A tabby is any domestic cat that has a coat featuring distinctive stripes, dots, lines or swirling patterns, usually together with a mark resembling an M on its forehead. Tabbies are sometimes erroneously assumed to be a cat breed. In fact, the tabby pattern is found in many breeds, as well as among the general mixed-breed population. The tabby pattern is a naturally occurring feature that may be related to the coloration of the domestic cat's direct ancestor, the African Wildcat, which (along with the European Wildcat and Asiatic Wildcat) has a similar coloration.
In cat genetics, pattern is unrelated to color, and so the tabby coat pattern can show up in combination with a variety of coat colors, including tortoiseshell (tortoiseshell cats are called 'torties' whereas tortoiseshell tabby cats are often called 'torbies'). A cat's coat can be described as red tabby or gray tabby. Black and blue are colors that usually show up without tabby markings, but even among some cats of those colors a faint tabby pattern can be noticed. Bi-color cats can have the tabby pattern in the colored patches of their coat. For example, tortoiseshell cats sometimes display a pattern where the red-based and black-based tortoiseshell pattern is mixed with tabby markings. White spotting of any level can also appear in combination with tabby patterns; however, white is the only coat color that does not have any tabby markings.
Tabby patterns 
All those patterns have been observed in random-bred populations. Several additional patterns are found in specific breeds. A modified Classic tabby is found in the Sokoke breed. Some are due to the interaction of wild and domestic genes. Rosetted and marbled patterns are found in the Bengal breed.
Mackerel tabby 
The Mackerel tabby pattern has vertical, gently curving stripes on the side of the body. The stripes are narrow, and may be continuous or broken into bars and spots on the flanks and stomach. Often, an "M" shape appears on the forehead. Mackerels also feature a 'peppered nose, where black spots appear along the pink tip of the nose. Mackerels are also called 'Fishbone tabbies' probably because they are named after the mackerel fish. Mackerel is the most common tabby pattern.
Classic tabby 
The Classic (also known as 'Blotched' or 'Marbled') tabby, tends to have a pattern of dark browns, ochres, and black. Classic tabbies have an 'M' pattern on the head similar to that of Mackerel tabbies, but the body markings are different, having a whirled and swirled pattern with wider stripes that make what are referred to as "butterfly" patterns on their shoulders, and usually a bullseye or oyster pattern on the flank. The legs and tail are more heavily barred and the pattern is variable with respect to the width of the bands.
Ticked tabby 
The Ticked tabby pattern produces hairs with distinct bands of color on them, breaking up the tabby patterning into a salt-and-pepper appearance. Residual ghost striping or "barring" can often be seen on the lower legs, face and belly and sometimes at the tail tip.
Spotted tabby 
The Spotted tabby may not be a true pattern, but a modifier that breaks up the Mackerel tabby pattern so that the stripes appear as spots. Similarly, the stripes of the Classic tabby pattern may be broken into larger spots. Both large spot and small spot patterns can be seen in the Australian Mist, Bengal, Egyptian Mau, Maine Coon, and Ocicat breeds.
Genetic explanations 
The tabby patterns are due to 3 distinct gene loci and one modifier:
The agouti gene, A/a, controls whether or not the tabby pattern is expressed. The dominant A expresses the underlying tabby pattern, while the recessive non-agouti or "hypermelanistic" allele, a, does not. Solid-color (black or blue) cats have the aa combination, hiding the tabby pattern, although sometimes a suggestion of the underlying pattern can be seen (called "ghost striping"). However, the O gene for orange color suppresses the aa genotype, so there is no such thing as a solid orange cat.
The primary tabby pattern gene, Mc/mc, sets the basic pattern of stripes that underlies the coat. Mc is the wild-type tabby gene and produces what is called a 'Mackerel striped' tabby. 'Classic' tabbies are cats who also possess mc, a recessive mutant gene that produces the blotched pattern.
The Ticked tabby pattern is on a different gene locus than the Mackerel and Classic tabby patterns and is epistatic to the other patterns. A dominant mutation, Ta / ta, masks any other tabby pattern, producing a non-patterned, or 'Agouti' tabby, with virtually no stripes or bars. If the Ticked tabby pattern gene is present, any other tabby pattern is masked. Cats homozygous for the ticked allele (Ta / Ta) have less barring than cats heterozygous for the ticked allele. When a cat of this genetic make up is selectively bred for lack of barring and wide banding on the hair shaft the resulting pattern is referred to as shaded.
The English term "tabby" comes from the 1630s, "striped silk taffeta," from the French "tabis," meaning "a rich, watered silk (originally striped)," from Middle French atabis (14c.), from Arabic attabiya, from Attabiy, a neighborhood of Baghdad where such cloth was first made, named for Prince 'Attab of the Omayyad dynasty. Compare to Spanish "ataviar", meaning to decorate or to dress or wear (often implying very elegant and/or expensive clothing). The term tabby cat, "one with a striped coat:, is attested from 1690s; shortened form tabby first attested 1774. Sense of "female cat" (1826) may be influenced by the fem. proper name Tabby, a pet form of Tabitha, which was used in late 18c. as slang for "difficult old woman."
Since the tabby pattern is a common wild type, it might be assumed that medieval cats were of tabby type. However, one writer believed this to be untrue, at least in England. Some time after the mid-17th century, the curious antiquary John Aubrey noted that William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury was "a great lover of Catts [sic]" and "was presented with some Cyprus-catts, i.e. our Tabby-catts". He then claimed that "I doe well remember that the common English Catt, was white with some blewish piednesse : sc, a gallipot blew. The race or breed of them are now almost lost."
- A Tribute to Tabby Cats in all Their Manifestations. About.com:Cats. Retrieved on January 31, 2008
- Cat Colors FAQ Cat Fanciers. Retrieved on January 31, 2008
- "Glossary of Cat Terms". Retrieved 24 November 2009.
- Cats of a Different Color, Agouti.
- ataviar - Definición - WordReference.com. Retrieved on May 6th, 2013
- Online Etymology Dictionary
- Oliver Lawson Dick, ed. Aubrey's Brief Lives. Edited from the Original Manuscripts, 1949, p. xxxvi.
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