Let’s Talk Tabby: Identifying Cat Coat Patterns

A tabby cat is a cat of any breeding that displays a coat pattern featuring stripes, swirls, dots and rings.  The tabby pattern is determined by the agouti gene which controls the distribution of pigment within each hair of the cat.

Diagram of Agouti color banding on individual hairs Image: © http://www.catterypatchwork.nl

While the tabby pattern is common in many breeds, it is not a breed in and of itself.  Both longhair and shorthair coated cats may exhibit a tabby pattern. You will find tabby cats in a vast array of coat colors as well, ranging including cream, cameo, lilac, seal, gray, silver, red, brown, golden, cinnamon, chocolate, blue and black smoke.


There are 4 distinct tabby patterns:  Classic Tabby, Mackerel Tabby, Spotted Tabby and the Ticked Tabby.

Let’s take a look at the key features of each here:

The Classic Tabby Pattern

This tabby pattern is characterized by broad bands of dark striping against a lighter background.  On the forehead between the eyes there is a characteristic “M”, on each side of the cat you will see a concentric swirl called the “bullseye”, on the back between the shoulders there is a lighter area knowns as the “butterfly”, and 3 dark stripes follow along the spine.  Additionally, many classic tabbies will have spotted bellies and striped bands around the neck and down the legs. These striped markings are known as necklaces and bracelets.

The Mackerel Tabby Pattern

Like the Classic tabby, the Mackerel tabby also sports a characteristic “M” on its brow.  The stripes of the mackerel tabby tend to be narrower though, and run vertically across the body of the cat.

The Spotted Tabby Pattern

The spotted tabby pattern is most frequently seen in the Australian Mist, Bengal, Egyptian Mau, Maine Coon, and Ocicat breeds. This tabby pattern is generated by a color modifier that interrupts the stripes of the Classic or Mackerel tabby patterns and creates the appearance of spots instead. In some cases you will note three distinct coat colors within the spotted tabby pattern: a dark ring surrounding a lighter “spot”, both of which rest on a lighter still base coat color (see photo examples below).

The Ticked Tabby Pattern

Unlike the previous tabby patterns, ticked tabbies may show few visible stripes across their bodies.  The striping instead occurs on each individual hair within the cat’s coat, as determined by the agouti gene.  Many ticked tabbies will display barring or “ghost striping”  on the legs and tail, and may also show a darker line down the spine.