Van cat

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Van cat
An adult odd-eyed Van cat
OriginLake Van area of Turkey
Variety statusNot recognised as a standardised breed by any major breed registry.
Domestic cat (Felis catus)

The Van cat (Turkish: Van kedisi; Western Armenian: Վանայ կատու, romanized: Vana gadu; Eastern Armenian: Վանա կատու, romanizedVana katu; Kurdish: pisîka Wanê) is a distinctive landrace (or "natural breed") of the domestic cat found around Lake Van in the Eastern Anatolia Region of Turkey.

Van cats are relatively large, have a chalky white coat, sometimes with ruddy coloration on the head and hindquarters, and have blue or amber eyes or have heterochromia (one eye of each colour).[1][2][3] The variety has been referred to as "the swimming cat", and has been observed to swim in Lake Van.[4][5]

The naturally occurring Van cat type is popularly believed to be the basis of the Turkish Van breed,[1] as standardised and recognised by many cat fancier organizations; it has been internationally selectively bred to consistently produce the ruddy head-and-tail colouring pattern on the white coat. However, one of the breed founders' own writings indicate that the four original cats used to found the formal breed came from parts of Turkey other than the Lake Van area.[4][6] The run-together term "Turkish Vankedisi" is confusingly used by some organisations as a name for all-white specimens of the standardised Turkish Van breed.[7]


A Van kitten from the village of Agarti (formerly Ayanis), near the city of Van, 2005

Van cats have been reported living in the vicinity of the city of Van and the general Lake Van area for centuries;[4] how long is uncertain. Genetic research has shown that the domestic cat's ancestor, the African wild cat (Felis lybica), was domesticated, for rodent control, about 9,000 years ago in the Near East[8][9] when tribes transitioned from hunter-gathering to crop farming and settled life.[10][11] In addition, the white-spotting in domestic cats appeared at the earliest stage of cat domestication, and is one of the points of evidence of early artificial selection.[12] However, this does not necessarily mean that white cats have been in the Van area the entire time.


An odd-eyed Van kitten

Van cats are all-white,[5] or sometimes mostly white with amber markings around the tail and ears. Locals to the Van area identify only the all-white type as Van cats, according to a 1991 BBC documentary, Cats, written and presented by Roger Tabor.[5]

Their most notable genetic characteristic is their almond-shaped eyes that often are mismatched colours.[1] The most valued members of the type generally have one amber-green eye and one blue eye.


Van cats are known for swimming in Lake Van.[5] This may be the source of the popular, but possibly false or exaggerated,[13] belief that the formal Turkish Van breed is innately more fond of water than the average cat. Lushington wrote: "Apart from their great capacity for affection and alert intelligence, their outstanding characteristic is their liking for water, not normally regarded as a feline attribute. They not only dabble in water and play with it, but have been known to enter ponds and even horse-troughs for a swim – they soon became famous as the 'swimming cats.'"[4] It is unclear if Lushington means the cats of the Lake Van area, or her own Turkish Van standardised breed. Tabor's BBC documentary states: "The reason for [its] fame is that the Van cat is known as 'the swimming cat'.... [H]ere at Lake Van ... these cats do enter it, and swim."[5]

Current status[edit]

An adult female Van cat photographed at the Van Cat Research Centre, Yüzüncü Yıl University, 2006

Van cats form a landrace (naturally occurring, free-breeding variety, often feral), not a standardized breed of cat.[14] They can still be found in east Turkey, near Lake Van, although their numbers have diminished (a 1992 survey found only 92 pure Van cats in their native area).[15] There is a breeding programme for the all-white variety,[16] operated by the Van Cat Research Centre (a.k.a. the Van Cat House), established in 1995 at the campus of Yüzüncü Yıl University.[17] As of 2018, the centre housed about 350 young adults and kittens, is open to the public for a nominal entrance fee,[18] and cats can be adopted.[17] However, reports have suggested that the living conditions for the cats held there are not optimal, and the programme seems to be ineffective in reversing Van cats' declining numbers.[3]

In regional culture[edit]

Van cats are claimed as a cultural icon by Armenians, Kurds, and Turks, who have inhabited the region at different periods in history.[19]


Armenians often consider the breed to be historically Armenian,[20] as the Lake Van area had a large Armenian population and was within the Armenian homeland prior to their local extermination during the genocide of 1915.[21][22][23][24][25] The local Armenians were said to have "revered" the cat.[25][26]: 84 

Among them was post-impressionist and surrealist artist Arshile Gorky, later an immigrant to the United States, who sculpted Van cats in the early 1910s.[22] Armenian writer Vrtanes Papazian wrote a short novel in which the cat has been used as a symbol of the Armenian liberation movement.[27] Armenian authors Raffi,[28] Axel Bakunts,[29] and Paruyr Sevak[30] have featured Van cats in their works.


Cat breeder Laura Lushington (co-founder of the "Turkish Van" formal breed, from cats procured from various parts of Turkey), wrote of the local Van cats, "they are much loved and prized by the Turks for their exceptional character and unique colouring."[4]

Turkish folklore has it that a Van cat was aboard Noah's Ark, and that as the flood waters receded, Allah (God) blessed the cat with a ruddy patch of fur on its head when it left the ark, after which it made its way to the city of Van via Mount Ararat.[1] Many Van cats are all-white, however.[2]

At the end of the 19th century, Sultan Abdul Hamid II is said to have owned a Van cat, and having one is still seen as a status symbol: a Prime Minister of Turkey received one as a gift, and an ambassador from Greece put himself on a waiting list to get one. Kittens from the breeding programme could be purchased for the equivalent of US$282 in 2011,[31][full citation needed] and the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (which also regulates livestock) does not control the export of these or any other cats from Turkey.[32] The 1991 BBC documentary indicated that the all-white cats are locally prized in Van, and even coveted by visitors. While most Van cats are feral street cats, tourists have been known to steal pet Van cats from residents.[5]

During the late 1990s, Van cats emerged as an informal municipal symbol of the city of Van – an enormous statue of a Van cat and her kitten now stands at the entrance to the city. The cat appears in a locally published comic strip, and in the logos of bus companies, shopping centres, and various other Van businesses.[citation needed]

The mascot of the 2010 FIBA World Championship of basketball, hosted by Turkey, was an anthropomorphised Van cat named Bascat. He had a white coat and odd eyes, one blue and one green, and his head was shaped with design cues from the crescent moon on the Turkish flag.[33]


The Van region has a large Kurdish population, and Van cats have been referred to as "Kurdish cats"[34] or the "Kurdish Van cat", and made a symbol of Kurdistan in Kurdish nationalist circles.[35] Some media sources[36] reported that Turkish soldiers poisoned about 200 Van cats. These claims ultimately seem to have come from an animal rescue group called SOS Van Cats Rescue Action, a spokesperson for which stated: "The cats are Kurdish, and the Turkish authorities are unable to digest this."[37] Van University's cat-breeding project responded: "That the Turkish army would be able to find 200 Van cats, let alone poison them, is utter nonsense".[36]


  1. ^ a b c d "Turkish Van Cats". Retrieved 8 April 2014. This tertiary source reuses information from other sources but does not name them. Like many sources, this one conflates the Turkish Van standarised breed, which is actually British, with the local Van cat landrace of Turkey, and so must be interpreted with caution.
  2. ^ a b "Van Kedisi". En Güzel Kedilerin Sitesi (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 25 December 2012. Retrieved 12 February 2013. Machine translation into English.
  3. ^ a b Fowler, Susanne (20 February 2006). "Turkey takes action to save rare breed of feline". Ankara: Directorate General of Press and Information. Archived from the original on 18 July 2006.
  4. ^ a b c d e Pond, Grace, ed. (1972). The Complete Cat Encyclopedia. London: Walter Parrish International. p. 114. ISBN 0-517-50140-6. This tertiary source reuses information from other sources but does not name them.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Tabor, Roger (writer/presenter); Crowther, Stephanie (researcher) (1991). "The Aristocats". Cats. Episode 5. Event occurs at 03:50–13:20. BBC 2. The documentary distinguishes the largely feral, white Van cats (the type identified as such by Van locals) from the auburn-marked Turkish Van breed, agreeing with other sources that the latter was developed by the British in 1955 from Turkish stock. This information is also presented in Tabor's tie-in book, Cats: The Rise of the Cat, ISBN 978-0563360117 (1995).
  6. ^ Lushington, Laura (1963). "The Swimming Cats". Animals. 1 (17): 24–27.
  7. ^ "Recognized and Admitted Breeds in the WCF". Essen, Germany: World Cat Federation. 2012. Archived from the original on 8 August 2014. Retrieved 13 February 2013.
  8. ^ Sample, Ian (19 June 2017). "Africats to the Purr-ymids: DNA study reveals long tale of cat domestication". Retrieved 19 June 2017.
  9. ^ Ottoni, Claudio; Van Neer, Wim; De Cupere, Bea; Daligault, Julien; Guimaraes, Silvia; Peters, Joris; Spassov, Nikolai; Prendergast, Mary E.; Boivin, Nicole; Morales-Muñiz, Arturo; Bălăşescu, Adrian; Becker, Cornelia; Benecke, Norbert; Boroneant, Adina; Buitenhuis, Hijlke; Chahoud, Jwana; Crowther, Alison; Llorente, Laura; Manaseryan, Nina; Monchot, Hervé; Onar, Vedat; Osypińska, Marta; Putelat, Olivier; Quintana Morales, Eréndira M.; Studer, Jacqueline; Wierer, Ursula; Decorte, Ronny; Grange, Thierry; Geigl, Eva-Maria (2017). "The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world" (PDF). Nature Ecology & Evolution. 1 (7): 0139. doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0139. ISSN 2397-334X. S2CID 44041769.
  10. ^ Rob Stein, Washington Post (23 March 2008). "Using DNA to track the origins of cats". Retrieved 30 November 2011.
  11. ^ Lipinski, Monika J.; Froenicke, Lutz; Baysac, Kathleen C.; Billings, Nicholas C.; Leutenegger, Christian M.; Levy, Alon M.; Longeri, Maria; Niini, Tirri; Ozpinar, Haydar (2008). "The ascent of cat breeds: Genetic evaluations of breeds and worldwide random-bred populations". Genomics. 91 (1): 12–21. doi:10.1016/j.ygeno.2007.10.009. PMC 2267438. PMID 18060738.
  12. ^ Vinogradov, AE (1994). "Locally Associated Alleles of Cat Coat Genes". The Journal of Heredity. 85 (2): 86–91. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a111428. PMID 8182285.
  13. ^ Hart, Robert (2010). Hart's Original Petpourri. Vol. 1. Langdon Street Press. p. 4. ISBN 9781934938621. Hart cites a Cat Fancy magazine article as his source.
  14. ^ Wright, Michael; Walters, Sally (1980). The Book of the Cat. London: Pan. pp. 50–52. ISBN 0-330-26153-3.
  15. ^ "The Turkish Van: The Swimming Cat". Cats and Kittens Magazine. Pet Publishing. 2000. Archived from the original on 4 December 2007. Retrieved 15 July 2009.
  16. ^ Van City Guide. Ankara. 2005.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)[clarification needed]
  17. ^ a b "Turkish research center puts hundreds of van cats up for adoption". Daily Sabah. Anadolu Agency. 10 July 2022. Archived from the original on 13 July 2022.
  18. ^ "Van City Guide", Ankara, 2005.
  19. ^ "Turkish Van Breed Profile". Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  20. ^ "Van Cats". 2011. Armenia Travel, History, Archeology & Ecology | TourArmenia | Travel Guide to Armenia. Archived from the original on 5 July 2014. Retrieved 28 February 2015.
  21. ^ Landau, Ronnie S. (1998). Studying the Holocaust: Issues, Readings, and Documents. p. 101.
  22. ^ a b Waldman, Diane (1981). Arshile Gorky, 1904–1948: A Retrospective. H. N. Abrams Books. p. 255.
  23. ^ Values as provided by File:Armenian population of Van province in 1896.png
  24. ^ Gebhardt, Richard H. (1995). Complete Cat Book: Expert Advice on Every Phase of Cat Ownership. Howell Book House. p. 159. ISBN 9780876059197.
  25. ^ a b Conway, Deanna J. (1998). The Mysterious, Magickal Cat. Llewellyn Publications. p. 190. ISBN 978-1567181807. The Turkish Van (pronounced von) gets its name from Lake Van in western Turkey, but is actually an Armenian cat. Armenian people settled in the Lake Van region and revered this breed of cat. Like many, this source incorrectly equates the modern Turkish Van breed, which is actually British in origin, with the Van cat landrace.
  26. ^ Mooradian, Karlen (1980). The Many Worlds of Arshile Gorky. Gilgamesh Press. pp. 84, 87.
  27. ^ Papazyan, Vrtanes (1988). Vana Katu. Yerevan: Arevik Publishing House.
  28. ^ Raffi (1884). Կայծեր [Sparks] Book II (in Armenian). Գալով այդ քաղաքը, թեև ծիծաղելի է, բայց պետք է խոստովանվիմ, որ իմ ամենամեծ բաղձանքներից մեկն այն էր, որ տեսնեմ Վանա հռչակավոր կատուները." Approximate translation: "Although it is funny, I have to admit that coming to the city one of my greatest expectations was seeing the famous Van cat.
  29. ^ Bakunts, Axel (1927). Մթնաձոր [The Dark Valley] (in Armenian). Ներս մտավ պառավը, Վանա կապույտ փիսոն հետևից." Approximate translation: "The old woman came in after the Van cat.
  30. ^ Sevak, Paruyr (1959). Անլռելի զանգակատուն [The Unsilenced Bell Tower] (in Armenian). Լող էին տալիս հազա՜ր ու հազա՜ր Վանա կատուներ՝ Վառվող աչքերով." Approximate translation: "Thousands of Van cats were swimming with burning eyes.
  31. ^ "Verimli yılın kedisi 500 TL". Retrieved 15 December 2017.
  32. ^ "Yönetmelik: Yerli Evcil Hayvan Genetik Kaynaklarinin Kullanilmasi Ve, Yurt Dişina Çikarilmasi Hakkinda Yönetmelik ['Regulation: The Use of Genetic Resources and Domestic Pets, Regulation on the Removal of Abroad']". Resmî Gazete [Official Gazette] (in Turkish). Ankara: Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock [now merged into Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry]. 21 September 2012. Issue 28418. Archived from the original on 27 December 2012. Retrieved 12 February 2013. Machine translation into English.
  33. ^ "2010 FIBA World Championship Event Guide: Mascot". FIBA. Archived from the original on 14 September 2010. Retrieved 12 September 2010.
  34. ^ Grossbongardt, Annette and Zand, Bernhard, "Kurdische Katzen", Der Spiegel 44/2007
  35. ^ Sor, Dara (11 January 2006). "Kurdish National Pride: Pişika Wanê – The Van Cat". Land of the Sun: Kurdistan. BlogSpot. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  36. ^ a b Zaman, Amberin (6 October 2000). "German Group Pounces on Kurdish Cat 'Eradication'". Los Angeles Times.
  37. ^ Hooker, Karen (14 October 2000). "Turkish Van articles #3". Retrieved 30 November 2011.

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