Can Cats See in the Dark? (& How Well?)

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Although humans domesticated cats nearly 12,000 years ago, your feline friend is still somewhat of a mystery. The idea that cats have night vision contributes to their elusive aura. But can cats see in the dark? And if they can, how well do cats see in the dark?

Can Cats See in the Dark?

Do cats have night vision? Not exactly. They can see very well in low light, however — a skill that gave domestic cats' ancestors an advantage over their prey. As American Veterinarian explains, cats' large corneas and pupils, which are about 50% larger than humans', allow more light into their eyes. This extra light helps them to see in the dark.

People's homes are rarely in complete darkness — there's always a little light coming in from somewhere — which is why humans think their cats have night vision goggles. They don't, but it can seem that way when your cat wakes you up for a midnight meal. Cats actually aren't nocturnal; they are crepuscular creatures that hunt at dusk and dawn, the time of day when many other animals (i.e., prey) become more active. Talk about perfect timing.

Gray cat with dilated pupils

Evolution of Cat Night Vision

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that animals that have vertically slit pupils, including cats, are more likely to be ambush predators. In contrast to animals whom the researchers refer to as "active foragers," ambush predators are active during both day and night.

Your cat's ancestors were solitary hunters. Not much has changed, except that house cats don't have to work as hard to get a meal. The scientists at UC Berkeley also found that animals with slit pupils tend to be lower to the ground than animals with round pupils. They concluded that vertical pupils help shorter animals estimate how far away their prey is — an advantage that much larger cats, like tigers and lions, don't need.

Cats vs. Humans

How well do cats see in the dark? Much better than their pet parents. A human's round pupils are no match for vertically slit pupils. Observe your kitty: Their pupils will constrict in the bright sunlight and then dilate in the dark. A cat's vision is very powerful because of the strategic shape and movement of their eyes. They also see the world mostly in shades of gray, which is perfect for low light.

Brown tabby cat with green eyes and constricted pupils in the shape of a slit."A cat has the capacity to alter the intensity of light falling on its retina 135-fold, compared to tenfold in a human, with a circular pupil," Dr. Richard E. Goldstein, chief medical officer at the Animal Medical Center in New York City, tells the New York Times. In other words, slit pupils give cats a big advantage over their humans when it comes to seeing in the dark because they're much more effective at responding to how light enters their eyes.

But you still have one visual advantage over your furry friend: Humans have better visual acuity, or clearness of vision, than cats, reports Business Insider. You can see more clearly than your feline friend, but cats win when it comes to night vision. With your combined visual abilities, you and your cat make the perfect team.

Contributor Bio

Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien

Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, STEAM educator, professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA), and a devoted pet parent. She writes about pets, women's health, teaching, and STEM-y stuff. Her work also has appeared in NIU STEM Read, Fit Pregnancy, What to Expect When You're Expecting Word of Mom, and Care.com. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien

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