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Tabby cat colour and pattern genetics

Tabby cat colour and pattern genetics

Breed Facts

Tabby is one of the most common coat patterns for the cat, and is also a catch-all phrase that is usually used to describe a variety of different patterns and markings that all fall under the tabby heading. While at a glance all tabby cats might look fairly similar, in reality, there is a lot of possible variance in the patterning of the tabby coat, and what coat pattern any tabby possesses will come down to the genetics of their parentage, and what colour and pattern genes they receive.

In this article, we will look at the genetics behind the tabby cat coat patterns, and the different forms that this can come in.

Tabby cat coat variants

There are four basic variants of the tabby coat pattern, and to say that a cat is tabby refers to the pattern itself, rather than the colours involved in the pattern. Tabbies can be found in either mackerel, classical, ticked or spotted, and many cats also have partial tabby markings along with white patches, or sometimes other colours too.

Mackerel tabby

Mackerel is the most common tabby pattern, and the one that most people mean when they simply say that a cat is a tabby. Mackerel consists of a tiger-like pattern of stripes along the vertical, as well as on the legs and in rings around the tail. The mackerel pattern is common in moggies, but can also be seen on breeds including the Manx, Siberian, Norwegian forest cat and some Rex breeds.

Classical tabby

The pattern known as classical tabby is a pattern that is based on stripes, but which are thicker than the mackerel pattern and may also possess swirls, spirals and bulls-eyes. This pattern is genetically recessive, meaning that in order to possess it, the cat in question must inherit the gene from both parents and not just one. This too makes it the least common of the four tabby variants. The Bengal cat breed can have a classical tabby pattern, but in the Bengal breed, this look is called marbling. It can also be found on breeds including the Turkish angora, Maine Coon and various others.

Spotted tabby

The spotted tabby has a pattern of spots or rosettes on their coats, as opposed to the stripes of the classical and mackerel tabby. The spots are generally black in colour, but can theoretically be in any colour at all, on a lighter background. Again, the Bengal breed may be spotted, but this is known as marbled, and is one of the most desirable pattern styles for the Bengal breed. The pattern can also be seen on the Ocicat and Egyptian Mau.

Ticked tabby

The ticked tabby pattern is one of the most ancient of all cat colour and pattern variants, and may well be the foundation of the other three tabby patterns too. The ticked pattern consists of a one-colour appearance from a distance, and only up close will you observe a distinct “ticking” pattern on the coat in the secondary colour, as opposed to the spots or stripes that make up the other three tabby patterns.

Each hair of the ticked tabby is banded with at least two colours, in an ombre effect that changes from root to tip. The ticked pattern can be seen in the Somali, Singapura and Abyssinian pedigree breeds, as well as the average moggy too!

Tabby patterns and gene crossings

The genes responsible for tabby patterning are both varied and distinctive, and the tabby pattern is one of the most widely distributed patterns that can be seen in both pedigree and a large variety of non-pedigree cats. The tabby pattern often comes accompanied by some white areas, such as patches or points, or tipped feet. Tabby can also accompany the tortoiseshell gene, presenting as a coat with many different colours and patterns within it in a patchwork type of effect.

Tabby can also be seen in breeds with colour points, in which case the tabby will usually appear on areas such as the head, legs and tail while the body remains one uniform colour.

The main gene responsible for the various types of tabby patterning is the agouti gene, which defines whether or not a tabby pattern will be visible, but not which one! Agouti has only a limited effect on red and black coat pigments, and so some cats that appear to be uniform red or black may actually have a tabby pattern if you look closely!

One school of thought says that all cats carry one or more tabby genes, although if they do not possess the dominant agouti gene, no pattern will be visible.

Mackerel and ticked tabby patterns are both dominant, which goes some way towards explaining why tabby is such a common pattern, but the spotting and classical tabby genes are recessive, being less common in appearance.