What is a Classic Tabby Cat?

Last Updated on November 30, 2021 by Julia Wilson

What is a classic tabby cat?

Also known as blotched or marbled tabby, the classic tabby pattern consists of a light agouti (banded) ground colour with a melanistic overlay made up of lines, swirls, and whorls.

Tabby coat patterns occur in four patterns, made up of two components; the base agouti (ticked) background which is composed of alternating light and dark bands on each hair and the overlying dark spots, swirls or stripes. Three genes are responsible for mackerel and classic tabbies as well as two dominant modifier genes. One modifier gene breaks up the mackerel pattern into spots and the other removes the spots, stripes or sworls of the dark tabby pattern. Some residual stripes remain on the face and legs. 

Types of tabby cat patterns

All tabby cats have an agouti base, and the mackerel, spotted and classic have the addition of dark spots, stripes or sworls. 

  • Mackerel (Tm) – Mackerel tabby is the wild-type pattern that consists of narrow stripes down the sides of the cat similar to that of a fish skeleton, hence the name. 
  • Spotted (Sp) – The spotted tabby pattern is essentially a mackerel tabby, but a modifier gene breaks up the fishbone stipes which creates spots.
  • Classic (tb) – The classic tabby has an agouti background, with thick swirls and whorls along the sides of the cat along with a dark bullseye.
  • Ticked (Ta): Also known as agouti tabby, the ticked tabby pattern has an agouti background, but no melanistic (tabby) stripes, sworls or spots. The Abyssinian, Somali, Burmilla and Singapura all have ticked coats. 

Classic tabby is recessive to the wild-type mackerel tabby, which means the cat must inherit two copies of the tb gene, one from each parent tb/tb. Two classic tabbies cannot produce offspring with the mackerel tabby pattern, but a mackerel tabby cat can potentially produce offspring with the classic tabby pattern if they carry one copy of the tb gene, ie: Tm/tb

Even non-tabby cats carry tabby genes, however, other colours or patterns may hide the tabby patterns. Sometimes it is possible to see faint ghost tabby markings on solid cats, especially kittens. 

Ghost tabby markings on a black and white kitten
Ghost tabby markings


A 2012 study found that classic tabbies carried three genes in the same region, two didn’t cause any substitutions, but a mutated form of the third one named transmembrane aminopeptidase Q (Taqpep) caused the characteristic blotched pattern in classic tabbies.  The Taqpep gene establishes the coat pattern during fetal development, which is thought to be determined by a second gene, known as Endothelin 3 (Edn3). Edn3 provides instructions for making a protein called endothelin 3. Endothelin 3 and endothelin receptor type B play a role in the development of two neural crest-derived cell types, melanocytes and enteric neurons. Melanocytes are pigment-producing cells that give the skin, hair and eyes their colour. Edn3 is a regulator of black (eumelanin) vs yellow (pheomelanin) pigment, and researchers think the expression of Taqpep is needed to establish a pattern of stripes in early development, that is carried out by Edn3 as the fur grows. 

Interestingly, the king cheetah was thought to be a separate species from the cheetah, but researchers found the unique coat is caused by the same genes were responsible for the blotched pattern and both cheetahs are the one species

King cheetah

Are classic tabbies rare?

It depends on where you live. The classic tabby is the most common tabby pattern in the United Kingdom, but mackerel tabby is more prevalent elsewhere. Despite this, classic tabbies are not rare. The American Shorthair is well known for its silver classic tabby coat pattern.

What breed is classic tabby?

Classic tabby is a coat pattern and not a cat breed.

What is the difference between mackerel and classic tabby?

Difference between a mackerel and classic tabby

Mackerel tabbies have narrow stripes which run vertically down the sides of the body, these stripes may break up into bars or vertically aligned spots. A dark stripe runs along the spine, and thin bands circle the legs and tail.

Classic tabbies have thick bands of whorls running along each side of the body, a butterfly pattern when viewed from above. Most classic tabbies will have a circular bullseye on both sides of the body. Both the mackerel and classic tabby have the characteristic M on their forehead and tabby stripes on the face. 

Difference between a classic and mackerel tabby

What colour is classic tabby? 

Classic tabby colours

The most common classic tabby colour is brown or red (orange). Silver classic tabbies (grey with black stripes) are popular among purebred cats, particularly the American and British Shorthairs. Female cats can be black and red, brown and red or cream and blue, which is commonly referred to as patched tabby or torbie. The dilute gene causes the coat colour to wash out, which creates a blue, lilac or cream classic tabby.

Cats who carry the white spotting gene also have patches of white, which is usually located on areas of the face or the underside of the belly and the legs. Instead of being silver tabby, or brown tabby, the cat would be described as silver tabby and white, brown tabby and white etc. 

Which breeds of cats can have the classic tabby pattern? 

Classic tabby munchkin cat

  • American Curl
  • American Shorthair
  • Australian Mist (marbled)
  • Bengal (marbled)
  • British Shorthair
  • Cornish Rex
  • Devon Rex
  • Dwelf
  • European shorthair
  • Maine Coon
  • Munchkin 
  • Oriental 
  • Scottish Fold 

Classic tabby personality 

Because classic tabby is a coat pattern and not a breed, each cat is different. Some purebred classic tabbies may share certain traits. The biggest factor which shapes a cat’s personality is its interaction with its mother, siblings and humans in the critical first few weeks of life

Frequently asked questions

Are classic tabbies hypoallergenic? 

There is no evidence to suggest the classic tabby pattern is hypoallergenic. 

Are classic tabbies expensive? 

It depends on the breed. Purebred cats cost from $1000 plus, while random-bred cats (moggies) from a shelter typically cost between $100 – $300

How long do classic tabbies live? 

Again, it’s impossible to say because it’s a coat pattern and not a breed. The average lifespan for an indoor cat is 12-15 years.