Paws and Effect

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I know my cat is a tabby, I just don’t know what color tabby he is. Can you help me?

~ Kellie

Siouxsie: You’d think it would be easy to tell what color a cat is, but everybody seems to see a different color when they look at a tabby cat.

Thomas, a tabby cat, snoozes with his best girl, Belladonna.

Thomas is a tabby — but what color is he?

Thomas: As a tabby cat myself, I know how challenging this can be when humans try to describe me. Am I a gray tabby? Am I a brown tabby? Am I a little of both? What’s going on?

Bella: So let’s try to sort this out. Tabbies come in lots of colors and patterns, but here are some of the most common. First of all, the brown tabby has very dark-brown stripes on a light-brown background.

Brown tabby cat, CC-BY-SA Alvesgaspar

Brown tabby cat. Photo CC-BY-SA Alvesgaspar

Siouxsie: Then there’s the orange tabby, sometimes known as a “marmalade cat,” which has very bright orange-reddish stripes on a medium orange background.

Orange tabby cat. Photo CC-BY-ND Barbara Müller-Walter

Long-haired orange tabby “marmalade cat.” Photo CC-BY-ND Barbara Müller-Walter

Thomas: The cream or buff tabby is a dilute version of the orange tabby, with medium orange stripes against a creamy or very pale orange background.

Bella: Then there’s the gray tabby, who has black stripes on a medium-gray background.

Gray tabby cat. Photo CC-BY William Welch

Gray tabby cat. Photo CC-BY William Welch

Siouxsie: The silver tabby has black stripes like a gray tabby, but the background color is a very light gray.

Silver tabby cat. Photo CC-BY Alexander Kaiser

Silver tabby cat. Photo CC-BY Alexander Kaiser

Thomas: Then there’s the patched tabby — a calico or tortoiseshell cat whose orange and black spots have stripes! Mama calls them “tabico” cats because she’s silly. Tee hee hee!

Patched tabby cat. Photo CC-BY Ryan

Patched tabby cat. Photo CC-BY Ryan

Bella: One tabby color you don’t see very often is the black tabby, a cat with black stripes on a very dark-gray background.

Black tabby cat. Photo CC-BY Alisha Vargas

In the foreground is a black tabby cat. Photo CC-BY Alisha Vargas

Siouxsie: And maybe you didn’t know this, but even cats that look solid black can actually be tabbies. In bright sunlight you may see very faint reddish stripes in a black cat’s fur. You can see Bella’s stripes in this photo — take a close look at the top of her head!

Bella in a sun puddle, a black cat with ghostly red tabby stripes showing

In the bright sunlight, you can see Bella’s stripes.

Bella: Siouxsie! That’s embarrassing!

Thomas: Why? Are you embarrassed to have stripes? Are stripes embarrassing to you? *sniffle*

Bella: Oh, Thomas, of course not! I just like the idea of being a black cat, that’s all. I love stripes, especially yours!

Siouxsie: Speaking of stripes, tabby cats with narrow stripes like Thomas are called mackerel tabbies or “tiger cats” back in New England where we came from.

Thomas: Some tabbies have big, wide stripes that form round shapes on their sides. Those cats are called classic or blotched tabbies. I don’t know why they’re so classic and mackerel tabbies aren’t. I see a lot more mackerel tabbies than blotched tabbies!

Bella: The ticked tabby has bands of stripes on each individual fur. You don’t see this pattern much in regular domestic cats, but the Abyssinian is a great example of a ticked tabby.

Siouxsie: And the spotted tabby looks a lot like a wild cat. Again, this pattern isn’t common in regular cats, but Bengals, Savannahs and Ocicats have spotted tabby coats.

Thomas: Almost every cat breed carries the tabby gene, even Siamese cats!

Bella: After looking at all these tabby cat pictures, what color tabby do you think Thomas is? Give us your guesses in the comments and tell us about the tabby cats you’ve known and loved.

Siouxsie: If you want to learn some cool stuff about the genetics behind cat fur, check out these articles Mama wrote for Catster:

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