Getting to Know the Turkish Van

By Dusty Rainbolt
from The Cat Fanciers' Association Complete Cat Book

The dilemma occurs in many families. One parent wants a cat; the kids want a Labrador Retriever. It sounds like a hopeless deadlock, doesn't it? It is not if you consider adding a Turkish Van to the family.

A Turkish Van offers the best of both worlds. In addition to the traits that endear people to cats, Vans also have traits that are almost exclusively associated with some hunting dogs; they are loyal companions, love a good game of fetch and, under the right circumstances, enjoy a cool dip in the pool. They do not, however, retrieve ducks.

The Turkish Van is a natural breed that originated centuries ago around the Lake Van area in what is now part of Turkey. Along with its legendary love of water, Turkish Vans are known for their full brush-like tail, exquisitely soft cashmere fur, strong muscular body and high level of intelligence. And, of course, what the public knows best about the breed is its distinctive van pattern.

It is thought that the van pattern originated centuries ago with the Turkish Van, and it is now found in a variety of pedigreed as well as mixed breed cats. A van-patterned cat is an all-white cat with colored markings restricted primarily to the head and tail. The van pattern is due to the degree of expression of the piebald gene. This gene is responsible for the appearance of white on cats in many patterns, such as the tuxedo, bicolor, and harlequin patterns. The different degree of expression of the piebald gene ranges on a scale of one to ten; a tuxedo pattern cat is a two, a bicolor is a 5 and an all white cat is a 10. So a Van patterned cat with color on the head and tail is in the eight to nine range.

The pedigreed Turkish Van is a chalk-white, semi-longhaired cat with the color of their van pattern occurring in red, black, brown tabby, patched tabby, or with the dilute versions (e.g., blue, cream) of those colors. A white blaze from the nose to past the ears is most desirable, creating two matched head markings. Very expressive peach-pit shaped eyes, which come in amber, glacial blue, or one blue and one amber (also known as 'odd eyed'), complete the Van's ensemble.

Some Van cats possess a colored marking on their shoulder called the "Mark" or "Thumbprint of Allah" in its homeland. It is considered a sign that the cat has been blessed.

The tail has become one of the Turkish Van's most distinguished trademarks. Some people say it resembles the tail of a fox. Although Van kittens' tails are almost pencil-like, the mature cat has a tail that remains full and plush year-round. Not only is the tail beautiful, but it is also expressive. Like the Van itself, the tail is frequently in action. Although Vans will thrash their tails about when angry or agitated, their tails often flick and sway even when they are completely relaxed and happy.

The Van's fur is also distinctive in that it has no woolly undercoat. The fur feels like cashmere, almost rabbit-like in softness. In the wild, this unique coat repels water during their renowned swims in the shallow waters around Lake Van (Turkey) or, in the case of domesticated cats, in swimming pools or ponds. Turkish Vans are one of the easiest longhaired cats to care for. Most of them have a wash-and-wear, non-matting coat requiring no special shampoos and no blow-drying. Their fur is generally thicker and longer in the winter and shorter in the summer as a result of climatic extremes in their native land. But even cats that live indoors are affected by changes in the seasons that influence the thickness and length of their coats.

Vans are wide-bodied, among the largest of all domestic breeds and just slightly smaller than the Maine Coon. Vans are more densely muscled. The head is wide and moderately wedge shaped. Generally, a mature Van's chest is broad enough to fit several fingers between his front legs. The body is long, sturdy and muscular.

It is not uncommon for the casual observer to assume that the Turkish Van is simply a Turkish Angora with different markings. In reality, these cats are quite distinctive from each other in appearance. A side-by-side comparison will illustrate that the Angora is a delicate, finely boned cat, whereas the Van possesses impressive mass. Most other breeds of cat achieve their full size at two to three years, the Turkish Van can take up to five years to reach full maturity. A CFA Allbreed judge once said, "Angoras are the ballerinas of the Turkish cats; Vans are the sumo wrestlers." The Van's well-feathered ears are large, set fairly high, and well apart, rounded at the tips. The ears of the Angora are more erect. Instead of two triangles sitting straight up on the top of the head, like an Angora, the Van's ears sit closer to the corners of the head with the inside edge slightly tilted towards the outside.

Their Personality

Turkish Van

Turkish Vans are not graceful cats. They are action-packed comedians on a level with Chevy Chase or Jerry Lewis, occasionally toppling things, then looking at you as if to say, "I meant to do that." Most people fortunate enough to be owned by a Van agree that life is never dull. Vans like interactive games with their owners. They love toys made of natural materials like feathers or fur on a string. A constant supply of new toys should keep Vans entertained for hours. New toys are often required due to the vigorous play they lavish on their favorite old ones.

Another favorite past time common to most Vans is a vigorous game of fetch. What they fetch is up to the individual taste of the individual Van. Some like balls of paper; others cannot resist milk jug rings. Still others prefer wads of tape and countless other things. The pitcher's arm is likely to tire before the cat does. Still, it is hard to say no when you see him trot up with his favorite toy in his mouth and drop it at your feet or on your keyboard as if to say, "please."

These cats have amazing problem-solving abilities and the energy to carry through schemes like climbing into cabinets. Sometimes, this can be a problem in itself, but most of the time, they challenge their humans to keep up with them. Although they aren't big on being held or carried, when playtime is over they do like to curl up next to their owners or crawl in their laps while they read a book or enjoy a good rerun on television. Turkish Vans seldom argue about which channel to watch. Like dogs, they are immensely loyal to their chosen masters. When times are tough, your cat will let you know he is your friend through it all.

Although they have earned the name "Swimming Cat," most Vans do not swim because of a lack of available pool or pond options, but they are still fascinated by running water or a dripping faucet. It is not uncommon to see them dip a paw in the water bowl and then lick it or shake the paw to watch the drops fly. Do not be surprised if you have assistance shaving or showering in the mornings. The cats also have voracious appetites to fuel their activities.

Coat Care and Maintenence

One of the great things about Turkish Vans is that despite their splendid semi-long hair and elegant appearance, they are low-maintenance cats. The cashmere quality of their fur and the absence of an undercoat make them a wash-and-wear-cat. Owners of pet-quality Vans need only run an occasional comb through the coat to get rid of the dead hair. Turkish Vans with a heavy winter coat will need more attention than when sporting their summery rabbit-like coat. It is easy to determine if their winter coats are dead by its straw-like texture. Usually, Vans do not need daily grooming and are meticulous in maintaining their appearance. Clipping nails weekly will keep the Van accustomed to the procedure.

While you are at it, take a quick peek inside the ears to check for dirt.

Bathing a Turkish Van is a combination of ease and challenge. It has been written that since Vans love water, they also love to take a bath. That is like saying if a five year-old boy enjoys playing in the swimming pool, it should be no problem to get him in the bathtub for a good scrubbing. The truth is they feel the same as other breeds about this: if it is your idea, he would probably rather not bathe, thank you. However, if you start bathing him when he is young, he will generally become accustomed to it and, ultimately, more accepting.

The Vans are extremely clean cats so regular bathing is not necessary. In the event a bath is needed, a good quality shampoo made specifically for cats will generally suffice. However, for specific problem areas or if preparing your Van for a cat show, additional bathing steps are required. If you have a cat with a lot of oil in his fur or a bad case of stud tail, you can utilize a degreasing shampoo (several varieties are made especially for cats) or diluted 1:1 dishwashing detergent (e.g., Dawn®) for an initial bathing followed by their regular shampoo. Remember to rinse the cat thoroughly after bathing, leaving no residual shampoo. This is particularly important for the Turkish Van whose thick fur tends to hold the soap.

Since Turkish Vans do not have the undercoat that complicates life for other breeds, they can simply air dry in a warm room. Cat show judges prefer Vans squeaky clean, so don't make the mistake of powdering them, except for a light touch to offset some of the problems of stud tail. If the Van's freshly washed coat looks a little clumpy, it could be because there is still soap in the fur. Go back and rinse, rinse, rinse.

If you plan on showing your Turkish Van, they should enter kitten classes at four months to enable them to become accustomed to handling by judges and the sights and smells of a crowded show hall. These cannot be replicated at home. In preparing a kitten for its show career, you should practice stretching the kitten and turning its head as part of its play routine, so that the kitten will be well accustomed to these things when a judge does it. They do not like being held up in the air like many of the other breeds, and prefer to keep all four feet on the judging stand. "Stretching" entails placing one hand supporting the chest behind the kitten's front legs and another supporting their belly in front of their hind legs. Gently separate your hands to stretch the kitten to their length, which displays their full body. After a little practice, your kitten will enjoy being carried like this. The Vans' center of gravity is towards the front of the body and they simply do not feel comfortable on two feet. But they can learn to be stretched and held up like Turkish Angoras and Siamese, provided they get practice at home. Start with short holds before or after the cat receives a treat. Gradually increase the length of time the cat is held and begin moving around the room.

Although Vans demand attention from their owner and could easily spend the evening lounging next to you or snoozing in your lap, many do not like being carried around or manhandled. It is the same difference as swimming or taking a bath; it has to be their idea. That is why practicing before a cat show is very important.

Breed History

These cats go by numerous names: Turkish Vans, Vancats (the "a" being pronounced like the "o" in Ron, not "a" as in "ran") and of course, The Swimming Cat. Whatever you call them, the breed is an ancient, non-manmade breed from the Middle East still very much in its original form.

Evidence of cats called Turkish Vans goes back to the Bronze Age. The first record of a white, semi-longhaired cat with ringed tails appeared as carvings on Hittite jewelry sometime between 1600-1200 BC. The land changed hands several times and was conquered by the Romans (AD 75-387). A cat with a "light self-color and a ringed tail" was adopted by one Roman legion to display on their battle standard and armor. A natural and ancient breed, the Turkish Van originally roamed the Lake Van region of Turkey not far from Mount Ararat. This is where the breed received its reputation as the "Swimming Cat" by going for a dip in the mountain streams to cool off when the Turkish summers become sweltering hot.

If Turkish Vans could talk, they would tell us tales of a long history. However, jumping ahead two thousand years, two photographers from England were given a pair of unrelated cats while traveling around Turkey for the Turkish Tourist Board in 1954. When they returned to England with their feline treasures, they discovered that they bred true. The kittens were replicas of their parents.

In 1983, a husband and wife from Florida imported Turkish Vans from France and later from Holland. Other breeders followed suit and imported more cats from England and from their original homeland in eastern Turkey. CFA began registering the Turkish Van in February 1988. The Van was granted provisional status in 1993 and was advanced to championship status in February 1994.

The Turkish Van has a mind of its own but also has fierce loyalty to and love for its owner. If you do not mind stepping over a few toys, building up your pitching arm and occasionally wearing out a toy, then a Turkish Van might just be the right cat for you.

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