Although you might think "tabby" and "calico" refer to specific breeds of cat, they're actually only descriptions of what the cat looks like. With the wide variety of patterns and the jargon used to label tabby coats, it can get confusing to accurately describe kitty's lovely fur.
"Tabby" refers to a coat coloration in which the hairs are striped light and dark, called agouti. If your kitty has stripes, she's a tabby. She'll also have the distinctive “M” marking on her forehead. The tabby marking is considered the “wild” coat for domesticated cats, with other patterns, such as a Siamese's points, being a result of breeding and domestication.
There are four types of tabby pattern: mackerel, classic, ticked and spotted. Mackerel is probably what you're most familiar with, with stripes running down kitty's side. If your cat's a classic tabby, she'll have thick swirls of dark color against a lighter background, sometimes making a bull's-eye shape on her side or a butterfly on her back.
A ticked tabby has an even distribution of light and dark fur, given her a freckled or flecked appearance. If she's a spotted tabby, she'll have spots or rosettes like a leopard, as in Bengal cats. Tabby coats come in a range of colors including red, brown, silver, cream and blue.
Another common coloration is tortoiseshell; a cat who looks like this is affectionately called a tortie. Torties have splotches of black, red and cream all over their bodies. In reference to fur coloration, “red” means orange or ginger, “cream” means pale, creamy orange and “blue” refers to gray.
A dilute tortie has more muted splotches of blue and cream covering her body. Dilute torties look kind of like a faded or diluted version of a tortoiseshell. Torties are almost always female, as the genes required for the coat require two X chromosomes. Very rarely you'll find a male tortie, and usually he'll be sterile. This is because he'll have a genetic abnormality, having an extra X chromosome.
Tabby and tortoiseshell coats can have patches of white fur. Typically, these are labeled by adding “and white” to the coat description, such as "red and white tabby."
Different terms refer to where the white spots are. If she has little white paws, then she's considered mitted. A locket is a spot of white fur on her chest. Buttons are white spots on her tummy.
A cat is considered bicolor if she's about half white, and harlequin if she's mostly white with only small patches of color. A van, like the Turkish van breed, has color only on her head and tail, with most of her body white.
Calicoes, Torbies and Patched Tabbies
A calico has patches of black and red mixed with large patches of white. If she only has a small amount of white, she's called tortoiseshell and white, instead of calico. A dilute calico will have blue, cream and white patches, looking like a paler version of the traditional calico.
Just as torties, calicoes are almost always female. A patched tabby has patches of tabby pattern rather than solid colors. A tabby tortie, or torbie, is a tortie kitty with patches of tabby pattern rather than solid color. A patched tabby and white, sometimes called a caliby or patterned calico, has patches of tabby pattern mixed with patches of white fur.
- Fanciers.com: Cat Color FAQ: Common Colors
- Encyclopedia of the Cat; Michael Pollard
- George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images