Turkish Van

By PetMD Editorial on Jul. 30, 2008

Physical Characteristics

The Turkish Van is a large, muscular, well-built cat with a moderately long body and tail. It has strong, broad shoulders and a short neck; the jock of the cat world. The body of a Van should neither be stocky, or thin. It should call to mind the body build of an athlete, and indeed, it is one of the largest cats, growing to a mature weight of up to 18 pounds for a male, eight pounds for a female.

The Van is classified as a semi-long hair, but it has two lengths of hair, determined by season. In the winter, the hair is thick and long, with a full ruff at the chest and even full tufts of fur between its toes. In the summer, the hair sheds to leave a short light coat. Both coat lengths are typified as being as soft as cashmere, down to the root. There is no evident undercoat on the Van, only one coat. The coat begins short at birth and grows in gradually over a period of three to five years, so that the kittens will be shorthair in appearance, with thin tails, but as they mature, the fur on the chest will fill out, and the tail will thicken into a full brush tail. The tail does not shed hair or change according to the season, but remains long and full. The ears remain feathered with fur, so that even with its summer coat, the Van looks soft and fluffy.

The Turkish Van's coat and coloring are the highlight of this cat. The classic coloring is white all over, with dark coloring on the tail and on the top of the head, and less frequently, on the back between the shoulder blades. This color pattern is referred to as a "Van" pattern. The Van's coat is naturally water resistant as a result of its silky texture, and presumably because it is only one coat. The Van loves water, and can immerse itself, swimming happily for long periods of time, and come out relatively dry. It does not have to deal with the usual cat inconveniences of having its hair pasted to its body, or of having to spend an hour fluffing its fur out to dry with its paws and tongue. Another benefit of its soft fur is resistance to matting. Very little grooming is required.

This is a naturally occurring breed that has evolved to suit the environment it has lived in for thousands of years. It is strong, vigorous, and healthy. There are no genetic problems known with this breed.

One exception that must be noted is the all white Van, with no color at all, which is prone to deafness, or at least hearing disorders. This is a common defect with many all-white animals. There is, in fact, a specific name for the all white Van: the Turkish Vankedisi. It has not been accepted as a Turkish Van, but has had some limited acceptance as a breed of its own class, most notably from the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy in Britain. In Britain, most Turkish Vankedisi crossings are with a Turkish Van so as to minimize any hearing disorders associated with the all white coloring.

The Van typically has very large ears when it is a kitten, growing into its ears over time. The nose is straight and Asiatic, considered long for a semi-longhair, and with its high cheek bones, and startlingly bright eyes, it gives off quite an exotic appearance. It is common to find Turkish Vans with odd eye colors. That is, one blue and one amber eye. This striking, naturally occurring feature is not only acceptable but is expected in the Van cat's home country. Outside of Turkey, the Van breed shows up more often with matching eyes, either blue, or amber, by design. This western preference for matching eyes in the Van cat is a source of amusement to the people of the Lake Van region of Turkey.

Personality and Temperament

The Turkish Van is extremely energetic and active. It is always on the move, jumping on shelves, prancing about the house or simply amusing itself by playing a game. It is not known for being a floor cat, preferring to be at the top of everything, watching the happenings below. High energy paired with a love of high places makes the Van a bit careless when it comes to ornaments you might find valuable but which the Van finds to be simple obstructions. If you have settled on a Van as the companion you want to bring into your home, expect things to be knocked from shelves. If you are a collector of objects, you will want to prevent the loss of your treasured objects by keeping them low and safe. Use the high shelves for unbreakable objects.

Like a lion, the Van loves to survey its "pride" from on high, secure in its home and the people it has bonded with. And like a lion, the Van is known for being brave, and for being an excellent hunter. It can be very protective, growling when it hears unusual sounds from outside. The Van cat builds a strong, close bond with one or two people, remaining devoted for a lifetime; it does not do well to change owners.

It loves to go swimming, so you'll frequently find the cat in the swimming pool or lake (if you have them nearby). The fascination with water extends to all water, so care is necessary when it comes to the bathroom. Keeping the toilet closed is important for your cat's safety. Otherwise, allowing your Van to play with the faucets, or with bowls of water, will be an ideal recreation. The cat is also very vocal and loves to be the center of attention, especially during dinner.

History and Background

This cat breed has lived in the Lake Van region of Turkey (and the areas bordering it) for centuries, hence its name. It's uncertain when the Van made this region their home, but ornaments, drawings, carvings, and jewelry, from at least 5000 years ago, have been found during archaeological digs around the City of Van and its surrounding regions, all bearing the likeness of a semi-longhaired cat with a ring around its tail, much like the Van.

The length of time it has spent in the region might also be determined by how well it has adapted to the seasonal climates of the Eastern Turkey area, where Lake Van is located. Remote, mountainous, and rugged, it sits more than 5,600 feet above sea level, with long, frigid winters, and comparatively hot summers.

The Van cat has physically adapted by growing its hair in thick and full for the winter, and then shedding its semi-long hair for the summer, appearing as a short-haired cat. Presumably, it adapted this trait so that it could swim to cool off.

It is believed the Van came to Europe between 1095 and 1272 A.D. Originally brought by soldiers returning from the Crusades, it was transported throughout the Eastern continents by invaders, traders, and explorers. Over the years, the Van cats have been called by a variety of names, including Eastern Cat, Turkish, Ringtail Cat, and Russian Longhair.

In 1955, two British photographers, Laura Lushington and Sonia Halliday, while on assignment in Turkey for the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, were given two unrelated Van cats, which Lushington took home with her and allowed to mate. When the offspring came out identical to their parents -- chalk white with dark tail and head markings, she realized that they were pure breed cats, and she set to breeding the Van cat and having it recognized by the British cat fancy organizations. Lushington returned to Turkey to find another pair, with the goal of breeding to the standard "three clear generations."

She stayed true to her ideal of perfection in the Van line, breeding only within the stock of authentic Turkish Van's, and refusing to outcross to other breeds, thereby preserving the features the Van breed had carried through hundreds of generations. She gave little thought to the conformation of the Van to the already set standards, insisting that the Van had its own established standard that must be held to.

Her labor was finally rewarded in 1969, when the Turkish Van was given full pedigree status by The Governing Council of the Cat Fancy.

The Van began to be imported into America in the 1970s. Beginning in 1983, two Florida breeders, Barbara and Jack Reark, worked hard to popularize this breed, and in 1985, The International Cat Association granted the Turkish Van championship status. In 1988, the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) accepted the breed for registration in the miscellaneous class. The CFA later bestowed provisional status to the Van in 1993, and Championship status in 1994. In that first year, four Turkish Vans attained the grand title.

It is still possible to import a Turkish Van from its homeland, but imports are rare. The Van cat has long been considered a national treasure, and is relatively rare in population.

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