An Insiders View of the Turkish Van
By Deborah C. Hayes, Ph.D. & Karen L. Hooker, Ph.D., Pairodocs Turkish Vans
After arriving in the US in 1982, 17 years later the Turkish Van is relatively
unknown in the U.S. Currently you may only see them in certain geographical regions. Many
people in the cat fancy, judges and exhibitors alike, have told us they know little about
them, other than that they swim. Since you cant take a swimming pool in the judging
ring, it is difficult to know what to look for in a Turkish Van. So we are taking this
opportunity to let you into the little known world of "Vandom", with hints on
what to look for in the breed, along with a few secrets that we have picked up over the
Turkish Vans are an ancient breed with deep roots in Armenian history. They originated in
the Lake Van, which is currently included in the boundaries of Turkey. With the shifting
political boundaries of the Middle East, the geographic area of Lake Van now includes
Georgia (USSR), Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Azerbaijan and new Armenia. Turkish Vans can be
imported for CFA registration from any of those countries. In both Turkey and Armenia,
they are called "Vancats", but to help distinguish them from Turkish Angoras in
the United States, we prefer to call them as just "Vans". The Turkish Angora
breed has full ownership of the nickname "Turkie".
The first record of white, semi-longhaired cats with ringed tails were carvings on Hittite
jewelry, and later on seals and ornaments. The color pattern and semi-long hair was
already established when the Romans conquered the area. It appears that one Roman legion
adopted the image as their battle standard as it is found on a Roman shield, dated AD
75-387, which is now found in the Louver Museum, Paris. What better symbol for a soldier
than a cat which can look after itself in the unforgiving environment of the Middle East.
Pictures have also been noted in friezes on the walls of ancient Armenian churches in the
Lake Van area.
The swimming trait is also very old, since an Armenian folk song from the Middle Ages
mentions the experiences of a swimming Van cat and a fisherman. Van cats are also visible
in more recent history, such as the book, "The Cats of Van", written in the
early 1900s. References to Van cats are found in common sayings in Armenia. The
first Secretary of the Communist Party in Armenia (1930) was ardent in his political
beliefs, and it was often remarked. "He is as red as a Van cats tail!"
Vans are still revered in Turkey, where they are considered a national treasure, and in
Armenia, where a new breeding program has recently been initiated by the Armenian
"Vancat Club" with assistance of US breeders.
In 1955, two English women were traveling in the Lake Van region of eastern Turkey when
they noticed several semi-longhaired white cats with red head and tails. They observed
that the cats seemed to have an affinity for water and were often seen swimming in Lake
Van. They took two cats back to England with them, returning for two more cats after a
time. Another English cat fancier, Lydia Russell, became interested in the cats and
developed a serious breeding program, working with dedicated breeders in England,
Australia, Sweden, Europe and South Africa. Her diligent work and intelligent approach to
improving the gene pool took the breed from a novelty to a widely recognized and popular
breed around the world.
The Turkish Van, as a breed, was formally recognized in 1969 with acceptance in
championship by the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy (GCCF), followed by acceptance in
Australian, Scandinavian, European, and South African registries. They were accepted for
registration and champion status in The International Cat Association (TICA) in 1988 and
for registration in the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) in 1988, moving up to championship
status in 1994. A more in-depth history of the Turkish Van can be found in the CFA Almanac
article, Turkish Vans Rediscovered: A Living History, October, 1994.
II. General Appearance
The overall look of the adult Van is one of balance, proportion and power. The fur is
semi-long haired, never long-haired. There are few tendencies towards extremes in any
feature. Thus when looking at these cats, no single characteristic should stand out. If
the first thought that comes to mind is "That cat has big ears", or " That
cat has a really long body", then those features are not in proportion. When a Van
has a balanced look, the mind registers the entire cat as a single picture rather than one
characteristic. The look of power comes from the fact that the Van has a very dense body
due to the high proportion of muscle mass. They generally feel a lot heavier than they
Vans are not born as miniature adults. They go through dramatic changes in their lives,
with rapid and tremendous growth spurts until maturity at 5 years old. Females and males
can also look quite different even though the basic features and conformation are the
Kittens at 4 months old are skinny, with tall ears, skinny tails and big eyes. The most
prominent thing about their face is the very high cheekbones. They could easily be
mistaken for shorthairs, with a close laying coat and pencil tail. Rapid changes begin to
take place at about 6 months, when the coat begins to soften, the tails fluff out, and the
face begins to fill in (not looking quite so chiseled). Even in young kittens, the broad
chest and musculature are apparent.
As young adults, their tails should be well fluffed out like a traditional bottle brush,
but the coat is still not at full development. The eyes are more in proportion to the
head, which has broadened and filled in. The wedge should be clearly evident now, with
rounded curves of the cheekbones and a small rounded muzzle. Their ears do not appear as
big as when they were young kittens, but should still be medium large to large in size.
While the ears are set high, they are well apart on the head. Differences between males
and females are apparent now, with males gaining in size, weight, and development more
rapidly than females. At this stage, female Vans can often be mistaken for Japanese
Bobtails, from the front that is!
In 18 month old Vans, you can see nearly full development of the head even though they
have not gained full size, weight or coat length. The full lion-like ruff will appear when
they are sexually mature, although in some males it doesnt come out until they are
altered. The head has broadened considerable, and the ear set has shifted slightly, still
set fairly high but at the corners of the head.
The fully mature Van, at 5 years old, no longer bears any resemblance to any other breed.
They have a very broad head, thick neck, extremely well developed shoulders, very deep
chest, and a substantial body. There has been increased development in the hip area, so it
no longer appears narrow as in young adulthood. The coat is very plush and dense. The
ears, proportionately large as a kitten, do not grow at the same rate as the rest of the
head and are only medium large in size on mature specimens.
Vans are extremely intelligent cats that demand control of their environment. While they
are wonderful lap cats, they dont like to be carried around because in that
situation they are not in control. To this end, they can become cat burglars or escape
artists if they are unhappy with their present location, which can include show cages.
They are generally quiet cats, only talking when they truly have something to say.
However, occasionally a talker does appear, and this vocalization should not be construed
as threatening, unless it is accompanied by the growling and hissing that is a warning
sign in any breed. Just remember, Vans usually want the last word!
Due to the native Turkish lines in their ancestry, some individuals may startle readily
due to noise in the show hall, abrupt or quick handling, or close proximity to other cats.
Vans also have a characteristic of deep concentration and can intensely focus on objects
at shows (sometimes only visible to them!!) It is best to gently touch them to break this
concentration, as it is very easy to startle them in this state. Often times they can be
readily distracted from the source of their focus by the use of a feather or teaser.
Another characteristic, which affects their handling, is that when it comes to being hurt
or feeling pain, they are total cowards. For some reason, Vans have a much lower tolerance
for pain than other breeds. Even with a minor injury caused by their own clumsiness, they
put on a forlorn look and wonder why you dont drop everything and take care of them.
When vaccination time comes around, dont ever let them see the needle or you might
as well wait till the next day, because you wont be able to catch them for a couple
miles. Because of this, they may sometimes react quickly if they feel that someone will
potentially do them an injury. But they are also extremely caring and doting when they
feel a relative or friend isnt feeling well. They cuddle up to the ill party, giving
them soothing baths and even carrying pieces of food over to them.
A love of play and fetching is one of the most endearing characteristics of Vans. This
means they can be quite entertaining at shows, often forgetting they are in a less than
desirable situation. Dont drop a pencil or toy while handling one, or they will
bound off the stand after it. They can get rambunctious in their enthusiasm, and very
quick in grabbing the tease. Because of their strong jaws and determination, you should
sometimes be prepared to throw in the towel and forfeit the teaser. Since Vans are still
working cats in their own minds with the hunting instinct still active, they seem to
prefer toys or teasers that have been alive at one time. Pheasant feathers are their
favorite and kittens can get quite ferocious over a rabbit skin mouse.
Vancats in the Lake Van area are still working,
sometimes feral, alley cats. The Van breeders have made temperament a high priority in
their breeding programs since there are no other outcross breeds allowed which might
smooth out any excitability or territoriality. In the effort to increase the US gene pool,
new cats are still being imported from Turkey. Thus, every time a new cat is introduced,
the selective breeding for temperament must begin again. This heritage becomes more
apparent as the cat matures, with males becoming very territorial. They are often fine as
long as they do not see other males. Since Vans are often last in the judging ring, there
shouldnt be any reticence about placing them at the end of the judging ring out of
the line of sight of other cats. It will mean better results for both the cat and the
There have been a number of questions regarding handling of the Vans in the show ring.
Here are some of the tips and suggestion from breeders based on years of experience, which
might help to facilitate judging of a Turkish Van.
As mentioned, Vans are very intelligent and strong (mentally, as well as physically.) This
can affect the way they react to handling. In addition, due to body shape and
conformation, they do not balance well on their back feet when held up for closer
examination. Think of the Van as having a swimmers body, with a muscular chest and
forepaws, tapering to a slightly smaller hip area. Their center of gravity is towards the
front of their bodies. Requiring them to balance on their back legs takes away from their
center of gravity and this can cause them to feel insecure. For this reason, we have
included in the standard that the breed handles better with all four feet on the judging
To assess body conformation and musculature, it is easiest to bring the cat out of the
judging cage in a stretched out position and then allow the cat to stand on the table for
the rest of the evaluation. Kittens may try to curl up, but putting them on the stand
often relaxes them. This method has produced the best results for both judge and cat!
Vans also have an aversion to being forced to look any creature straight in the eyes
unless they are in the dominant position. This is considered an aggressive action. Any
feature which needs to be observed straight on is best done at a distance, on the table or
in the judging cage. Holding the cat with the feet off the stand and forcing them to look
straight into your face can make them extremely uncomfortable and wiggly.
By this same token, Vans hate to have their heads handled at all. They will struggle a
great deal and become upset if they are held by a hand clamped on the top of the head. It
is much better to hold them under the chin. If you can not get a clear view of the profile
on the judging stand, we suggest an alternate method. An easy way to observe the profile
and chin is to hold the cats body between your right arm and body with the right
hand firmly on the chest above the legs, and use the left hand to lift up the head from
under the chin. (Of course, reverse for lefties!) The cat will be secure in this manner,
and it is easier to control. Since it isnt necessary to feel the dip, the profile
could also be observed in the judging cage.
Head shape - The head is a substantially broad wedge ending in a small
rounded muzzle. The high prominent cheekbones show as gentle contours within the wedge.
The line of the ear is not included in the wedge of the face. When looking down on the
head of the cat and using the fingers at the side of the face to form a triangle, the
muzzle should fit well into the triangle, not forcing it open at the end. The whisker pads
should angle back in the wedge somewhat, rather than being squared off.
Nose/Profile - The nose is medium in length, but should be in proportion
with the ears. Extremely large ears can balance a slightly longer nose. The profile has a
slight dip below the eye level. The dip is often marked by a visible change in hair
direction on the nose. Too much of a dip results in a disproportionately shorter face and
muzzle, while too straight of a nose results in a longer looking face. Both extremes
result in a skewing of the wedge shape. It is not necessary to feel the nose to determine
the dip, if it is not visible, the nose is too straight. (A straight profile like a
Turkish Angora is a penalty). If it appears that the dip is extreme, it is appropriate to
check for a break. (A definite break is a disqualify). The chin should be in a straight
line with the end of the nose and upper lip.
Ears - The ears are moderately large to large. They should still be in proportion
to the face and give an alert pleasing look to the face. While setting fairly high, they
are also well apart at the edge of the head. They do not sit on the top of the head like
the Turkish Angora. The inside edge of the ear is slightly tilted toward the outside. The
outside edge of the ear is fairly (but not absolutely) parallel with the side of the face,
which allows the outside base of the ear to be slightly down the side of the head. This
gives the appearance of a tilted triangle, being slightly taller than the base. (The
Angora would be a straight triangle on the top of the head.) The tophead conforms to a
fairly straight line between the ears. If there is an apparent curve to the tophead, look
to see if the ears are flared out too far or are too far down the side of the head.
Eyes - The eyes are moderately large, a rounded aperture slightly drawn
out at the corners. An almond shape is considered too narrow, we prefer to refer to the
wide part of a walnut or a peach pit. The eyes are set at a slant, as forced by the
prominent cheekbones. This should give an uplifted tilt to the eye which makes them appear
very expressive and alert (crossed eyes are not allowed). The eye should be placed on a
line equidistant between the outside base of the ear and of the nose. This placement helps
keep the ears from coming too far down on side of the head and retains the proper
proportion to the face.
Body - The body is moderately long, not as long as the Maine Coon in
proportion. A short cobby body or a tubular, svelte body should be heavily penalized. The
feel should be of sturdy, dense musculature. We do not consider a Van as overweight unless
it actually has a fat pad or omentum between the back legs. The chest is very deep in both
females and males. It should be easy to get four fingers between the front legs in a
mature specimen. Males will exhibit marked muscular development in the neck and shoulders.
It is not unusual in older males that the neck is extremely thick. The shoulders should be
at least as broad as the head. In younger adults, the hip and pelvic area are slightly
slimmer than the shoulders, as in a swimmers body. The hips broaden with age, so
they are the same width as the shoulders in mature cats. In balancing the cat on one hand
(not recommended!), the center of gravity would be under the shoulders at any age.
Legs and Feet - The legs are moderately long in proportion with the body,
muscular with medium boning. Because of the deep chest, the front legs are set wide apart
on the body. The feet are moderately large, but are not splayed out. When the foot is off
the table, there should be a smooth line from the ankle around the tip of the foot.
Tail - The tail is long, in proportion with the body, reaching to the shoulder
blade. The mature Van tail should have a bottlebrush appearance, never flowing or plumed
nor as long-haired as the Turkish Angora or the Maine Coon. The tail hair length is
sometimes slightly longer than the coat length on young specimens, but is still considered
Length - The coat is semi-long in length. Kittens may appear as
short-hairs until 6 months old. There is feathering on the ears, legs, feet and belly.
Facial fur is short year round. The breed exhibits two distinct seasonal coats probably
due to centuries of enduring the extreme seasons of Lake Van. The summer coat is thinner
and shorter and the winter coat is very plush and longer. Because this is a universal
characteristic of the breed, allowances should be made for the seasonal coat.
In the first few years of the Van breeding programs, two countries were very active in
importing cats from Turkey: England and Holland. Breeders in these countries selected
slightly different characteristics to emphasize in their breeding programs with slightly
different results. Although appearances imply that we are dealing with two different coat
types, further investigation and experience reveals that by full maturity (5 years old),
all Vans have the same coat. The difference is in the rate of development. The English
coats are very thick, almost woolly in appearance, and develop at a young age. The Dutch
coats are not as thick in young adults, often giving a very nice smooth, plush look to the
cat. Regardless, the main features to remember are: 1) there is no undercoat: and 2) the
hair length is never long.
Texture - The coat texture is very soft, often described as cashmere or
rabbit-like. The public is often very surprised and instantly taken by how soft the coat
is. It is the kind of coat that you would be pleased to wake up and find nestling by your
cheek on your pillow, or cuddled up under the covers on a cold winter night. Its a
good thing that Vans like to be petted, because you find yourself petting them constantly
just because the fur is so soft. Kittens go through a hard coat stage, so they may not
immediately have a soft coat at 4 months old. However, by eight months, the coat should
have the characteristic soft texture.
IX. Color and Pattern
Color - The main body color is white. Vans come in all the
"standard" colors of cats, with the exception of the colorpoint colors. You will
often hear a Van breeder referring to their cats color by just using the non-white
color, dropping the "and white". It causes confusion sometimes, but since Vans
only come in the van-pattern, just assume the "and white" is there.
The red color was initially described as auburn, and still is in many countries. This is
an accurate description since it is a very deep, almost burnished, red. But red is the
term used in the United States by all cat registries, so we believed it would reduce
complications in the registration paperwork to be consistent. Red and white is the most
common color because that is what was initially imported to England and red and cream
continue to be the only accepted colors there. Since many cat books are from English
publishers, you will often see red or cream and white listed as the only accepted colors.
Despite this, in the rest of the world Vans are accepted in red, black, or tortie and
white with all the tabby, dilute and patch tabby versions of those colors. While there
have been no cameo or silver tabby and white Vans confirmed to our knowledge, there is no
reason to assume those colors are not possible.
The color descriptions are the same as in the other CFA breeds with one exception, in the
tortie or dilute tortie and white, the red or cream portion is tabbied. In the tabby
colors, the amount of tabby seen is dependent on the size and placement of the markings.
It is rarely possible to determine if the tabby pattern is classic or mackerel. In the
past, the default on registrations has been classic.
It has been asked why the standard specifies tortie and white rather than calico. When
determining the color of a Van, the tail is used since it is expected to be completely
colored. Thus, in the case of a tortie and white, only black and red are expected in the
tail. The Van is not called a calico since white is not expected nor desirable in the
tail. It is possible sometimes to get some interesting looks by the separation of colors
in the parti-color, for example, red head markings and a black tail or red on one side of
the head and a matched black spot on the other side.
Vans can play mischievous tricks within a breeding program because of the piebald gene,
which creates the van-pattern. Since we can only identify colors from the visible spots,
the parti-color mothers may provide some surprises in their litters. A black and white to
black and white mating or a red and white to red and white mating can produce tortie and
white females, and black or red and white males. In this case, the single color and white
mother is really a hidden tortie and white. The same situation applies with the
corresponding dilute and patch tabby colors. It is possible to go for several litters
getting the expected colors, then just when you are sure your female is a single color and
white, up pops a tortie and white kitten. Not only does this affect your assumptions of
the mother, but also it throws all assumptions about the coloring of past female offspring
out the window. It is also possible to have a patch tabby and white which can only be
distinguished from a single body spot and not by the tail. This is the kind of trick that
a Van just loves to play.
Pattern - The color of the van-pattern is ideally confined to the head
and tail. Markings on the legs are considered random markings, not part of the Van
pattern. In the standard, one or more random markings are allowed, as long as the total
colored portion does not exceed 20% of the entire cat. The overall appearance of a
van-pattern is the overriding factor. The number or size of the random markings is not of
concern as long as they do not give the appearance of a bicolor and do not distract from
the overall van-pattern.
It does appear that some of the so-called "random" markings can be readily
passed down to offspring, such as the shoulder spot, or a tail runner (color running from
the tail up the spine). There is one tortie and white female whose tortie and white
daughters and granddaughters can always be distinguished by the perfect alternating
stripes of black and red in their tails. More than one line in the U.S. has a
distinguishing marking which can be traced through many of generations. Symmetry of the
head markings is also a trait that can be encouraged through carefully breeding. The gene
pool is not large enough to make this a requirement in the standard, nor do we really want
to require it because that would be "constructing" the breed in our desired
image. But on the whole, most people find symmetrical head markings the most pleasing and
A blaze (a white streak up the forehead) to at least between the front edge of the ears is
desirable (lack of a blaze is a penalty.) This maintains the traditional open look on the
face, rather than allowing a closed look with color straight across the face in a complete
mask. The blaze is not required to be straight up the nose (it can be crooked or offside)
or to have a set width. Lack of color on the head or tail is a disqualifying trait.
In choosing breeding cats, Van breeders try to keep in mind that the different colors and
shapes of the head pattern can make the same face look quite different. Blue on the head
seems to spread the ears apart, while black narrows the space between them. Color on the
ears may make them look smaller. Color around the eyes makes them larger, while eyes
surrounded by white may appear smaller. We try to watch out for these visual illusions
which make the head look narrower or wider than it really is when evaluating the cat.
Pink is the only allowable nose leather color. There is nothing more distracting than a
colored nose on a white face. However, while the paw pads are generally pink, other colors
are allowed due to the two color nature of the coat pattern.
So that is our tour of "Vandom" and now you know most of our secrets. The most
important thing that you should remember about Van breeders is that they are extremely
dedicated to having a Van in the show ring look just like a Vancat walking the streets of
the city of Van. The standard has been written to describe the cats, as they are, not what
we want them to look like at some future date. Van breeding programs are predicated on the
belief that major changes in the look over generations are not a desirable event. It is a
natural breed, with all the hybrid vigor, intelligence, vibrant personality and spunk
(frustrating though it may be at times), that comes with that heritage and we love them
About the Authors - Deb and Karen registered their Pairodocs co-cattery in 1988,
the same month Vans were accepted for miscellaneous registration. They have been
alternately frustrated, and delighted but always in love with the breed ever since. Deb
has been Turkish Van breed council secretary since 1993.
This article was developed in connection with the Turkish Van judges seminar. We
appreciate all the effort by Pam DelaBar and Karen Fogliani (Exclusive Color, Inc.) in
helping to put that presentation together and additionally to Wayne Trevathan, Jean Grimm
and Will Thompson for making the presentation a success. Thanks go to all the Van breeders
for the use of their pictures.