What is a Black Tabby Cat?

Last Updated on October 6, 2021 by Julia Wilson

What is a black tabby cat? 

A black tabby is a type of coat colour and pattern combination that consists of melanistic black stripes, sworls or spots on a lighter banded (ticked) ground colour. The face of the black tabby cats consists of an M on the forehead as well as thin pencil lines on the cheeks. 

Black tabby is the wild-type coat colour/pattern of the African Wild cats (Felis Lybica), the ancestor of domestic cats. 

Robinson’s Genetics for Cat Breeders and Veterinarians describes the black mackerel tabby as follows: 

The black-based mackerel tabby is the wild type, as defined earlier and has a genotype of A-B-D-Mc. In exhibition cats, the vertical striping should be well defined, evenly spaced and as unbroken as possible. The ground colour (the colour of the agouti band) of this form of tabby, should not be drab or cold in tone, but more auburn or warm. 

Is the black tabby a breed of cat? 

Tabby is a coat pattern and not a breed. The tabby pattern is widespread in both the domestic cat (moggy) and purebred cat.

Cat breeds permitted to have the black tabby colour, pattern include: 

Types of tabby coat patterns 

Mackerel – Also known tiger cats, the mackerel tabby is the default wild-type and the most common tabby pattern. Mackerel tabby consists of a pale or grey or brown agouti (ticked) ground colour with black fishbone stripes down the sides of the body. 

Mackerel tabby

Classic –  Also known as blotched tabby, the classic tabby pattern consists of a pale grey or brown ground colour with curving bands of black sworls along the body, with a bullseye on each side of the body. A recessive gene is responsible for the classic tabby pattern and the cat must inherit two copies of the classic tabby gene for the pattern to be expressed. 

Classic tabby

Spotted – The spotted tabby is thought to be caused by a modifier gene that breaks up the mackerel pattern into short bars or spots. 

Spotted tabby

Ticked – The ticked tabby pattern consists of black-tipped agouti hairs with no black stripes, sworls or spots. Abyssinian and Singapura cats are the best known ticked tabby breeds. 

Ticked tabby

Black tabby M 

All black tabbies have a distinctive M shaped marking on their forehead. There are several theories as to the origins of this characteristic marking. 

  1. The baby Jesus began to shiver on the night he was born, the Virgin Mary wrapped Jesus in blankets, but he continued to cry.  A tabby cat came along, and jumped into the manger and lay beside Jesus, purring loudly and the baby stopped crying. As a sign of gratitude, Mary drew an M on the cat’s forehead. There are different versions of this story, but a common theme is that the cat comforted the baby, after Mary and several farm animals had failed to stop Jesus crying. Interestingly, there is no mention of cats in the bible, so I’m not sure how this story has been shared. 
  2. A snake crawled into the sleeve of Prophet Muhammad’s robe, and a cat quickly killed it. The Prophet affectionately stroked the back of the cat three times giving cats the ability to land on their feet, and placed his hand on the forehead, leaving his initial M as a sign of love for cats. 
  3. Muezza was said to be Prophet Muhammad’s favourite cat, and one day, while preparing for prayer, he found a cat sleeping on the sleeve of his robe. Instead of waking the cat, he used a pair of scissors to cut off the sleeve. 

Other tabby colours 

The black tabby is the most widespread coat colour and pattern, but other colours are reasonably common too. 

  • Orange tabby – Also known as red tabby, the orange tabby cat has stripes of red on a pale cream ground colour. Three out of four orange tabbies are male. 
  • Dilute tabby – The dilute gene washes out the colour which changes black to blue, chocolate to lilac, cinnamon to fawn and red to cream. 
  • Grey tabby – The grey tabby cat (known as silver in the cat fancy) is caused by the melanin inhibitor gene I/i which suppresses the development of yellow pigment (pheomelanin). American Shorthairs are known for their beautiful grey classic tabby coat which has been developed by selective breeding. 
  • Patched tabby – This coat colour and pattern combination of the patched tabby occurs mostly on female cats and consists of patches of red and grey or brown tabby. The orange gene is found on the X chromosome, as males only have one X chromosome, they will be orange or non-orange. Females have two X chromosomes, and if she inherits one copy of the O gene, and one copy of the non-orange gene, both colours will be expressed. The patched tabby can show any of the distinct patterns outlined above. 

Black tabby cat personality 

Because the black tabby is not a specific breed, but a coat colour and pattern, it is not possible to characterise a personality as random-bred and purebred cats can have different personalities. For example, the Cornish and Devon Rex cats are highly active, while the Persian and Exotic cats are much more laid back. 

The early few weeks of a kitten’s life are critical for shaping the personality. If the kitten has a loving and attentive mother and has positive experiences with people, he or she can be expected to develop into a confident and outgoing cat.

Ghost tabby 

Ghost tabby markings on a solid black kitten

Genetically, all cats are tabby, however, some cats carry the non-agouti (hypermelanistic) recessive mutation, normally, the base hairs consist of two bands of pigmentation, but in the non-agouti cat, the hair appears solid, or self-coloured. 

Sometimes, the underlying tabby pattern can be seen on the solid coloured cat, this is especially noticeable on young kittens whose coat colour hasn’t fully developed. The ghost tabby can give the appearance of a black cat with a tabby coat. 

Charcoal and melanistic black tabby cats

The charcoal and melanistic black tabby patterns are unique to the Bengal breed and is made up of a dark, almost black base with black spots, stripes or sworls (black on black). 

The charcoal Bengal has a dark face mask with a thick dark dorsal stripe. Markings are darker than on non-charcoal Bengals. The gene responsible for the charcoal coat comes from the Asian Leopard Cat and is known as Agouti Prionailurus bengalensis (APb) with incomplete dominance over the a (non-agouti) variant. The cat must inherit at least one copy of the APb gene, and may be heterozygous (A/APb) or homozygous (APb/APb).

Melanistic Bengals have two copies of the non-agouti gene (a/a), which results in black pigment throughout the length entire hair shaft. This produces an almost black cat, but some ghost patterns can still be seen. 

Frequently asked questions 

Can a black cat be a tabby? 

All cats are tabbies and still carry the tabby pattern. However, the agouti hairs aren’t bandied, which masks the tabby pattern, producing a solid coloured cat. As noted above, sometimes it is possible to see the overlying tabby pattern on young cats. This generally disappears by adulthood. 

Are black tabbies rare? 

Black tabby cats are extremely common among random-bred and purebred cat populations.