What is a Turkish Van cat?
Someone tells you they just acquired a new pet. They say the pet has boundless energy and loves nothing more than a vigorous swim in the lake. Throw a ball and the new pet will fetch. This pet loves the company of dogs and people, and follows its new owner around the house. When the doorbell rings, it growls protectively.
What kind of pet did they get? (Hint: it’s not a Labrador retriever.)
All of these qualities, in fact, describe a most unusual breed of cat called the Turkish Van.
What does a Turkish Van look like?
The Turkish Van is good-sized, semi-longhaired cat, that has a well-muscled body and biggish paws. Males typically weigh 16 pounds, females are 12 to14 pounds.
I know I just said “semi-longhaired” but in fact, the cat’s coat is really two lengths. In winter a Turkish Van’s hair is thick and long with a robust ruff at the chest and little tufts of fur between the toes. In summer, her hair grows shorter and lighter.
A Turkish Van’s coat is very special. While many types of cats have up to three kinds of hair in their coats (guard, down, and awn), the Turkish Van has only one: the awn layer, which makes them feel like they’re covered in cashmere or rabbit fur. It also makes the cat look very sleek and has the effect of making a Turkish Van surprisingly water repellent. This nearly waterproof fur makes trying to bathe a Turkish Van a challenge. At least they dry off quickly.
But the most outstanding physical characteristic of the Turkish Van is its unusual coat pattern, which is nearly all white, except for the head and bushy tail which can be any number of colors but is usually red or brown. This is such an unusual coat pattern that in the 1970s the Cat Fanciers’ Association started calling any other breed of cat that happened to have these particular markings “van,” as in a “Van Persian.”
The color pattern is the result of the piebald gene, a gene that can also affect other animals, including horses and humans. Basically, an animal with a piebald gene has pigmented skin, but unpigmented spots of hair, feathers, or scales. In the Turkish Van’s case, the unpigmented “spots” are so large that they cover almost his entire body.
Some Turkish Vans also have a little patch of color on their backs which people of the Islamic faith sometimes refer to as the “thumbprint of Allah.”
Since this cat is slow to mature, you won’t get the full effect of your kitten’s magnificent coat for a while. The Turkish Van doesn’t reach full maturity until 3-5 years of age, so her coat won’t be completely filled in until then.
Turkish Vans have blue or amber eyes or one of each, which is common in this breed and called heterochromia iridium. Actually, there are more Turkish Vans in the U.S. with matching eyes than in Turkey where many of the breed’s ancestors hailed from, because according to PetMd.com, Americans seem to have a preference for coordinating eyes.
What is a Turkish Van’s personality?
You don’t get a Turkish Van if you want a lap cat. If you want a playful, energetic athlete who spends more time leaping in a single bound to the top of the refrigerator than sleeping, then this is the cat for you.
The Turkish Van is not for the cat owner who wants the quintessential “independent” cat. The Turkish Van develops strong bonds with their owners, and they like a lot of attention. Like a dog, a Turkish Van typically follows his favorite person around the house. They can be chatty with their owners, too, but fortunately, have soft voices.
Just because they’re attentive to their owners doesn’t mean they like to cuddle. Turkish Vans are friendly and loving and enjoy some petting, but they don’t love to be picked up and held.
They do like being entertained. They can learn to fetch, and like a dog, will bring you a ball to throw for them. They can – and should – be taught tricks to keep their minds busy. They also enjoy puzzle toys that allow them to exercise their intellect.
Turkish Vans are exuberant acrobats who can catch something tossed mid-flight, or turn somersaults mid-air while playing a bit too vigorously with a fishing-rod toy. They’re well built for leaping. They have powerful hind legs that make them great jumpers and climbers.
Turkish Vans are not just people friendly. They do seem to enjoy having other animals in the house. They love others of their kind especially, but will accept other breeds of cats, too. They even enjoy playing with cat-friendly dogs.
The Turkish Van can be a bit mischievous. If you have Hummel collection, find another cat. This one loves, loves, loves to knock things off shelves.
One of the strangest characteristics of this breed is its protectiveness. Some individuals will actually growl like dogs when they hear unusual sounds from outside. Diane Marcus, owner of several Turkish Vans, wrote about them in an article published by The Cat Fanciers’ Association. She said, “I have one Turkish Van who usually growls if she is standing in the front hall and hears the doorbell ring.”
But the most outstanding and strange Turkish Van personality trait is the cat’s love of water and swimming. In Turkey, free-roaming Turkish Vans are known for taking themselves for a swim in shallow streams and rivers. In an American or European household they may help themselves to a dip in the pool.
But even without access to a body of water large enough to swim in, Turkish Vans will find a way to have fun with water. If you have a Turkish Van, you may witness him stirring the water in his bowls or dropping his toys in the toilet. Some learn to turn on faucets by themselves or flush the toilet. They like cat water fountains and have been known to stare at the trickling water for hours.
What is the history of the Turkish Van?
The Turkish Van is an ancient breed of cat, believed to have been around for at least five thousand years. There are artifacts dating from 6000 BC to 3000 BC that depict cats who resemble this breed.
The Turkish Van originally hails from Armenia, Iran, parts of the Soviet Union, and Turkey. “Van” is actually a common name in these parts. There are towns, villages, and lakes called Van.
Interestingly (and to make matters very confusing) there is an all-white breed of cat who also likes to swim, in the area around Lake Van in Turkey. The people of this region noticed this unique cat wandering around and called it “Van kedisi” which literally means “Van cat.”
But the Turkish Van cats we are writing about are actually called Turkish Vankedisi, which sounds and looks similar to “Van kedisi” but is not exactly the same thing.
Turkish Van cats were introduced to the rest of Europe, and eventually North America, by way of two British photographers on vacation in Turkey. Laura Lushington and Sonia Halliday were gifted a male/female pair, and Lushington’s writings from that time period seem to state that they got their cats from an area that was most definitely NOT Lake Van. In fact, Lushington didn’t even get to visit the Lake Van area for another eight years.
In any event, “Van cats” are considered a distinctive “landrace” (a local, traditional variety) of cats from the “Turkish Van” breed that has been recognized by cat fancier clubs since the 1980s.
As old as the breed is, it’s among the rarest cats in the world. Cat Fanciers' Association recognizes only about 100 Van kittens in the U.S. a year.
How to care for your Turkish Van cat
The Turkish Van is a hearty, healthy breed of cat that requires minimal maintenance.
Like all cats, this one needs regular claw trimming, teeth brushing, and good nutrition.
The Turkish Van’s unusual coat doesn’t shed much, and requires only weekly combing as it’s not prone to matting.
Fortunately, this cat requires infrequent baths. For a cat who loves the water so much, they certainly despise taking a bath.
Read about the Turkish Angora cat, too. You may be surprised to learn about the possibly entwined history of this other Turkish cat.
Love Pinterest? Here's a Pinterest-friendly pin for your boards.
Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 “Turkkilainen Van / Turkish Van - FI*Kuukissan Kissala.” Google Sites, sites.google.com/site/kuukissankissala/turkkilainen-van.
 “Turkish Van.” Purina, www.purina.co.uk/cats/cat-breeds/library/turkish-van.
 “Turkish Van.” Purina, www.purina.co.uk/cats/cat-breeds/library/turkish-van
 Basepaws. “The Turkish Van - The Rare and Ancient.” BASEPAWS, 29 July 2020, www.basepaws.com/blog/the-turkish-van-the-rare-and-ancient/.