The Truth About Tabby Cats
Can You Handle The Truth?
Whether you can handle it or not, I'm here to tell it to you. I figure there's nobody more qualified to tell the truth about tabbies than a tabby cat, right? So here I am. Speaking the truth about tabbies, whether you're ready for it or not.
I'm sick of tabbies being the default house cat in this culture. Tabbies are totally marginalized by film and print media in this country. If you want common, if you want generic, if you want your basic, dull-as-dirt cat, you get a tabby. You'll get a black cat if you're going for spooky. A white cat, maybe with long fur, if you want elegant; a Siamese if you want "exotic". But if you want Jo (or Joe) Average, find yourself a tabby!
(Wow. Maybe the real problem here is that you humans are kind of racist. Yeah, that's right, I said it! I mean, don't get me wrong, I don't like other cats that much. Cats are not naturally gregarious. We are a noble, independent species, hunting by ourselves, living our own lives. But at least I dislike other cats equally, without projecting crap like "elegance" or "bad luck" onto them. Jeez, you people!)
But I digress.
It's an outrage that tabbies are stereotyped as being "generic". Sure, there are a lot of us. But have you ever stopped to think about why that is? Thousands of years of evolution, baby! The mechanism of natural selection has seen to it that I am a finely-honed killing machine of deadly stealth. You may think I'm "common", but if you keep reading you'll discover just how many different kinds of tabbies there are in the world. We're a very diverse group. And besides, instead of thinking I'm "ordinary", maybe you should consider me to be "well-adapted" or "genetically effective". It's time to for you to appreciate me for the marvel of evolution that I am.
What is a Tabby Cat?
"Tabby" is not a breed of cat, it's a coat pattern. Tabby patterning occurs in recognized breeds, mixed breed and feral populations.
Tabby Coloration in the Wild - because it just works.
My close relative, the African Wild Cat. Image credit: Sonelle at wikimedia commons
Our tabby stripes help us melt into the grass, the trees, and the shadows. We wait there, ready to pounce, unseen by unwary prey. Or, for that matter, by humans. One of my favorite things to do is to hang out in the yard, in plain sight, while Addy looks for me.
There are other animals with tabby-type coloration. Zebras are well-known for their black and white stripes. Tigers, my distant relatives, are characterized by their orange and black stripes. For both animals, their dark-and-light striping helps them to blend into their surroundings.
In domestic cats, the tabby pattern is believed to be inherited from our direct ancestor, the African Wild Cat. This cat, Felis sylvestris, is similar in size to the domestic cat -- 3 to 6.5 kg, or 6 to 14 lbs.
We're not "ordinary", we're marvels of adaptation!
This is me. Do I look familiar?
Different Types of Tabbies
We don't all look like Garfield, you know.
Tabbies are known for a distinctive mark on our foreheads that looks the Roman alphabet letter "M". Other than that, tabby coats are very divergent.
Abyssinian or "ticked" tabbies don't appear to have stripes at all. Each of their hairs is striped, breaking up the overall pattern for a more muted look.
"Classic" tabbies have a swirled pattern on their sides, like a cinnamon roll.
Mackerel tabbies, like the one shown here, are the most common (statistically, that is!). This coat pattern is characterized by vertical stripes which are sometimes broken into bars or even spots.
These three types are not always easy to distinguish visually. For example, I'm a mackerel tabby, but my body stripes aren't crisp, because my fur itself is striped, giving my coat (if I may say so, and of course I may) a beautiful subtlety. Unlike a cat on the extreme end of the "ticked tabby" spectrum, I have spots on my belly, and distinct stripes on my chest, paws, and tail.
Abyssinian Tabby. These cats have the "ticking" gene, showing their stripes on their tails, paws, and in the M on their forehead
We come in two basic colors, and an infinite variety of hues
Humans have assigned us two basic colorations. The "classic" tabby color is black and brown. The "silver" tabby color is black and light gray or white.
This is, however, a typical human oversimplification. Tabby patterning exists in a limitless variety of shades, from dark brown to palest orange, and from black to blue-gray. Some tabbies are bi-colored, like my co-kitty, Piglet, whose tabby genetics show up on the colored portions of her coat. Others can be tri-colored, like calicos and tortoiseshells, who often show their tabby stripes in their orange and brown patches.
The cat in the picture is a "silver" tabby by coloration, and a "classic" tabby by markings. You people sure do like to confuse things!
Silver Tabby Cat
Black and Brown Tabby Cat
By now, you may be asking yourself, "How can tabbies possibly exist in so many patterns and colors?". Well, the answer to that question lies in our genes and how they express themselves. It gets a little complicated, and I know you're working with a mere human brain there, but do try to keep up, will you?
It helps to remember that capital letters represent dominant genes, and lower-case letters represent either recessive or inactive genes.
To start with, feline coat pattern and feline coloration are genetically independent of each other. That means that my tabby stripes are governed by different genes than those that determine my gray color.
The agouti gene, A/a, determines whether a cat is a tabby or solid-colored. This gene causes each individual hair to be variegated -- orange at the root and black toward the tips. In its recessive form, aa, the tabby coloration is masked completely and the cat appears to be a solid color. That being said, I've seen black cats with very faint tabby striping that shows up when they lie in the sun.
The primary tabby patterning gene, mc, is what determines the type of tabby pattern expressed on a cat's coat. In its dominant form, Mc, the gene expresses mackerel stripes. In its recessive form, mc, (remember, recessive means that a copy of the gene must be received from both parents) the gene expresses the "classic" tabby pattern of swirls or "bulls-eyes".
The gene for "ticking", Ta/ta, is a secondary tabby pattern gene, resulting in an tabby with no visible pattern except for the "M" on its forehead. Abyssinian cats are an example of this pattern. In its dominant form, this gene masks all the other tabby patterning genes. In its homozygous form, meaning that the cat inherited two copies of the gene, one from each parent, have even less barring than cats with one copy of this gene.
Tabby Genetics: Color
From deep red, to pale gold, to silver, and beyond!
Tabby coloration is governed by other genes. These genes interact with the patterning genes to create an infinite variety of unique individuals.
The gene for orange coloration, O/o, suppresses the recessive agouti genotype I talked about earlier. This means there is no such thing as solid orange cat -- gingers are always tabbies. Another interesting fact about the O/o gene is that it's an X-lined dominant trait. That means that a male cat with one copy of the gene (O/o) will be orange, but a female cat needs two copies of the gene (O/O) to be orange. If a female cat has one copy of the gene (O/o), she'll be a tortoisehell or a calico, with at least some tabby striping on her orange spots.
The gene for Black and Brown coloration is a little more complicated. In its dominant form, Bb/b, brown or "chocolate" color is expressed. A mutation called Ba, expresses a lighter shade of brown called "cinnamon".
What about lighter colored tabbies? I'm glad you asked. Lighter coloration occurs because of the Dense pigment gene, D/d. If a cat receives two copies of the recessive form of this gene, d/d, black fur becomes "blue" or gray, brown or "chocolate" fur becomes "lilac", cinnamon fur becomes "fawn", and orange fur becomes "cream".
Orange Tabby Cat
Tortoiseshell Tabby Cat
Other genes that affect tabby cats
actually, there are more, but these are the important ones.
There are a few more genes that determine a tabby cat's appearance.
The first one is the C/c gene, which determines whether coloration will take place at all. If a cat inherits two of the recessive copies of this gene, the c/c alleles, she will be an albino. The temperature-sensitive albino variant cs/cs is the "Siamese" mutation. Some cats with this variant have tabby striping on their faces, ears, paws, and tails.
There are other temperature-sensitive recessive alleles that are active in Burmese and Tonkinese cats, but since they're not tabbies, I won't go into those here.
The second is the W/w gene. This dominant gene suppresses all other coloration genes, meaning that any tabby patterning will be masked. Cats with the w/w allele will have normal coloration.
The third is the spotting gene, S/s This gene has variable expression. A cat with one copy of the dominant gene will have white on less than 50% of its body, and a cat with two copies of this dominant allele will have white on more than 50% of its body.
Finally, there is a gene that codes for fur length. This gene, L/l, expresses short hair in its dominant form and long hair in its recessive form.
CFA recognized breeds that accept tabby patterning
Addy's sister thinks that the idea of "pure-bred" animals dates back to a Victorian obsession with eugenics. I can certainly tell you that cats don't care about such things. I include this list to show just how popular tabby coloration is, and how irrepressible those tabby genes are.
- Abyssinian (ticked)
- American Bobtail
- American Curl
- American Shorthair (the Classic pattern)
- American Wirehair
- Birman (tabby points)
- Colorpoint Shorthair (tabby points called "Lynx Points")
- Egyptian Mau (the original spotted tabby)
- Exotic (shorthaired Persians)
- Javanese (Lynx Points)
- Maine Coon
- Norwegian Forest Cat
- Ocicat - selectively bred to create the spots
- Oriental (112 tabby combinations allowed)
- Ragdoll (Lynx Points)
- Rex (Devon, Selkirk, and Cornish)
- Scottish Fold
- Singapura (ticked tabby)
- Somali (longhair ticked)
- Turkish Angora (14 allowable tabby patterns/colors)
- Turkish Van (6 tabby patterns/colors)
Because you're just dying to know, I can tell.
Phenotype refers to the genes that are visibly expressed, as opposed to "genotype", which is the genes inherited from both parents. The question marks refer to the genes that are unknown because the dominant form of the gene is clearly expressed, meaning that I inherited it from at least one parent, but what I inherited from the other parent is unknown.
Addy, who has way too much time on her hands, believes that my phenotype is:
A/? because I am a tabby, and not a solid-colored cat;
Mc/? because I am a mackerel tabby;
ta/ta because I have stripes all over my body;
B/? since I'm not brown, I express the dominant "black" coloration;
d/d because I'm grey, not black, I clearly inherited two copies of the "diluted pigment" allele.
Furthermore, since my coat has no white on it at all, she figures that I am
w/w because my coat expresses color;
s/s because I have no white spotting;
L/? because I have short hair, not long hair, I have the dominant allele for hair length.
My phenotype. A/?, Mc/?, t/t, B/?, d/d, C/?, w/w, s/s, L/?
Tabby Facial Markings. In this picture you can see my "eyeliner" and the "pencil markings" on my face.
This view shows that my fur is variegated. It's a creamy color at the root and darker toward the tip.
not as interesting as mine, of course
Piglet is my co-kitty. Why is she called Piglet? Well, if you ever heard her eat, you wouldn't need to ask! Addy calls her my sister, but just between us, I think she's adopted.
Piglet is a Maine Coon mix. Maine Coon cats are a naturally occurring breed that evolved to adapt to harsh winters. They have long fur, especially on their bellies, tufts of fur between their toes, and tufted ears. Their fur is somewhat shorter around their heads and necks, where it's harder to groom. This makes their coats much easier to take care of than many longhairs.
Like many Maine Coons, Piglet is has an easy-going temperament. She's also pretty big, weighing in at 16 lbs, but I made sure she never figured that out.
Addy thinks that this is Piglet's phenotype:
A/? because she is a tabby;
Mc/? because is a mackerel tabby;
ta/ta she has stripes;
b/b because she's brown
D/? because she's dark brown, instead of a paler color, she has the dominant allele for dense pigmentation;
Additionally, Piglet has the following alleles:
w/w because her coat has some color;
S/s because she has white on half her body, she clearly inherited only one copy of the "spotting" gene
l/l because she has long hair, she must have inherited two copies of the recessive allele for fur length.
Piglet, my co-kitty. She's a bi-color Maine Coon mix, brown tabby with white.
Piglet's Phenotype. A/?, Mc/?, t/t, D/?, C/?, w/w, S/s, l/l.
Piglet's white spotting hides the tabby "M" on her forehead.
In this view, you can see some of Piglet's tabby facial markings -- her "eyeliner" and some "pencil markings".
Piglet's indistinct stripes: her fur is dark at the root and lighter at the tip. Addy's not sure what gene causes this!
The truth about tabby cats.
I hope I've been able to open your eyes about tabbies. Tabbies are a beautifully diverse group of cats. Our coats express an infinite variety of individual color and pattern; we can have short or long hair, we can have white spots or not, we can have starkly visible stripes or nearly invisible ones, and we come in every color from black and brown to red and cream. The one thing we have in common is that our coloration means we're well-adapted to our role as stealthy predators.
Tabbies been around for tens of thousands of years -- because we work!
All right, that's enough with the camera.
All images copyright Addy Bell, except for the following, which were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons:
Image Credit: Abyssinian Tabby
Image Credit: Black and Brown Tabby
Image Credit: Calico Tabby
Image Credit: Classic Tabby
Image Credit: Mackerel Tabby
Image Credit: Orange Tabby
Image Credit: Silver Tabby
Image Credit: Tortoiseshell Tabby
Got a great story about how incredibly awesome tabbies are? Share it here!