Many cats have the patterns on their coats– we call them “tabbies”. But what do we really know about tabby cats?
So many websites provide with “[insert a number] interesting/fun facts about tabby cats”. You may feel tempted to click such a headline – don’t. It is a waste of time.
In this article we gathered the most popular and stubborn myths about tabby cats floating in Internet space (and beyond) which simply won't go away. By using science and color genetics we explain why these prevalent beliefs are a complete nonsense.
1. Tabby is a color
No, tabby is not a color. It is a coat pattern. Tabby genes alter the shape and the size of markings, they have no effect on color of the cat (1).
There are two pigments that give colors to the cat's coat: pheomelanin (yellow to orange) and eumelanin (from brown to black).
The most ancient coat color and pattern of domestic cat is a "brown" mackerel tabby. This is how the ancestor Felis lybica lybica looked like (former name: Felis silvestris lybica; 8). A "brown" mackerel tabby could be described as coat with black or greyish stripes on yellow background, sometimes with an orange hue. Due to optical illusion created by the combination of black and yellow pigments these tabbies appear to be brown (6).
The most ancient coat color the cat: "brown" mackerel tabby. Photo credit: Flizie (Izmir).
The name of the gene responsible for tabby patterns is agouti or simply "A" gene. It is a dominant trait. A recessive version of this gene is "a". A cat with two copies of alleles "a/a" is non-agouti, meaning it has a solid coat with no tabby markings - a black cat (3,7). Black coat or in another name melanism, arose from the mutation in agouti signalling protein ASIP (11).
However, the black coat can also be created by the different gene called B (“brown”), whose recessive versions make a cat’s coat brown (10). This gene is probably not native to the Near Eastern cats, therefore we will only concentrate on melanistic black.
Phenotypes of agouti and non-agouti (solid black). Photo credits: İsmail Michael, Melissa Maples (Antalya)
Genetically speaking, all cats are tabbies - even those carrying a combination of recessive “a/a” alleles and having no visible tabby patterns. Solid colored cats only produce black kittens (3). Cats with A/a can have both tabby and black kittens.
The white coat appears as much solid colored like a coat of the black cat; does it mean that white cats produce only white kittens? In most of the cases, yes, but white cats can have colored kittens unlike a/a black cats. White coat results from the dominant white gene "W" which is very different from non-agouti. "W" gene is epistatic: it ignores what color alleles and tabby patterns a cat may have by suppressing them all (3). So a cat only appears solid white, but other colors and patterns do not disappear and may appear in its future kittens. So a white cat could be a tabby even if its coat looks completely white.
2. Orange tabby is different from the “regular tabby”
Photo credit: didimouman
Partially true. Although not sure what the “regular tabby” means, the agouti gene responsible for “brown” tabbies, cannot produce the orange tabbies and tortoiseshell/calico cats without a help from another gene.
Obviously an orange tabby, or as some say “ginger cat” or “red tabby”, has tabby markings, therefore, it is a tabby cat. An orange allele is dominant over solid colors (non-agouti). It is also epistatic: it replaces a black pigment eumelanin with pheomelanin (yellow/orange) (2). In tortoiseshell/calico cats, which are almost always female, the orange allele is expressed differently because of the process called the “X inactivation”, when parts of two X chromosomes get activated and inactivated in a random manner.
Orange allele also interacts with modifier genes which decide the intensity of orange tabby coloring. Modifier genes are the type of genes which affect how other genes are expressed. So an orange cat may exhibit a lighter yellowish color or impressive shades of bright orange.
a) Orange tabby homozygous for orange is non-agouti, yet the tabby pattern is visible; O/Y – male orange tabby
b) Tortoiseshell female cat, heterozygous for orange and agouti. It can have two dominant agouti alleles (A/A)
c) Tortoiseshell/calico female with solid black patches (non-agouti).
Courtesy: Anne Schmidt-Küntzel et al. Genetics
3. There is one type of tabby
In some countries, like in Turkey, people call any cat, which does not fit any breed stereotype, as “tabby” equaling it to the “mixed breed”. We will explain why this is wrong in a fourth myth, but first, you should know that there isn’t one type of tabby. Tabby is a term that describes a variety of patterns which come in many different colors.
Researchers identified the gene responsible for tabby patterns – Taqpep (Transmembrane aminopeptidase Q). In addition to this, another gene Edn3 (Endothelin3) regulates the color and intensity of tabby markings (1).
In natural cat populations four varieties of patterns can be observed: mackerel, blotched, spotted and ticked (4, 6).
Credit: Sarah Hartwell
Mackerel TaM is an ancestral Felis lybica lybica's pattern.
Cats have 19 pairs of chromosomes, marked with letters (A-F) and numbers. Mackerel TaM and Tab blotched genes are located on chromosome A1 – they are "Tabby locus" (4). Locus is a position on a chromosome.
Ticked Ti+ gene causes markings mainly on legs and head (as shown in the image below). The other version of Ticked TiA is an absence of tabby pattern. It appears rarely in Anatolian cats. Ticked is different from mackerel and blotched because it is found in different locus - on a B1 chromosome (4).
Spotted tabby is probably a variation of mackerel. Modifier genes in different locus could influence the formation of spots, but more research is necessary to confirm this (5).
A1 chromosome which contains mackerel and blotched genes is colored in red. Ticked is located in B1, in a dark pink.
Mackerel and blotched patterns compared. Diagrams indicate the distribution of black/ brown eumelanin versus yellow or pale pheomelanin within individual hairs.
Credits: Claude Bissonnette, Kadir Erdem, Kaelin et al.., Lyons Feline Genetics Laboratory at the University of Missouri.
Tabby markings can be combined with many different colors. In tortoiseshell and calico cats the tabby markings look like this:
Photo credit: Gamze Ceyhan
Tabby gene combined with a dilution gene turns a cat into a grey tabby:
Photo credit: Gökmen Şenyıldız
If a grey tabby has a silver gene its coat will look much lighter:
Photo credit: Fati Foto (Koaceli)
Tabbies with white: white color is due to white spotting gene. In the photo below we can see that the white color dominates over tabby markings, therefore this cat is both tabby and white:
Photo credit: fabindia (Antalya)
Photo credit: Mustafa Çelik
Photo credit: Osman Erçin
We gave just a few examples of the color and tabby patterns combinations, but there are a lot of more. Clearly, there is not one type of tabby but many different tabbies.
4. Tabby cats are a mix of European and African wildcat
False. Domestic cats, no matter their coat color or pattern, are descended from one cat species, Felis lybica lybica, the Near Eastern wildcat (8,9). This wildcat was regarded as the North African wildcat, but this definition is no longer useful because F.l. lybica species were found to be widespread in Anatolia and Levant.
While cats of any color and pattern can hybridize with other wildcat species, including European wildcat (Felis silvestris), tabby cats have no special connection with European wildcats and did not acquire the patterns from these wildcats.
5. Tabby is a mixed breed
This is probably the most discriminating myth of them all. The origin of myth is not entirely clear, but at least in Turkey, we guess which website was responsible for popularizing it (18).
As we mentioned before, the ancestor of all cats was a “brown” mackerel tabby– this is how a cat should look like by default according to the natural selection. All other coat colors, as well as other tabby markings, such as blotched and ticked, evolved later.
A very “honest” adoption ad that reads “Nobody wants me because I am a tabby cat”.
No coat color or pattern is “purer” or “better”. We, humans give particular looks a value according to which we judge cats. It is irrational and even racist. (The author of this image is unknown).
Thanks to cat breeders, we began to believe that there are two categories of cats: pure-breeds and mixed breeds. Some think that tabbies fall under the category of “mixed”. However, this pure - impure idea has no support from science.
Let’s make it clear: no coat color or pattern can be said to be “purer” than others - they are just that, varieties of looks a cat may inherit. We, humans, give particular looks a value and create hierarchies according to which we judge cats (15). This obsession with purity should be seen as irrational and inherently racist, but we are taught that it is perfectly normal and harmless (it is not).
Cats in all colors, which were not altered by artificial selection - we talk about the free-living cats- are often called by unpleasant names, such as “street cat” or “stray cat”. These cats actually have no connection to any cat breeds. As genetic studies confirmed, natural cats are not descended from cat breeds, abandoned by some irresponsible owners (12, 13, 14). They are natural and ancient populations on their own. Tabby cats that live outside are not “mixed” with cat breeds.
Remember that cat breeds touted as “pure” also come in tabby patterns, take, for example, Persian, British Shorthair, Maine Coon, and many others. If a cat breed has tabby patterns, does it mean it is not “pure”? Many would object to that. Yet, cats which do not belong to any breed, even thru they have the same color pattern, are somehow considered “impure”. Can you see the contradiction in this?
Maine Coon, Persian and British as shown here are tabbies but they are never considered “impure”. Why have a double standard for breeds and natural cats?
Photo credits: Andreas-photography (Maine Coon), Agnes (İran kedisi), Moukelis (British Shorthair).
To summarize all in one sentence: tabby is just a coat pattern, it is not a breed or a mix of breeds.
6. Tabbies have a better immunity system
Photo credit: Michel Berthaud
This claim is delivered from the previous myth that tabbies are a mixed breed. Tabby cats supposedly have a better health due to “hybrid vigor" (scientific name: heterosis (16)). This belief is false.
The resistance to diseases in cat populations is highly depended on the genetic variation - mutations and adaptations acquired over many generations.
In fact, if tabbies were mixed with breeds, those tabbies would be less healthy, because cat breeds are inbred and carry many disadvantageous recessive mutations (17).
A cat with tabby patterns is no healthier or more resistant to diseases than cats with other coat varieties. Tabby gene itself does not strengthen the immunity of the cat.
7. Tabby cats have variable temperaments. They are affectionate, gentle and hyperactive cats
Photo credit: Murat Güvenç
Do only tabbies have diverse temperaments? All other cats with different coat colors have predictable temperaments? Do all people with brown hair behave similarly? Of course, this makes no sense. Just like humans, every cat is unique. Temperaments and personalities vary greatly from one cat to another no matter what coat color or pattern it possesses.
Just because a cat is a tabby, it does not guarantee it will be a loving lap cat or that it will be energetic and playful. A cat with tabby markings may be a really terrible pet. It may be even the laziest cat alive, who prefers napping on the couch to chasing a toy.
Cat personality and its character is shaped by its genetics, environment and experiences with humans. The coat color or pattern is irreverent; it has no connection with cat’s behavior.
8. Tabby cats need a special care and food
Tabby cats need as much care, a good nutrition, and enrichment as any other cat. They do not have special needs because they happen to be tabbies! Stay away from anyone who gives a nutritional advice based on cat’s color of fur or its supposed breed label.
9. Tabbies, no matter where in the world they come from, they are all the same
Cats around the world express similar phenotypes because coat colors and patterns are determined by the same genes.
Studies show that cats from different geographic regions are not only unrelated to breeds, but they also differ from each other if you take their genotypes into account (12,13,14).
Unlike phenotypes, the external look of the cat, genotypes are very complex. Genotype is the genetic make-up of an individual, the sum total of all genes. Genotypes are not visible like phenotypes, but they matter the most if you want to compare cat populations from different locations. A tabby from Anatolia and a tabby from Korea is not the same. It’s like saying there is no difference between Italian and Japanese: both belong to genetically distinct populations (we do not mean races here). In fact, cat populations are even more isolated and more different from each other compared to human populations (12). It's not important what color or pattern a cat has: we should care about where a cat comes from. Cats from Anatolia are genetically similar therefore they are one population, it does not matter if they are tabbies or not (13).
People still think that tabbies as somewhat different from cats with other coat varieties. The supposed “differences” are founded on shallow beliefs and entertaining assumptions circulating all over the Internet. Needless to say that they are very unscientific.
A question “what is a tabby cat?” may look simple at first, but the answer turns out a bit more complicated. As we learned, easy answers most of the time are the wrong answers. Science helps us to explain the world around us. It also teaches us about tabby cats, and most importantly, it shows again that cats are much more interesting than we are made to believe.
Author: P. Aksoy (Feline scientist and founder of Anadolu Kedisi)
Cover photo: Hasan Kavala
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