Can cats see in the dark, like night vision?

Written by Shaunice Lewis
Published: April 13, 2022
Image Credit Konstantin Zaykov/Shutterstock.com
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It is a well-known fact that cats are known for their heightened senses—especially their vision. But just how well is it? Are they able to see clearly in the dark? Is it similar to night vision goggles? Read on to learn more about cats’ eyesight.

Cats can see in the dark

Cats have better vision in the dark than we as humans do. In low light settings or dimly lit places, cats are able to see better than we’d be able to.

This is because cats have more receptors in their eyes than we do. These receptors are called rods, which are sensitive to light and help them see anywhere from six to eight times better than we can!

Their pupils are also able to expand wider than ours, which helps to bring in more light. However, in scenarios where there is absolutely no light, cats are not able to see very well. There must be at least a small source of light in order for cats to see in the dark.

So even though cats have the ability to see well in the dark, they are not actually nocturnal creatures. Cats are instead known to be crepuscular, which simply means that they are more active during the twilight hours.

They use their enhanced ability to see in the dark combined with their other heightened senses to navigate more easily in low-light settings.

It’s also important to note that cats do not necessarily see better in the night than they do in the daytime. It’s just that their eyes function best in the daylight. This dispels the myth that cats can see better in the dark than they do in the daytime.

The myth probably stems from the fact that cats do tend to be more active in the evening hours than in the daytime. That doesn’t mean that they have better vision during that time though.

can cats see in the dark
The eyes of cats differ from that of humans in the number of rod receptors cats have. They have many rods, which explains why they can see at night but are not good at distinguishing colors.

Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova/Shutterstock.com

How does a cat’s night vision differ from a human’s?

The difference between a cat’s vision and a human’s vision lies in the retina area of the eye. In the retina, you’ll find cells known as photoreceptors. There are two different types of these cells which are called rods and cones.

The job of the cones is to help see in the day and detect various shades of colors. The rods, on the other hand, help with night and peripheral vision (how well you see from the sides of your vision).

Cats have many of the rod receptors but not as many of the cone receptors. This combination explains why cats are able to see very well at night but are not as good at detecting colors.

For humans, it is the other way around. We are much better at seeing different colors but not so great at seeing things at night.

Another element that makes a cat’s vision at night different from a human’s is their tapetum lucidum—or the thin, reflective layer that resides along the back of their eyes.

This layer bounces and magnifies light when they’re in dark settings. This explains why cats’ and dogs’ eyes might appear to shine in the dark.

Cats are also color blind

Although cats may have great night vision, their eyesight isn’t perfect. In fact, cats are known to be red/green color blind.

Unlike humans, which have three different types of color receptors called cones, cats only have two different types and much fewer cones.

This means that shades of red and green will appear grey to them. Although they may have trouble seeing certain colors, cats are not completely color blind as some have been led to believe.

They have the ability to see colors even if it is not as vivid and bright as that of a human’s vision. This disproves the myth that cats see in black and white.

Seeing in black and white is referred to as monochromia and is actually pretty rare. This is not how cats see. Cats see colors just in a slightly different way than we do.

Their color blindness is similar to that of a human’s color blindness, with some specific colors (red and green) being harder to process.

Cats are, however, much better at seeing shades of blue and yellow than red and green. They also rely heavily on the brightness of color when viewing the world.

So you may want to consider getting your cat a yellow pet toy or this blue and yellow play toy, as either of these will be more appealing and easier for your cat to see.

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Can cats see UV or blacklight?

Ultraviolet or blacklight is completely invisible to humans. If you were in a room with only this kind of lamp, the room would still appear to be completely dark.

This isn’t the same for cats (and some other animals). Cats are able to make out UV light because the lens in their eyes does not block it as it does for us.

Being able to see ultraviolet light helps them to pick up on fluorescent urine trails of camouflaged animals in the wild.

This ability comes in handy for helping cats during hunting. And as we know, cats are extraordinary hunters. Their eyes are also a lot more sensitive than ours so they are able to detect small movements.

What are the limitations and advantages of a cat’s vision?

Being able to see great in the dark also comes at a price for cats. They are not able to make out as many details in their surroundings as a human would be able to.

They also have a much shorter range of vision when it comes to distance. Humans are able to see from as far away as 100-200 feet!

On the contrary, cats are only able to see up 20 feet away. This is a relatively short distance and classifies them as being mid-sighted.

This is because cats lack the muscles needed to be able to change the shape of their eyes. For example, if you’ve ever placed a cat toy close to your cat’s face, you may have noticed that it began to sniff it.

This behavior isn’t only their way of detecting the object’s scent but determining what the object is because they’re having a hard time seeing it.

At close distances cats struggle to focus their eyes on an object, so if you place a toy very close it will use its sensitive whiskers to detect it.

An interesting thing to note is that cats don’t actually have to blink to lubricate their eyes. So when a cat does blink, it can actually be taken as a sign of affection.

This is because it feels safe enough to close its eyes in your presence—in other words, it is a sign of trust.

A disadvantage of cats’ vision is that they aren’t good at seeing things that are very far away. Again, they began having difficulty seeing things that are more than about 20 feet away from them. This is the ideal range for them to see clearly.

It does, however, give them a sharp middle vision that helps them out when it’s time to hunt.

Although cats cannot see as far as we do, their field of vision is much wider. This helps alert them to any danger that may be approaching from the side.

Cats can see 200 degrees (30 degrees on either side) compared to the 180 degrees (20 degrees on each side) viewpoint of humans.

These visual advantages are what help cats not only survive in the wild but thrive.

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About the Author

Freelance writer specializing in natural health and wellness.

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