Cat Breed Profile: the Turkish Van aka Swimming Cat

March 23, 2012

By Julia Williams

Although I’ve never actually had a purebred cat myself, I always like learning about different cat breeds. Many have fascinating histories or characteristics that make them unique. The rare Turkish Van cat actually has both.

The Turkish Van (pronounced “von”) is an ancient cat breed believed to have originated in the Lake Van region of Eastern Turkey. Unlike many purebred cats of today, the Turkish Van is a natural breed, not a man-made breed. Turkish Vans are a semi-longhaired white cat with colored markings primarily on the head and tail. Vans are said to be an active, affectionate, playful, intelligent, strong and healthy breed with no known genetic defects.

Perhaps most interesting of all is that Turkish Vans love water, hence their nickname “Swimming Cat.” Vans not only play in water, but will enter ponds, horse troughs and shallow streams to swim in it! Some have speculated that the cats learned to swim in order to cool off during the extremely hot Turkish summers, and to catch fish.

In an article published by the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) Diane Marcus writes, “The Turkish Van is unique – in its history, its color and pattern, its personality and its ability to survive, virtually unchanged for thousands of years. It shares an area known as the ‘Cradle of Civilization’ with mankind.”

History of the Turkish Van Cat

In 1955, British photographers Laura Lushington and Sonia Halliday were hired to promote tourism in Turkey. While traveling around taking photographs, they became interested in the native white cats with auburn markings on their heads and fluffy tails. After their assignment, the women took a pair of unrelated male and female Van cats back to England and found them to breed true, i.e., they produced kittens that looked exactly like their parents.

They were first called Turkish cats, but the name was later changed to Turkish Van to avoid confusion with another cat breed, the Turkish Angora. Although some mistakenly believe that the Turkish Van is merely a color variation of the more well known Turkish Angora, they are actually two distinct breeds that originated in geographically distant regions of Turkey.

Although the breed has an ancient lineage, it’s only been in the United States since 1982. There are relatively few Turkish Van breeders and exhibitors, however, and even in areas where the breed has been found for centuries, they are still relatively rare.

Turkish Van Appearance

Although many call this breed a white cat with colored markings, in the Complete Cat Encyclopedia, Laura Lushington wrote: “Turkish Vans are not white cats; they are colored cats with very large patches of white.” According to Ms. Lushington, the large patches of white are the dominant color, and the piebald gene is responsible for the pattern of color. The Turkish Van standard calls for tail color and colored markings on the head; spots of color can also be found randomly on the body and legs. Other piebald cats that have been selectively bred to achieve similar markings are referred to as “van-patterned.”

The Turkish Van is a solidly-built cat with strong legs and a wide chest. Males weigh between 9-20 pounds and females, 7-12 pounds. They have a unique coat that lacks an undercoat and has a cashmere-like texture which makes it soft to the roots and water-resistant. Their coat does not mat easily, so Vans require little grooming. The summer coat is short, making them look more like a shorthaired cat; the winter coat is much longer and thicker. There is feathering on the ears, legs, feet and belly. Their neck ruff and full brush tail become more pronounced as they age. The Turkish Van takes three to five years to reach full maturity. The coloring on a Turkish Vans head and tail can be red, black, blue, cream, brown tabby, patched tabby, tortoiseshell and blue-cream.

Turkish Van Personality

This breed loves to run, which leads some owners to jokingly refer to them as “moving vans” because they are always in motion. Wand-type toys are a favorite, and Turkish Vans will leap acrobatically to try to catch the feather teaser. Most are also fond of fetching, and will bring back a crumpled ball of paper or small toy many times over. These cats can be trained to do tricks and walk on a leash, and have been known to carry around stuffed animals.

Turkish Vans are inquisitive and want to inspect every new thing you bring into the house (that sounds like every cat I’ve ever known!). They’re quite smart and can even figure out how to open doors and cabinets. Turkish Vans are dog-like in that they follow their favorite human about the house, and will usually be waiting for you at the door when you come home.

Turkish Vans get along well with other animals, including cats, dogs, and even birds and reptiles. They love to be petted and stroked but generally don’t like to be held for long periods, but like to sleep with you and lay on your lap. Turkish Vans also love to give head butts (my favorite!).

Turkish Van Trivia

Although many cats may resemble a Turkish Van and can have the “van pattern,” a purebred Turkish Van has a registered ancestry that can be traced back to their Turkish roots. Without a pedigree as proof of ancestry, a cat of unknown origin is not considered a Turkish Van no matter how much it might resemble one.

Turkish Vans were accepted for showing in the Miscellaneous Class in 1988. The breed was advanced to Provisional status in 1993 and to full Championship status in 1994. Since there are so few breeders of this rare cat, they keep very close tabs on the kittens, and the chances of finding a purebred Turkish Van at an animal shelter are almost nil.

Top photo by Imbue85
Bottom photo by Effervescing Elephant 

Read more articles by Julia Williams

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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  1. Cyndie Yocham says:

    I have been fortunate enough to have a Turkish Van (Tigger) since the summer of 2000, when I believe he was between 6-9 months olds. Yes, this makes him 16 years old! I had no idea his breed when I took him in, I was just going to keep him a short time for my son. But, it did not take long at all for me to realize just how special this little one was! I soon heard that he looked like a Turkish Van so I researched the breed and realized right away what a special little one I had!

    He is so much more intelligent than any of the other cats I have had or have now. He always knows when someone is sad in our house and he will come and give you affectionate head-butts and lie down by you.

    We bought a small kitten once that sadly was taken from his mommy too soon. My male Turkish Van let this little male kitten nurse to his hearts content for about two months, which I have since learned is the amount of time that Vets say is the best length of time for healthy weaning of a kitten.
    When the time came for the kitten to stop my Turkish Van knew it and quit letting him nurse.

    He also loves to swim with me in my above ground pool and will climb up on the ladder a wait till I lower him in. He swims around for a minute or so then climbs out,up the ladder, and sits at the top drying himself and talking to me.

    He knows his in our front yard when I take my furry ones out for some fresh air and will let me know if one of the others is getting to close to the property edge. When it is time for them all to come in, he sits and watches to make sure I carry all of the others in then he gets up and walks in on his own!!!

    I know after all this, I don’t have to convince anyone of what a special breed of cat the Turkish Van is!

  2. meowmeowmans says:

    Thanks for such an interesting post, Julia. I’ve always been intrigued by this breed. Especially the playing in water part! Our Moosey is a domestic shorthair, but he LOVES playing in the water from the tub spigot. He will put his head right under the running water until he is soaking wet. Oh, and he *does* have that piebald coloring. Maybe our furry child has some Turkish Van in him. 🙂

  3. Swimming?? As if! That’s just. . .well, UNnatural, that’s what that is!

  4. Clooney says:

    What a great post and interesting facts about the breed. They are gorgeous kitties for sure and sound like great personalities.

  5. We had a guest post recently about the breed, but thanks for the pronunciation tip!

  6. Deb Barnes says:

    My Mom has one that she actually got as a purebred from a shelter. Who would ever give up such a beauty, I cannot imagine, but Hannah is a very sweet girl. She is quite shy however, and I do not think she enjoys water. Some of her reserved habits probably have to do with her being a shelter cat, as one can only imagine what her prior life was like until my Mom adopted her.

  7. Carolyn says:

    What a beautiful breed! Thanks for the great info 🙂

  8. Father Tom says:

    We loved this post and learning about the Turkish Van. Mom Julie can’t get enough of all kinds of cats, purebred included. The Van is a lovely kitty and swims!! How cool is that?? I’d love to see one jump into the water sometime..


    1. MiniWargamer says:

      YouTube has a number of videos on the Turkish Van (many of them swimming). I have a fan page here that links to a couple:

  9. Marg says:

    That is one gorgeous cat and sure looks like a fun cat to have around. That was great hearing all about them. Never heard of this cat before. Take care.

  10. There are several pure breds I would love to have..a Russian Blue, a British Shorthair and the Van. I don’t because the other babies out there need me. But I sure would love one to appear in my home with me and Katie. xox

  11. Fuzzy Tales says:

    They’re certainly a gorgeous cat. Thanks for all the great info, I don’t know a lot about breed characteristics.