting her first horse at the age of 12. She swears she never would have gotten through her Business Management degree without the help of her late soul dog, Mocha. She's worked in animal shelters in roles from kennel staff, management, and as a board member for over a decade, and has a serious case of the animal welfare bug.
At house parties, she's that weird friend that makes friends with the host's dog or cat instead of with other people. Currently, Cait travels full-time by RV with her husband Tom and their rescue dog, Luna.
She started Petrics to share her passion for the wonderful world of pets with others.

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