The Turkish Van is a striking, silky cat with a white body and colored head and tail. True to its name, it's thought to hail from modern-day Turkey’s eastern Lake Van region. Here are seven facts about the gorgeous kitty.
1. THE TURKISH VAN IS LIKELY AN OLD BREED ...
Like many cat breeds, no one quite knows the Turkish Van’s true origins. According to legend, ancestors of the Turkish Van sailed aboard Noah’s Ark. Once the boat reached Mount Ararat—a volcanic mountain in eastern Turkey that serves as the Biblical vessel’s mythical landing place—the cats hopped off and swam for dry land. God blessed them, and his divine touch caused their white coats to develop their signature coloration. These cats became the progenitors for the Turkish Van breed.
In reality, the Turkish Van breed probably developed in central and southwest Asia. It's believed that the furry cat has lived in Turkey’s isolated Lake Van region—a mountainous area that’s home to the country’s largest lake—for generations, thanks to local legends, traditional folk songs, and ancient artifacts that reference the cat and its unusual markings. The Turkish Van has reportedly also been spotted in neighboring countries including Iran, Iraq, and parts of the former Soviet Union.
2. ... BUT THE CAT WAS ONLY RECENTLY RECOGNIZED IN AMERICA.
The Turkish Van eventually migrated from Turkey to central Europe, possibly thanks to merchants, explorers, military troops, or returning Crusaders, who brought the cat home with them during the late 13th century. But according to most sources, the cat didn’t make its mark on the world until the mid-1950s, when two British women named Laura Lushington and Sonia Halliday were photographing Lake Van for the Turkish Tourist Board; when they had finished their project, the Tourist Board thanked them with a pair of unrelated dark red and white felines. Lushington took them back to England, began breeding the kitties, and imported more cats from Turkey to further the bloodline.
Eventually, the foreign breed was registered with the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF). Originally called “Turkish cats,” their name was later changed to the Turkish Van to avoid confusion with the Turkish Angora breed. (Over the years, the Turkish Van has also been known by a handful of other names.) In 1969, the GCCF officially granted the Van full championship status.
No one knows quite how or when Turkish Vans made their way to America, but in the early 1980s, two breeders named Barbara and Jack Reark imported two of the cats from France, helping to pave the way for the Van’s acceptance as a new breed. By 1985, The International Cat Association (TICA) also recognized the Van, and the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) followed suit in 1994.
The Turkish Van is still relatively rare in America, so if you want to purchase one you might have to search long and hard for a breeder who sells the silky kitties. In 2013, CFA registration statistics showed that the Turkish Van ranked 41st in popularity out of the 43 breeds the organization accepts for championship status—probably because so few of them exist in the U.S.
3. THE TURKISH VAN IS PROTECTED IN ITS NATIVE LAND.
Even though the Turkish Van is beloved in the Republic of Turkey, one 1992 survey revealed that only 92 of the purebred felines remained in the country's Lake Van region. To expand the cat's bloodline, the Turkish government officially recognized the Van and launched measures to protect it, while a local university developed breeding programs. Today, very few Turkish Vans are exported to other countries, and most of America’s breeding stock comes from Europe.
4. THE TERM "VAN MARKINGS" WAS COINED TO DESCRIBE THE TURKISH VAN'S COAT.
If you’re a cat aficionado, you’ve likely heard the term Van markings, which describes a mostly-white feline with colored markings that are restricted to its head and tail. This phrase was originally coined to describe the Turkish Van’s unique coloration. The Van’s markings can come in multiple shades, including red, cream, black, and blue, and patterns like tabby and tortoiseshell [PDF]. Cat registries have rules about how many colored markings can cover the white portion of the Van’s body before it’s considered a bicolor cat instead of a Turkish Van. The CFA, in particular, only allows for 15 percent of the Van's entire body, excluding the head and tail color, to be colored.
You’ll also find solid white Turkish Vans, and Vans that have been “blessed” with a color patch between their shoulder blades; cat fanciers refer to this as the “Mark of Allah.”
Aside from its markings, the Van is known for its beautiful fur. It has a plumed tail, and a silky, semi-long coat that’s water-repellant. The coat is thick and dense in the winter, sheds to a shorter length in the summer, and has no undercoat, so it’s tangle-free and easy to groom. This fur covers a broad-chested, muscular body, which according to some accounts, can weigh anywhere from 7 to 20 pounds.
5. TURKISH VAN CATS SOMETIMES HAVE ODD-COLORED EYES.
Turkish Van kittens are initially born with pale blue eyes, which change to a deeper blue or amber as they grow older. Occasionally, you’ll also see a Van with one amber eye and one blue eye, or two blue eyes of different hues. This unusual trait stems from the cat’s piebald white spotting gene, which sometimes prevents melanin, or pigment, from imbuing one eye’s iris with color.
6. TURKISH VAN CATS ARE SAID TO LOVE WATER.
Turkish Vans are often called “the swimming cats” because they’re said to love water. Fans of the fluffy feline claim they’ve seen the kitty jump into showers, pounce at dripping faucets, and splash through puddles, kiddie pools, and thunderstorms.
It’s unknown why Vans like water, but it’s likely that the breed developed its love for swimming—and its water-repellant coat—to hunt for the fish that live in Lake Van. Still, these claims are speculative, so unless your Turkish Van has proven its love for all things liquid, don’t try giving it a bath without clipping its claws first.
7. THE TURKISH VAN IS A LIVELY CAT.
If you’re looking for a quiet, cuddly lap cat, the Turkish Van is not the pet for you. But if you’re looking for a livewire feline that likes to play games, leap onto high surfaces, and race around the house, the Van might be your best bet.