The Turkish Van is a natural breed, known for its distinctive color pattern. In fact, the word "van" is now used by the cat fancy to describe white cats with colored head and tail markings. The Van body is moderately long, broad, sturdy, deep-chested and muscular. Mature males show marked muscular development in the neck and shoulders; the shoulders are at least as broad as the head and flow into the well-rounded rib cage and then into a muscular hip and pelvic area. The legs are muscular, moderately long and set wide apart. The tail is long but in proportion to the body, with a brush appearance. Tail hair is long and full. Adult males weigh 12 to 17 pounds; adult females weigh 9 to 13 pounds. The Van can take three to five years to reach full maturity, so show judges take gender and age into account when judging the Van.
The head is a substantially broad wedge with gentle contours and a medium length nose, prominent cheekbones, and a firm chin in a straight line with the medium length nose—all harmonizing with the large, muscular body. In profile, the nose has a slight dip below eye level. The muzzle is rounded. The ears are moderately large, wide at the base, set fairly high and well apart. The tips are slightly rounded; the insides are well feathered. The clear, alert, and expressive eyes are moderately large with a rounded aperture that is slightly drawn out at the corners and set at a slant, equidistant from the outside base of the ear to the tip of the nose.
The Van’s fine, silky-smooth coat lies flat and lacks a wooly undercoat, making it gloriously touchable and resistant to matting as well. The adult coat is semi-long, soft, and water-resistant. Feathering is seen on the ears, legs, feet, and belly; facial fur is short. The coat changes according to season; in summer it is short, and in winter it’s substantially longer and thicker. The neck ruff and full tail plume become more prominent with age.
The only pattern accepted is glistening chalk white with colored markings, preferably only on the head and tail. In CFA, one or more random colored markings covering up to 15 percent of the entire body (excluding head and tail color) are permissible, but not of a size or number that detract from the van pattern, making the cat appear to be bicolor rather than van. Color in excess of 15 percent is a disqualifying fault. Other associations are a bit more liberal. In TICA, AFCA, and AACE, for example, colored markings up to 20 percent of the body (including the head and tail) are acceptable, as long as they do not detract from the van pattern.
Color is required on the head from eye level up to the back of the head and on the tail. Markings may be any other color and white, with the exception of those showing evidence of hybridization resulting in such colors as chocolate and lilac, etc., and the pointed pattern. The eye colors are amber, blue or odd-eyed, and the color may fade with age. The breed has no allowable outcrosses.
Several tall tales are told about the origins of the Turkish Van. One that Turkish Van fanciers tell with enthusiasm involves two longhaired, ring-tailed cats that were along for the ride on Noah’s Ark. When they reached Mount Ararat in what is now Turkey, the cats leapt into the water and swam for dry land where they’ve lived ever since.
The actual history of this magnificently tailed swimming cat is at least as intriguing as the legends. Although the Turkish Van is a relative newcomer to the United States, this natural breed has lived in the Van region for thousands of years. Vans can also be found in the nearby areas of Armenia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and areas of the former Soviet Union. No kind and gentle environment here; Lake Van, the largest lake in Turkey and one of the highest lakes in the world, knows extreme temperatures in both summer and winter. Because summer temperatures reach well above 100 degrees, the Van may have learned to swim to cool off. Or perhaps the breed was hunting herring, the only fish that can survive in the briny water of Lake Van. Whatever the reason for the Van’s tolerance of water, it probably explains the development of the cashmere-like, water-repellent coat, which enables the Van to swim and come out relatively dry.
No one knows for sure when the cats arrived in the Lake Van region for which the breed was named. Ornaments depicting cats that look remarkably like the Turkish Van date as far back as 1600 B.C.E. in the mountainous regions around Lake Van. If these artifacts depict actual Van cats, the breed could be one of the oldest in existence. According to some, the breed should be called the Armenian Van, because the land around Lake Van was ruled by the Armenians for many years before Turkish rule. Local Armenian folk stories and songs mention the Van cat.
In the Lake Van region and surrounding areas, the Van was and still is treasured for its hardiness, temperament, and lovely fur. Turkey is largely a Muslim country, and Turkish Vans that have the "thumbprint of god" pattern are highly prized. These Vans have a color patch between the shoulder blades called the Mark of Allah, and it’s believed these special cats have been blessed.
Vans were reportedly first brought to Europe by soldiers returning from the Crusades around 1291 C.E. Over the centuries, Vans were transported throughout Middle Eastern countries by the many invaders, traders, and explorers.
The modern history of the Van breed begins in the mid-1900s. In 1955, while photographing Lake Van, British citizens Laura Lushington and Sonia Halliday became fascinated by the beautiful Van cats of the area. Lushington was given a pair of auburn and white Van cats because of the work she had done for the Turkish Tourist Board. She began a breeding program and eventually imported three more Vans in 1959. The breed was registered with the British GCCF as "Turkish cats." In 1969, the Turkish Van was given full championship status by the GCCF.
The first Van kittens arrived in the United States in the 1970s, but it was not until breeders Barbara and Jack Reark imported two Vans from France in 1983 that the breed began to flourish in North America. Acceptance from many of the cat registries quickly followed. In 1985, TICA granted the Turkish Van championship status. CFA accepted the breed for championship in 1994. Today, the Turkish Van is still one of the lesser known breeds, but has a spirited group of fanciers. Since Turkish Vans are rare and breeders few, demand usually exceeds supply. According to CFA’s 2014 registration totals, the Turkish Van ranked 38th out of the 41 breeds CFA accepts for championship.
Because a 1992 survey by a Turkish university found only 92 pure Turkish Van cats in their native region, the Turkish government officially recognized the breed in the mid-1990s and added breeding facilities at the Ankara zoo for the Van in order to preserve the breed, just as they did for the Turkish Angora. Vans are now considered a national treasure in the Republic of Turkey, and are no longer permitted to be exported; most breeding stock imported into America comes from European countries. Because the gene pool in the United States is still quite small, and because breeding the Van with other breeds is not allowed, Vans from Australia, Sweden, and England are imported to add vigor to the existing lines.