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An Insider’s 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 can’t 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 years.

I. History
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 1900’s. 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 cat’s 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 look.

III. Development
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 same.

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 doesn’t 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.

IV. Personality
Vans are extremely intelligent cats that demand control of their environment. While they are wonderful lap cats, they don’t 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 don’t drop everything and take care of them. When vaccination time comes around, don’t ever let them see the needle or you might as well wait till the next day, because you won’t 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 isn’t 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. Don’t 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 shouldn’t 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 judge.

V. Handling
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 swimmer’s 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 table.

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 cat’s 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 isn’t necessary to feel the dip, the profile could also be observed in the judging cage.

VI. Head
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.

VII. Body
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 swimmer’s 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 semi-longhair.

VIII. Coat
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. It’s 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 cat’s 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 "flashy" look.

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.

X. Conclusion
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 for it.

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.

2008 D. Hayes, Ph.D & K. Hooker, Ph.D Pairodocs Turkish Vans, All Rights Reserved.