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The domestic cat of today did not transform from a wild beast into our purring family member overnight. Feline domestication goes back some 12,000 years (that’s 2,520 in cat years!).
According to National Geographic, analysis of feline DNA suggests cats lived alongside humans for thousands of years before they were domesticated. During that time, their gene pool changed very little from that of their wilder cousins, with the exception of one trait, the distinctive stripes, dots, and swirls found on the tabby cat!
Ancestors of our pet cats journeyed from Southwest Asia into Europe as early as 4400 B.C. Since rodents were attracted to the agricultural offerings grown by human civilizations, cats likely followed the rodent populations and came in contact with human settlements.
Another feline lineage may have formed in Egypt, where cats were worshipped and treated like a god, but no matter when cats originally hailed from, they likely followed or were carried by humans along many ancient routes and by sea. They earned their keep protecting food storage and killing rodents, while become tamed companions.
It was during the Middle Ages, however, that there became a way to physically distinguish the difference between wild and domestic cats – the emergency of blotched or striped markings on the coat. By the 18th century, these markings were common enough to be associated only with domestic cats, and in the 19th century, selective breeding began to attribute these traits to particular breeds.
Although they rank high among breeds most insured, tabbies can come in many breeds and colors as the word refers only to a pattern of stripes, bands, dots, ticks, and swirls on the fur.
The word “tabby” comes from “Al-Attabiya,” a type of fabric made in Baghdad, that was woven into a beautiful, yet irregular, wavy pattern. Classic, mackerel, spotted, ticked, and patched are the five types of tabby patterns. Some are so faint that they can only be seen when the wearer of the coat is caught basking in the sunlight.
The classic tabby pattern (also known as marbled or blotched) consists of thick stripes or spots that swirl into a bullseye on either side of the cat’s body. Classic tabbies also have a faint “butterfly” pattern on their shoulders with 3 thin stripes running down the spine.
The mackerel tabby pattern (also known as fishbone) is the most common of all, and presents as slender vertical stripes, gently curving on the sides of the body. The stripes may be continuous or broken into shorter segments as they reach the flanks and stomach.
Spotted tabbies are thought to result from a gene that breaks up either the mackerel or classic patterns, turning stripes into spots. The Mau, Maine Coon, Bengal, Savannah and Ocicat breeds are among the tabbies bearing this pattern.
Ticked tabbies have few to zero stripes or bands, but their distinctive pattern is the result of agouti hairs that break up the tabby pattern into a salt-and-pepper or sand-like look. Agouti is when individual hairs have distinct bands of color.
A patched tabby pattern is two-toned, often mixed with tortoiseshell.
Regardless of the type of tabby pattern, one thing ALL tabbies have in common are 3 or 5 vertical lines that appear in an ‘M’ shape on the forehead, as well as dark lines coming from the corners of their eyes and that may cross the cheeks. The Egyptians felt the ‘M’ associated cats with the moon due to their luminous eyes.
Regardless of where the ‘M’ came from, most tabbies also appear to have dark eyeliner around lighter fur surrounding their eyes, splotched pigmentation on the lips and paws, and an outlined pink nose. The opposite of Calicos and Tortoise cats which are predominantly female, 80% of Tabby cats are male.
No matter the design or breed, a tabby by any other name is just as sweet. April 30th is a special day for tabbies, National Tabby Awareness Day! Consider adopting one from your local shelter, and ensure him or her a long and healthy life by planning for their every need with PetFirst Pet Insurance.