Skip to Content

When (and how) Tabby Cats Get Their Stripes

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

One of the most fascinating things about tabby cats is their striped coat patterns. The tabby coat pattern is so unique compared to other types of cats. I decided to do some research to figure out when and how tabby cats get their stripes.

So, how do tabby cats get their stripes? Tabby cats get their stripes through their genetic makeup. The tabby gene comes from the African wild cat which also has the striped coat pattern. Most domestic cats are tabby and mutations can cause changes to their appearance. This results in blotched, mackerel, spotted, and ticked markings.

How tabby cats developed their stripe patterns over the years is quite interesting. We’ll get into that next as well as talk about the different types of tabby patterns you can expect to see in today’s cats.

how do tabby cats get their stripes

Where Do Tabby Cats Come From

There’s a lot to be learned about tabby cats when it comes to their origination. Tabby cat genes can be traced back 9000 years ago all the way to the African wild cat. The cat we know today are direct descendants of the African wild cat. They feature many of the same unique stripes and blotches in their coat.

The African wildcat makes use of its coat for survival and for concealing themselves. Much of the same behavior traits and physical appearances of the coat and stripes are found directly in domestic tabby cats. DNA research has also tied the African wildcat to today’s domestic tabby cats.

There are 3 distinct genes that are responsible for most tabby patterns. The classic tabby (referred to as mackerel) is the base gene. For this pattern to show, the cat has to have two mc recessive genes. In addition, there are two modifiers that affect the type of tabby coat the cat has.

Depending on which gene the cat has will determine which kind of pattern is seen. For example, the Mc gene is responsible for the spotted tabby pattern. It’s a dominant gene which is why it can break through the base mackerel pattern. The ticked gene also has this effect, masking other tabby patterns that might be present on the cat.

Ultimately, the agouti gene which dictates whether the pattern is visible or not. It contains two alleles which are responsible for the different forms of the gene. The agouti gene is commonly written as A/a where the capital A represents the dominant gene and the lowercase represents the recessive gene. If a cat were to have two a/a genes, then the coat would result in a solid one not featuring the tabby pattern at all.

The agouti alleles control the amount of black pigment seen in the cat’s coat. This is why it’s possible to see tabby patterns in various colors. Below is a list of common tabby pattern colors.

  • Brown (dark spots/stripes and stripes on lighter fur)
  • Red (dark red spots/stripes on lighter fur)
  • Silver (dark grey spots/stripes)
  • Cream
  • Blue

There are two genes at play here; a dominant and a recessive gene. The combination of those genes determines which pattern variation is seen in the tabby coat.

Anything beyond the mackerel and classic tabby patterns is considered to be affected by a modifier. Of the modifiers, the ticked tabby cat has the most dominant one. The ticked tabby cat has the most broken down pattern of them all.

Types Of Tabby Cats

Now that you know a little more about how tabby cat genetics can determine their stripes and patterns, it’s time to dive into each pattern in more detail. Generally speaking, there are 4 main types of tabby cats. Below is a list of each tabby cat pattern along with a detailed description of each.

Mackerel Tabby

The mackerel tabby pattern is the most popular one found in domestic shorthair cats. It’s easy to distinguish this pattern from the rest because of how the stripes line the body of the cat. Typically there is one thick stripe that lines the entire back of the cat.

From there the patterns run vertically along the sides of the cat. Each of the lines is uniform with one another. There are usually no stripes found on the legs or paw area. The tail is also lined with the vertical stripes.

Occasionally the stripes can be found on the stomach area or even be broken up in other locations. The stripes also reach up to the cheek areas of the cat and near the M pattern commonly found on most tabby cats. Compared to the classic tabby, the lines are much more narrow and defined.

Blotched (Classic) Tabby

A blotched tabby pattern (also called classic) occurs when the cat has random spurts of stripes and shaped patterns across its body. For most tabby cats, this appears as a series of swirls across the body.

The patterns can run vertically, diagonally, horizontally, and be located anywhere on the cat. This includes the legs, stomach, back, tail, and head of the cat. The dark striped line still runs along the back of the cat and the M is still present in the forehead.

The breeds most associated with the classic/blotched pattern include the American Shorthair, Bengal, Birman, and Siamese.

Ticked Tabby

Ticked tabby cats are some of the tougher ones to distinguish because they do not look like the other tabby cats. The Abyssinian and Moggie breeds are known to carry this particular tabby pattern. The presence of the tabby pattern is not really visible on the body itself.

Instead, there are individual agouti hairs which carry the black pigment that forms stripes here and there. Agouti hairs have light and dark banding. That contrast is what creates the pattern although its difficult to see. Moggie tabby cats, for example, show the pattern on their legs, tail, back of the neck and head areas.

Other cat breeds known to carry the ticked pattern include Somali, Sinapura, and Burmilla cats.

Spotted Tabby

The spotted tabby pattern is found more on the exotic cat breeds. Unlike the other tabby patterns that feature patterned stripes and swirls, the spotted pattern is much different.

The spots are small and can be located all over the cat’s body. The pattern still follows much of what the mackerel tabby has, except the lines are broken up into smaller bits which result in spots. The leg areas typically are more together than the rest of the cat’s body.

How To Tell If Your Cat Is A Tabby

While the tabby coat pattern is present in the majority of domestic cats, it might be tough to tell if your cat is a tabby or not. Here are a few ways to tell if your cat is a tabby.

  • Look for the M on the forehead
  • Point out agouti hairs
  • Look for the striped line down the back of the cat
  • Look for blotched patterns
  • Identify certain tabby colors

Most all tabby cats feature the celebrated M hair pattern on their forehead. This is usually the quickest way to identify if a cat is a tabby cat. Also be sure to look for the light markings along the sides of their faces if the M is not well defined.

With some tabby cats that don’t display the pattern well on their bodies, you’ll need to pick out the agouti hairs. These hair are individually patterned and are not obvious right away. A typical agouti hair will have alternating dark and light coloring.

Most tabby cats have a thick stripe pattern that travels down their spine. From there the pattern of stripes or spots usually stems vertically down the sides of the cat. Also, try to point out blotched patterns or unbroken patterns. In general, most tabby cats have certain colors that make them easy to point out.

The tabby pattern is usually going to contrast with the fur color of the coat. For example, some ticked tabby cats feature both translucent coats and translucent hair. Holding your cat under certain lighting can help make those coats more visible to the eye.

Do Tabby Kittens Markings Change

Over time a young tabby kitten will see it’s markings change. Some actually display the tabby pattern much less as they age. In this case they might not actually be tabby cats, and those light markings are simply ghosted markings. This is also an indicator that the tabby gene is indeed part of your cat, but it’s not the dominant gene.

7 Cool Facts about Tabby Cat Patterns

Thursday 28th of January 2021

[…] agouti gene will dictate if the tabby cat will show a pattern [5].  A cat gets two alleles which are either dominant or recessive [5].  Two recessive alleles […]