Excited Cats is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more.

How Do Tabby Cats Get Their Stripes? What Science Tells Us

The tabby cat can differ in appearance, from stripes to spots, whorls, and more. All of these variations have their own names, but typically an “M” is marked on the head of a tabby, just above the eyes. We see this pattern across a wide range of pure and mixed-breed cats, but where exactly does it come from? Well, it turns out the tabby gets its stripes from the same place the cheetah gets its spots: its genetics. So, let’s take a closer look at this below.

3 cat face divider

Where Do Tabby Cats Come From?

The tabby cat genes can be traced back 9,000 years to the African wildcat. It’s thought that the array of patterns we see today in tabby cats started with the mackerel pattern and is the natural pattern of the African wildcat. Other tabby patterns occurred from selective breeding and mutations of the mackerel pattern.

Image Credit: Tomas Andreopoulos, Pexels

What Does Science Say?

While we have a rough idea of how long tabbies have been with us, we don’t know much about what made their fur look the way it does. In a study published in “Nature Communications,”1 researchers reported that the gene responsible for the familiar tabby pattern is called Dickkopf WNT Signaling Pathway Inhibitor 4 (DK44 for short)., DK44 is a messenger protein that signals other skin cells surrounding it where dark hair will grow, which, if all goes well, will eventually become the dark markings of tabby cats. This gene also activates in the embryo before a cat’s fur develops.

Of course, mutations can occur, which result in different coat colors and patterns like thinner stripes, white spots, or alterations in pigmentation. You see this in all black cats, where pigment cells that should have made different colors only produce black.

The 5 Types of Tabby Coat Patterns

1. Classic Tabby

The classic pattern is made up of whorls, which create a shape resembling a target on the side and, as a result, is sometimes known as the “blotched tabby.”

tabby cat with vest harness
Image Credit: Sari ONeal, Shutterstock
thematic break

2. Mackerel Tabb

The Mackerel tabby has rings around its legs and tail with bands of solid or broken stripes around its body. These stripes branch out from one that runs down the cat’s back and resemble a fish skeleton, which is where the name came from.

mackerel tabby pattern manx cat
Image Credit: NSC Photography, Shutterstock
thematic break

3. Spotted Tabby

The spotted tabby has spots, and these spots can vary in size. They can also resemble broken stripes, which you find on the mackerel tabby.

Spotted tabby pattern
Image Credit: slowmotiongli, Shutterstock
thematic break

4. Patched Tabby

Patches of dark or grayish brown, red, or orange with the tabby pattern throughout make up the patched tabby. They’re sometimes referred to as tortoiseshell (or Tortie) because the pattern is similar to what you’d find on the shell of a tortoise. The markings are usually more apparent on the head and legs.

Patched Tabby Pattern norwegian forest cat
Image Credit: Anna Krivitskaya, Shutterstock
thematic break

5. Ticked Tabby

A ticked tabby is sometimes known as the Abyssinian tabby or agouti tabby and doesn’t have traditional spots or stripes. At first glance, they might not even look like a tabby. However, on closer inspection, you’ll notice the tabby pattern on the face and sometimes the legs, with light and dark coloring bands in their individual hairs.

Norwegian forest cat ticked tabby
Image Credit: terazitu, Shutterstock

cat paw divider

Final Thoughts

Tabby cats are one of the most popular cat patterns, but you might not have considered the science behind your cat’s stripes until now. The reason your tabby cat has stripes was determined before the embryo that became your kitten even grew fur. If you’ve never really thought about what type of tabby your cat is, look at the patterns on its coat to help you figure it out!

thematic break

Featured Image Credit: No-longer-here, Pixabay