What is a tabby cat? And why do these cats have an “M” on their forehead? Although some people refer to the tabby as a breed of cat, it actually just refers to the pattern of their coat – those lovely striped, spotted and swirled sections of colour that you see in types of tabby cats.
The tabby coat pattern is common to many cat breeds, and there are different colours too. Colours include brown, grey (also called blue), ginger, plus white or cream. The most distinctive and defining feature of a tabby cat is the “M” on their forehead. This is centred just above their eyes and is the prominent marking that sets tabbies apart from other cats.
Four Types of Tabby Cats
There are four distinct coat patterns found in the tabby cat which are: mackerel, classic, spotted or ticked.
A mackerel tabby has vertical, usually non-broken, stripes that come out from the stripe that runs down the middle of the cat’s back like a fishbone, hence the name mackerel. This is also the most common tabby coat pattern.
Also known as ‘blotched’ or ‘marbled’ tabbies, a classic coat has circular swirls, usually with a ‘bullseye’ design on the cat’s sides. This classic pattern is often compared with a marble cake.
Spotted tabbies have similar markings to either the mackerel or classic tabby. Instead of having strong lines on their coat they have spots or patches of colour, usually against a background of lighter coloured fur.
Ticked or agouti tabbies will have the tabby markings on their faces, but at first glance you might not spot any tabby markings on their bodies. That’s because ticked tabbies usually have agouti hairs, which have variable colours along the length of the hair. But look closely, and you’ll probably be able to see the tell-tale stripes or swirls. Abyssinian cats are a good example of this type of tabby coat pattern.
Need Help Identifying Your Tabby Cat?
If you’re not sure how to identify the coat markings or colours of your cat, check out this easy Cat Identification Guide compiled by Dr. Brenda Griffin at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.
Why Tabby Cats Have an “M” on Their Forehead
One thing that all tabbies have in common is a marking on their foreheads that looks like the letter M. Tabbies also look like they’re wearing eyeliner with pencil thin lines outlining their beautiful eyes.
There are a number of legends which explain the reason for the M; which one do you prefer?
In Ancient Egypt cats were called by the name Mau, probably because of the sound they made (meow). Could it be that the M stands for Mau?
In Christian folklore, a tabby cat curled up alongside baby Jesus in the manger keeping him warm with the heat of his body. As a sign of her gratitude, Mary stroked the cat’s head, and her gentle touch left behind the initial M on the cat’s forehead.
Keeping with the religious theme, there are a number of well-known stories about the Prophet Mohammed’s love of cats. In the Islamic legend, Mohammed’s cat Muezza was said to be sleeping on the sleeve of his robe and rather than disturb his cat when he had to go to prayer, Mohammed simply cut off the sleeve. A variation of this story, tells of how Muezza saved Mohammed’s life from a poisonous snake that had crawled inside his sleeve. Many believe that that M on a tabby’s head stands for Mohammed, protector of cats.
A more recent story of how tabby cats came to have an M on their forehead comes from writer and animal welfare advocate Jim Willis, in his story ‘Beloved of Bast’. The story tells of a cat named Mother who is visited by Bast, beloved cat of sun goddess Ra. Ra decrees that all tabby cats should have the letter M on their forehead to commemorate Mother’s kindness.
Which legend do you think best explains the origin of the “M” on tabby cat foreheads?