What does a true Van cat look like?
Recently Van cats have attracted special interest among the numerous breeds of domestic cats. The Armenians consider this breed as an Armenian cat breed, because the history of the appearance of this “natural” or, more exactly, local breed on the territories of Armenian Highlands, located around Lake Van, is lost in the centuries, proving that it had originated in the historic period that started long before the representatives of other than the Armenians contemporary ethnosity appeared in the region.
The Van cats have enjoyed the favor of cat fanciers in Armenia. In March 2007, the Fund for the preservation of the biological diversity of Armenian Highlands organized a purebred Van cat show at the Museum of Armenian Nature in Yerevan, Armenia. The show was attended by the hundreds of cat fanciers, and was broadly highlighted in mass media. Eleven Van cats were presented at the show, that included EC Shadycombe Izmir and Aghtamar"s Ourakhali-Van, both purchased in Holland, as well as Summitspring Arpi and Pairodocs Ani, brought to Armenia from the USA some years earlier. The cats proudly showed their copper-brown fluffy tails that contrasted spectacularly against the white color of their body coat. At approximately the same time, Armenian National TV broadcasted one of the series of a film on Western Armenia that showed all-white Van cats, living at large at the shores of Lake Van, Turkey. The following questions naturally arise: what does Van cat look like, and why did the cats that were presented at the exhibition and in the film differ in appearance?
It is worth a reminder that the matter of Van cats can be rather political. The closest neighbors of the Armenians, the Turks and the Kurds, consider the Van cat or as they name it, “van-kedi”, their national property. At the same time as a “van-kedi” they recognize only an odd-eyed all-white Van cat. The Turkish researchers consider that the Van cat reached Eastern Anatolia (Turkish term for Armenian Highland) together with Turkic and Osman tribes. The political underlying reason redoubled, because an all-white Van cat was chosen as a symbol of the campaign for the entrance of Turkey into the European Union. Furthermore, the outward appearance of Van cat as they imagine it in Turkey is influenced principally by their religious beliefs. According to Muslim tradition only an all-white cat is a “clean” animal, and, moreover, the only animal that may enter a mosque. This special fondness for all-white cats is based on the legend telling that Prophet Mohammed had an odd-eyed all-white cat, named Muetsa (or Muezza), which had saved the great prophet from the snake. The legend continues that on listening to the call for prayer, Prophet Mohammed saw that his beloved cat was sleeping on one of his sleeves. To avoid disturbing Muetsa, Prophet Mohammed cut the sleeve from his robe. When Prophet Mohammed returned after the devotion, he was met by an awake Muetsa, who bent her neck in gratitude. In response, Prophet Mohammed patted Muetsa on the back three times. For this reason, to offend a cat is considered a sin in a Muslim world. At the same time, if a newborn kitten is not born all white, it is usually done away with, because a non all-white cat is considered “haram” or an alley cat - mongrel, or “sokak kedi” in Turkish.
By the way, Angora cats or “ankara-kedi” in Turkish, which the Turks are fond of very much, are chosen in Turkey based on the similar principle: all-white coat color along with the requirement that the eyes shall be blue, amber or odd-colored, and the odd-eyedness being specifically prized, as the sign that the cat is bearing the blessing of Allakh. This tradition in Turkey is based on another legend that says that Prophet Mohammed had odd eyes. In 1917, the Ankara Zoo with the assitance of the government of Turky, began a breeding program to preserve and protect all-white Angora cats, as they were considered a national treasure. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881 – 1938) (Ataturk is translated as “the father of the Turks”), who established the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, predicted that the person, who would be bitten on the elbow by an odd-eyed white cat, would be his (Ataturk’s) successor. This announcement of Mustafa Kemal played a great role on the attitude to the cats in Turkey, for since then they started to value highly odd-eyed all-white cats, including both Angora and Van cats. But at the same time, in accordance with Muslim laws a cat may not live inside a man’s dwelling. And it is the matter, where the paradox is hidden, concerning to Turkish traditions, relating to cats, in general, and Van cats, in particularly. Angora cats were initially bred to protect from mice the carpet shops of rich bazaar traders. If compared with Angora cats, Van cats were not prized as much in Turkey. Laura Lashington, who introduced Van cats in Europe in the very middle of the 20th century, wrote the following about her impressions of her journey to Turkey in 1959: “Although the Turks were very pleased that I should be interested in their famous "Van Kedi" they couldn"t understand why I should want to take them back to Britain "as they do not catch mice"! So, how might a Van cat originate and stay a domestic animal through the pile of ages, if its entrance to human dwelling was prohibited? If it were a pariah and tramp, it could not achieve the uniformity of the type, color and pattern. To find out what a Van cat looks like, we will turn to the history of the recognition of Van cat as a breed by international feline organizations.
To prepare a review for a British newspaper two British journalists Sonya Holliday and Laura Lushington (who later became the authors of a dozen of books in arts and spirituality, including well-known “The Bible in Stained Glass”) traveled in Turkey in July-August 1955. Laura Lushington was a cat fancier and once noticed cats with spectacular appearance. Laura Lushington expressed her interest in the cats, which resulted that she was given two kittens of different sex. Laura Lushington decided to take the kittens to London. The kittens surprised her not only with their appearance, but also with their unusual behavior that was unexpected for cats. It was too hot on their way from Turkey, and the automobile got overheated, so they stopped near a stream to add cool water in the car, and to have a rest in the shade. It is universally known that most of the cats generally try to stay far away from water, which is why Laura Lushington was very excited, when the kittens jumped out the car after the people and running by the stream, not only avoided drowning, but walked in the stream and started to splash in the shallow water. These two kittens were the first known Van cats, imported from Turkey to Great Britain. The male was Van Attalla, and the first imported registered female Van cat was Van Guzelli Iskenderun, both brought in 1955. Four years later, Laura Lushington brought another two cats to Great Britain from Turkey. These cats gave descendants with stable traits that were passed through inheritance. Thus, the beginning of the selection and breeding of Van cats was laid down in Europe. After acquiring sufficient imported cats to achieve the required four generations, the “Turkish Cat” received full pedigree status in GCCF in 1969, and in 1971 the breed named Turkish Van cat was accepted by FIFE (Federacion International Feline). The Turkish Van cat was subsequently recognized in the following years by other feline organizations across the world (1979 – TICA; 1994 — CFA).
What was the thing that Laura Lushington was excited with so much that she decided to create a new breed on the basis of the cats that she had brought from Turkey? In 1959 Laura Lushington had made several photograph of Van cats. Though the photographs are black-and-white, we may see exactly that these cats are rather big fluffy white cats with colored marks on the head and ring-colored tail. Here is the description of Van cat given by Laura Lushington in 1969: “Quite distinct in appearance, the Van cat has a medium-long chalk-white coat which feels more like mink than anything else. The only colour markings are the auburn marks on its head (sometimes it has a darker fur-line from the outer corners of it"s eyes to its cheeks), and its bushy, auburn-ringed tail. The Van cat"s eyes are always large and amber in colour; its skin is shell-pink, and its ears have long, delicately curved inner tuftings, sometimes with "feathers" on the tips”. This appearance, besides the addition of blue and odd eyes remained unchanged up to the 21st century (when black-and-white and tortouiseshell-and-white TUVs were recognized by several international feline organizations, such as FIFe, CFA, etc). As we may see such a description completely coincides with the appearance of the Van cats of “Masis” cattery that were presented at the Van cat show at the Museum of Armenian Nature in Yerevan. And to understand more fully the reasons for the differences between Van cats of “Masis” cattery of Armenia, and Van cats that live free at the shores of Lake Van, we will dwell on what a breed of domestic animals is in general.
In accordance with the definition that was given by N. A. Kravchenko, an outstanding Russian scientist and zootechnician, a breed is a numerous group of domestic or agricultural animals, but not wild or living at liberty near man (for instance, cats and dogs, dwelling not inside a man’s house, but at the streets of cities, suburbs of villages, around car parks, scrap-heaps, railroad stations, etc.), animals of one species with artificially fixed traits that are necessary for man. A breed is formed as the result of selection, based on the purposeful activity of man. When a breed is created, a great number of animals are involved, as a rule, and in the process of selection a substantial number of animals is rejected as defective or not meeting the desired standard of the breed. The creation of a “breed” means a purposeful influence of a human on the group of animals to give it some specific traits A breed is an unstable thing and without the direct influence of man it can disappear. These traits, frequently, are harmful for the species as a biologic unit. In some cases the breed is formed unconsciously under the influence of folklore or religion in geographically isolated regions without foreign admixture. Thus, a breed is the product of human labor, and the breeding worth of a purebred animal is created by human’s labor. The breeding worth is the new quality, which distinguishes a purebred animal from a mongrel one. A breed may not “self-originate” and be maintained without a human on an island, in thick wood or open country. Nature creates the different species of animals, and the man forms the breeds.
Let us return to the main character of our article - a Van cat. The first things that attract the eye, when one looks at a pedigreed Van cat are copper-brown (or sometimes the color is described as chestnut-red) spots on an otherwise white background occurring at the head, the back (in the area of the left shoulder), and the tail. The Van cat has a colored and ringed full brush tail, resembling a fox-brush with the end in the form of a paintbrush. The position of the color marks was so special that this pattern on a cat’s coat was named “van pattern” after the Van cat. Then this pattern was introduced into other breeds by means of mating with Van cats or a breeding program with strict choice and selection of partners to establish the van pattern. At present we may see a van pattern in several breeds including the Turkish Angora, Persian, Siberian, Norwegian Forest, British Shorthair, Scottish Fold, Maine Coon, Ragdoll, La Perm, and even among Sphynx. There is another supposition on the origin of van pattern in other breeds, according to which it was a separate mutation in S locus that is responsible for the white spotting. The other alleles of S locus ensure special spotting in such breed a as Sacred Birman cat, and the regular spots of bi-colors, and the van pattern in various breeds. The other distinguishing features of the breed of Turkish Van cat are a broad thorax, evidence of its excellent qualities as a swimmer, and also silky dense water-repellent hairs of the coat, that dries nearly instantly even in cold season of the year, which is so necessary for this excellent fisher in winter. The texture of this semi-long haired coat of Van cat is such that the feelings originating, when you have a Van cat in your hands, are joy and pleasure, for so silky and airy the hair is.
And if we speak about the eye color of a present day purebred Van cat, the eyes may be blue or amber color or a cat may be odd-eyed: one eye may be blue, and the other – amber colored. The variability of eye color is genetically caused by the so named “white-spotting” factor, which is a characteristic of this breed. The “white-spotting” factor is the variable expression of the piebald gene that varies from the minimal degree (1), as in the blue-eyed cats with white tip on the tail like Altay and California cats, as in the cats with mitts, like Birman cat, to the maximal degree (8-9) that results in a Van-patterned cat, as in Van cats, when colored marks occupy at most 20 % of the white background, but the white background in the breed covers about 80 % of the body. Breeding two cats together with the same level of white spotting will produce cats with a similar degree of spotting. The Felinology (a science of the anatomy, physiology, genetics, breeding and keeping of cats) stated that the phenomenon of odd-eyes (dischromatopsy) is found among the white cats of numerous breeds, and may not be considered the main, and, particularly, a unique trait of the Van cat, as well as of any other breed, although it can be considered a common occurrence in a cat of any breed with large areas of white spotting on coat. Among a litter of kittens born on the same day and of the same parents, the kittens with blue, as well as amber-colored eyes may be born, and only one or two kittens may have odd eyes. For this reason no one should think that these kittens belong to different breeds only because the color of their eyes is not the same.
The color of the eyes of all-white cats and cats with much quantity of white in their coat color may be firstly ordinary, that is the iris may contain eumelanine pigment with different degrees of manifestation from green to brown, though the yellow-orange color of eyes are preferred in many breeds. One unique aspect of the white color of coat is that the gene for white color is one of the strongest in the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) not only in its dominant effect on the coat color, but also in the development of nervous system in embryonic period. That is under its influence the various changes may happen in the organs of eyesight and hearing. Secondly, the gene of white color reveals itself in blue eyes in cats that may be possible only in case of the lack of pigmentation in the iris. This lack of pigmentation in the iris may be bilateral (both eyes are blue) or unilateral (one eye is blue, and the other eye is orange) blue-eyedness. Sometimes on the side of the blue eye a decrease in hearing is noted. There is exact dependence between these traits. For instance, in accordance with the data, presented by the director of Ankara Zoo, only 5-10 % of blue-eyed all-white Angora cats may hear perfectly, and 25-30 % of all-white Angora cats with strong colored orange eyes may be deaf.
Only some solitary colored marks on the head between the white ears with the obligatory white “blaze” running from back of the head to the forehead and the tail ring-colored in the same color, remained of the pigmentation in Van cats. This position of markings on the head and body is determined by one of the alleles of the white spotting gene, which is named after the name of the cats of Lake Van – Sv - white piebald Spotted Van. The tortoiseshell (black and red occurring in the pattern) Vans are permitted to have the marks of other color in the named areas. The existence of other alleles of the gene of white spotting, creates coat colors with less quantity of white, (i.e., bi-colors and particolors), than the Van cat. When the white color covers more than half of the body, and the white, in general, occurs in the lower part of the body, that is the belly and paws, or when only the white gloves and socks remain of the white-colored part, like in Snow shoe or Sacred Birman Cat, in Van cats this may serve as a sign of crossbreeding with the cats of other regions. Only the absolutely regular marks on the head and the colored tail are desired for showing and breeding of Van cats. Some colored marks on the body, on the left shoulder, in particular, are permitted. The removal of Van cats with bi-color and harlequin pattern (which can be indicative of mixed heritage) from a breeding program is necessary to maintain the uniqueness and uniformity of the gene pool. The van-patterned cats generally breed true, and a bi-color will not be produced out of a Van to Van breeding, because Van cats are homozygous for the van-pattern gene (Sv Sv ). So, the pure-bred Van cat to pure-bred Van cat breeding may not produce any other pattern, unless something in the background is coming out. Breeders should place these cats as pets and not continue to use them. Van cats should be homozygous for the van-pattern gene, and the introduction of white or bicolor cats will result in the birth of the kittens heterozygous for the van-pattern gene (Sv -). And though the phenotype of the kittens may correspond to the requirements of the breed standard, the genotype will not be identical to the genotype of pedigree Van cat. This “heritage” will result in the deviation of the van pattern in the off-springs, because genetically they will have in the background other pigmentation genes and alleles of the piebald gene. The introduction of white cats in breeding programs makes the situation more dramatic, because of the effect of the white color gene (W) on all other pigmentation genes that masks all other coloration in cat coat, and it will be arguable to guess, which color genes the specific all-white cat carries. Beside the van pattern, all other patterns of the cats of this breed may only witness that the true selection of this breed is in front, and depends on the enthusiasts.
The odd-eyedness of all-white cats, which are bred by the Van Research Institute or the cats, which live free around Lake Van, and the odd-eyedness of pedigree Vans are formed in different ways. The trait of odd-eyes in all-white cats, including “van-kedi” is formed under the influence of the dominant white gene (W). Free roaming cats will breed with other cats regardless of their color, so it is probable that the most of the all-white cats that were born are heterozygous. A heterozygous white cat has only one gene of white (W), plus another gene for color (w). The dominant white gene masks the underlying color of the coat, but other coat pigmentation genes are in the genotype. This can be seen in litters of all-white parents where some colored “non-white” (e.g., solid black) kittens are born. The odd-eyes trait in the cats with a Van pattern is formed under the influence of the gene of the white spotting (S) that preserves small marks of colored hair with the fixed localization, which differs with the less healthy for the organism in general. There are practically no deaf cats among the cats of van pattern that are born from van-patterned parents. For this reason it is possible to breed the Van cats without their crossing with all-white cats or any others. If bred in “purity”, Van cats will keep the vital capacity and uniformity of their pattern and color that will permit to produce a true-breeding population of cats, which are consistent in color and pattern. At the same time, we may not disregard the WCF’s recognition of all-white Vans as full representatives of the breed (on condition of simultaneous preservation of Vans’ build type and exterior traits). After this recognition we expect the penetration of other colors and patterns into the breed that will result in the loss of the historical coloring of the breed.
A breed is created not only by the color and pattern, but some other constitutional traits. The Persian and Turkish Angora cats of the same white color will differ in body size and boning, its width and length, form of the head, and peculiarities of muzzle in front and profile views. The Turkish Angora or angora-kedi, as it is called in Turkey, differs from Vans not only with the coloration of hair and eyes, but greater elegance and dry falling texture of coat. The Vans have more mighty bones and solid muscular system. Because of the broad chest, the Vans’ front legs are set apart on the body. The tail of a mature Van shall resemble a bottlebrush, and shall not have as long hair, as the Turkish Angoras have. The coat of the Vans is influenced by seasonal changes, because of the great temperature difference in summer and winter at their homeland Van. The winter coat is longer and fluffier. Also there is difference between the coat of the Van cats of English and Dutch breeding programs: so named “English” and “Dutch” coats. But when the cats reach maturity at the age of 3-5 years, all the Vans have the same coat. In any case, the characteristic trait of the breed is the absence of wooly undercoat. The all-white Vans (van-kedi in Turkish), do not have colored marks, but in remained traits they have the build that is usual in Vans, and they shall be bred only with colored vans to improve their appearance and other traits and to avoid from the display of negative features of the gene of dominant white spotting (W) in case of breeding two all-white cats between: “white with white”, which is forbidden in Europe. The breeding of all-white cats “inside themselves” will result in an increase in the incidence of deafness in the breed, and the sharp decrease of the cats of this color, because of the action of dominant white color gene (W) in homozygous state to the embryos before the birth of the kitten.
In addition to the above alteration of the definite appearance of Van cat Turkish breeders started to consider as Van cats even shorthaired odd-eyed all-white cats, which may not be recognized as pure-bred Van cats. WCF recognizes these shorthaired cats as a separate breed and named it “Anatolian cat”. Besides, the WCF standard of Anatolian cat permits more variability of colors and patterns, namely any color and pattern except chocolate and cinnamon and the according diluted colors in any pattern combinations (bi-color, tri-color, tabby), as well as the cs factor. According to the requirements of WCF Van cats may be used in the breeding programs of Anatolian cats, because it is a new breed at the stage of its development. And we shall keep in mind that according to the requirements of Turkish Van cat standard of WCF, which is the only feline organization that recognizes Anatolian or Turkish Shorthaired cat, it may not be crossed to any other breed, and the strict limitations act, relating to the recognition of he descendants of non-pedigree Van-alike cats of Turkish origin.
The Van Research Institute that carries out the breeding and research of Van cats was organized at Van University in Turkey in 1987. At the same time, the Van Research Institute is not affiliated with any recognized breeding program or international cat organization and therefore is not breeding to any given standard, and as we see it does not apply in their breeding program the achievements and knowledge of the modern feline genetics. Besides, the modern purebred cat is not only its phenotype, but also its behavior and character traits that are achieved only at the result of continuous selection. The domestic cat differs of wild species in the need in communication with man, and the separation of a domestic cat in semi-wild community leads to the loss of its communicability and the accumulation of aggression towards man. The feature, common in wild cats, such as avoiding humans that has been imposed on domesticated species by the life conditions, will create additional problems in their return “in the household”. But, the main, it will not create a new breed and will not preserve an old one. The breed of any animals – is a hand-made piece of selection along with the art, taste and luck of the breeder. The nature creates the species of animals, which we, people, according to the statistics industriously lose and destroy. The cats, living in half-wild state in the villages by Lake Van, and even in the small houses, built especially for them, but in the isolation from human dwelling, may be used only as a material for breeding work to broaden the gene pool of purebred Van cats, the origin of which is fixed in the pedigrees, having 4-10 generations of ancestry.
The Turks are used to tell, as they say, a “Turkish” legend, explaining how a Van cat got its copper-brown marks on its coat. According to it, Allah (that means the “Lord” or “God”) blessed the Van cat by putting his hand on it when the cat was leaving Noah’s Ark after it landed on Mount Ararat, which presently in Turkey some kilometers from the border of modern Armenia,. In the places of the cat’s coat where the Creator touched it, the flaming marks appeared. The spot on the left shoulder, which the Turks call “the thumbprint of Allah’s right hand”, resembles the shape of the print of a human finger. Why is the print of the thumb”? Because there is no red without tabby, and even in the absence of the agouti, which is responsible for tabby, there are lighter and darker tones in the red marks of Van cats. The mark on the left shoulder may look as if the coloration was pressed out of the center to periphery under the pressure of a finger. It is a pity that in contrast to this legend, besides odd-eyed all-white cats, all other cats, including the cats that have the traces of “Allah’s blessing” on their coat, are rejected as defective by the “selection” of van-kedi that is carried out in Turkey. Such a “selection” may be only compared with the “restoration” of Armenian Church of Holy Cross (14th century) on Akhtamar island of Lake Van that was recently finished.
The fact that all-white Van cats, bred out of the crosses with traditional Van cats, were presented at the World Cat Congress in Dortmund on March 29, 2007, to be recognized as a variant with full rights also confirms the rising interest in Van cats. On the one hand it may seem that it broadens the limited breed gene pool, but on the other hand it rises problems in the expertise of cats at cat shows, because the all-white vans have very few differences with the natural breed of the neighboring region, all-white Siberian Cat that constitutionally does not differ from all-white Van cat, and the presence of the undercoat hair that is influenced by the change of seasons may not be recognized as a breed forming trait. Should we enter the obligatory genetic expertise at cat shows to avoid misleading of judges? Or are we going to prohibit all-white Siberians at all? I am not sure that the fanciers of the Siberian Cats will support this offer. When someone wants to create a new breed, and especially wants to register it, this someone aims to create a perfectly new exterior with distinct outer characteristics that make the breed immediately recognizable. For all that the definite methodology is used, the breeding work of the same ancestor is performed, pedigrees are issued, and so on. And if this new breed or breed group does not have any characteristic traits and/or repeats the traits of another breed, the registration is declined, which proves that the work in the creation of the new breed is far from finished.
We respect the cultural and religious traditions of all the nations of the world. At the same time we would like that our traditions be respected as well. It concerns both the Siberian and Van cats. And the fact that the Van cat from the very beginning had colored tail and was not all-white is confirmed by the few evidences, which came to our time. The earliest evidence of the existence in the Armenian Uplands of white, semi-long hair cats with ringed tails and color on their heads are carvings on jewelry of the Kingdom of the Hittites (16th-12th c. c. B. C.). If we advert to more recent period, we will see that the large light-colored cats with characteristic ring-colored tails are imagined at the jewelry of the period of Urartu or otherwise Ararat Kingdom (13th-6th c. c. B. C.), dated 2nd-1st c. c. B. C., or at the battle standards and steel arms of the period of Roman expansion, dated as back as 1st-4th c. c. A. D. Moreover, the Turks, in narrating the legend on how the red marks appeared on the Van cat coat, does not give any convincing explanations, why the All-Mighty Creator blessed the cat. So, the legend may only prove that an ancient cult, respecting the red-and-white Van cat, existed on the shores of Lake Van in the period of early heathendom. And if one takes into consideration that the continuous residence of other, except the Armenians, ethnic groups on the Armenian Upland started during the last 5 to 6 centuries, i. e. much later than the named images of the Van cats appeared, then it may be understood that the legend, as well as the breed itself, has passed to the Turks from other ethnic groups “by succession”. The cats excel in their fertility, and it looks like that as in other Indo-European nations, the Armenians’ respect for the cat had some relationship to the worship of the mother goddess. It is also known that there was a temple of Astghik, heathen goddess, which in the earliest period of heathendom was worshiped as mother-goddess, in the ever-existed village of Artamet, located on the shore of Lake Van, that later became a residential suburb of the city of Van, famous for its exclusively tasty apples. Unfortunately, the proof of this theory is to be found in the future.
And the answer to the question, why, according to the above legend, the All-Mighty Creator had blessed the cat, we managed to find in the same source that preserved for us the legend on Noah and the tasting of the first wine produced after the Flood. It turned out that our Lord had created the cat because the cat caught and killed the mice that tried to make a hole in the bottom of the Noah’s Ark. The cat completed the Creator’s will, and thanks to it the cat saved Noah’s family, and, correspondingly, the whole mankind, which means both you and me, and all of us. Such is it, the Cat of Lake Van, or simply “vana katu” in Armenian.