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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?
Cool article! I immediately identified my (roughly) year-old tom as a classic tabby when you mentioned the bullseye pattern on the sides. He’s mostly grey with black stripes, but has a light bronze color (somewhat like that of a lion) with black stripes on his legs. He tends to keep his green eyes open wider than those of my other cats, and he has a very intense stare. In short, he’s SUPER photogenic. I could easily imagine his picture on a bag of cat food. He actually looks better than the classic tabby on a bag of cat food I recently bought. Lol
Rachel Paterson says
Am I the only one who sees the snake head pattern above the M, I beleive that pattern scares off preditors thinking it is a snake in the grass.
Thomas Bunting says
Surprisingly, the story involving Mohammed cutting of the sleeve of his robe so as to not disturb his cat is very similar to that of Emperor Ai of Han involving his lover Dong Xian, a politician of his court, with their relationship referred as “the passion of the cut sleeve”. After a story that one afternoon after falling asleep for a nap on the same bed, Emperor Ai cut off his sleeve rather than disturb the sleeping Dong Xian when he had to get out of bed for a political matter. Which is an intriguing coincidence, though with differences. Haha
Strangely, my Ginger Tabby has all the classic marbling and swirls, but the M on his forehead although very prominent is in fact a W!..Does this mean hes not an actual Tabby?
Lucy Manley says
Mine has a W also
Cathy Armato says
What an interesting post! I like that you have a religious theme going on, it shows just how incredibly important cats were to our ancestors! Great photos on today’s post, what a beautiful kitty.
We love tabbies. Moosey is a tabby. He has the M on his head, but only a few patches of tabby markings on his body. 🙂
Harvey Button says
Wow nine of us, heaps of tabby types and we didn’t even know!! Thank you for a lovely post!
I love tabbies! Both of my kitties are tabby cats. Manna has a classic pattern while Cinco has the mackerel pattern.
Sharon S. says
Thanks for clearing up the meaning of the name Tabby. I always thought it referred to a mixed breed cat.
Colehaus Cats says
See? We knew we were all special (says to mom who knows we are special, very special indeed). Purrs….
Susan and the gang from Life with Dogs and Cats says
I didn’t know there were that many kinds of tabbies. One of my cats is a tortoiseshell tabby or a torby.
Kitties Blue says
We had only heard about the “Mau” for the “M” on the tabby forehead. We do like that one best.
Fur Everywhere says
Carmine and Milita are both tabby kitties. Jewel was, too. I love the Mary legend 🙂 So sweet.
The Island Cats says
Me and Zoey are tabbies…both with Ms on our heads.
Technically, we Somalis (and Abyssinian kitties too) are ticked tabbies, because we have the Tabby M on our foreheads! But we aren’t allowed to have any stripes or pattens in our agouti fur – that is considered a “flaw.” Although have you ever heard of a cat with a flaw? Ha!
Athena and Marie says
Athena is a tabby and I always joke with her that the M on her forehead stands for Marie (or Mum).
Linda Szymoniak says
We have two gray tabbies – our senior Maine Coon boy, Koneko, and my adult DSH girl, Moko. They both have the “M” on their foreheads. I’d have to say that Koneko is a “Ticked Tabby”, especially with his longer fur. His body stripes aren’t as obvious, but his facial markings are definitely Tabby. Moko is a “Mackerel Tabby” with the distinctive line down her back. It’s wider and less pronounced on her back, but very obvious on her tail. Oh, and both are very affectionate. Moko has to be the friendliest and most affectionate cat we’ve ever had.
My daughter’s cat/kitten (he just turned one) is orange and white, but the orange parts have Tabby stripes. A Calico we had a number of years ago was white, orange, and gray Tabby striped. She was a quiet little thing – she had been found literally hours at most from starving and was nursed back to health by the rescue we adopted her from.
As far as the legends, I prefer the first as I’m a huge lover of anything and everything Ancient Egypt.