The Van cat has been reported living in the vicinity of the city of Van for centuries, with medieval sources mention white cats as being one of the exports of the Van region. The cats are named Van kedisi (plural kediler, nominative kedisi) in Turkish, Vana katou or Vana gadou (Վանա կատու) in Armenian, and pisîka Wanê in Kurdish. Each literally translates to ‘cat of Van’ or ‘Van cat’. Armenian people who settled in the Van region revered this breed of cat.
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 for the breeding center could be purchased for $30 in 2006, but their export from Turkey is theoretically outlawed (with a reported fine of $50,000).
During the late 1990s, the Van cat emerged as an informal municipal symbol of the city of Van – an enormous statue of a Van cat and kitten now stands at the entrance to the city. The cat appears in a local comic strip, and in the logos of bus companies, shopping centres, various businesses, etc. Ironically, this symbolic popularity has been juxtaposed with a simultaneous serious decline in Van cat numbers.
The cats are notable for their lean, long-legged appearance. They are reported to like water more than most cats, and have been seen swimming in Lake Van.
Their most notable genetic characteristic is their almond-shaped eyes that often are mismatched colours. The most valued and valuable members of the type generally have one amber-green eye and one blue eye.
To increase the population of the Van cat, the local government of Van instituted a program to residents the equivalent of US$200.00 per month to keep one. This program has been discontinued. Today, there are about 75 purebreeds left in the region.