Although some people refer to the tabby as a breed of cat, it actually just refers to the pattern of a cat’s coat – those lovely striped, spotted and swirled sections of colour that you see in tabby cats. Tabbies come in many different colours including ginger, grey, brown, and white or cream. Tabby cats have a noticeable “M” on their forehead, centred just above their eyes, and it is this prominent marking that sets tabbies apart from other cats.
Types of Tabby Cats
There are four distinct coat patterns found in the tabby cat.
A mackerel tabby cat 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.
Also known as ‘blotched’ or ‘marbled’ tabbies, a classic tabby coat has circular swirls, usually with a ‘bullseye’ design on the cat’s sides.
Spotted tabbies have similar markings to either the mackerel tabby or the classic tabby, but instead of having strong lines on their coast they have spots.
Ticked tabby cats 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.
The Mystery of the Tabby “M”
One thing that all tabby cats have in common is a marking on their foreheads that looks like the letter M. Charlie and Max think the “M” on their foreheads stands for ‘magnificent’. Of course, there are a number of legends about 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), so could it be that the M stands for Mau?
Another legend tells of the baby Jesus being warmed by a tabby cat in the manger, because the other animals there were too big to snuggle up to him. As a sign of her gratitude, Mary gave her initial as the mark 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. For instance, his cat Muezza was once said to be sleeping on the sleeve of his robe, and rather than disturb his cat when he had to go to prayer, Mohammed cut off the 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, who decrees that all tabby cats should have the letter M on their forehead to commemorate Mother’s kindness.
The History of the Tabby Cat
Research conducted in June 2017, has found that the distinctive pattern of the tabby cat coat emerged in the Middle Ages but didn’t become common until the 18th Century. The study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution used DNA analysis to trace the geographic dispersal and domestication of cats from ancient to modern times.
What type of tabby cat do you have in your life? Which legend do you think best explains the origin of the “M” on their foreheads?