Cat Vision: How Do They See the World?

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Pet people are entranced with the beauty and mystery of cat eyes, but imagine what it would be like to experience life with cat vision. How do they see the world?

From whether cats can see colors to if they've got night vision, we're shedding some light on what cat eyesight is really like.

Can My Cat See Better Than Me?

Cat parents sometimes get the sense that their fur baby can see something that they can't. More often than not, this is true, but not for the reasons you may think. Cats may not have a sixth sense, but they do have a third eyelid — a thin membrane that provides added protection. In turn, cats have highly evolved vision.

Do Cats Have Night Vision?

Desp ite what you may have heard, cats do not have night vision. Cats can, however, "see six times better in dim light than people," according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. This is because of the large number of rod cells, one of two types of photoreceptor cells (the other being cone cells) that cats have. Rod cells are more sensitive to light than cone cells; because cats have so many rod cells, they're able to perceive more shapes and movements in low light.

Another reason cat vision is so great in the dark is because of what's called the "mirror layer" behind their retina, which reflects the light absorbed by the eye. If a rod in a human retina doesn't "see" the light, describes ABC Science Australia, it gets absorbed into the black layer behind the retina. In cats, however, "if the light has not hit a rod, it will reflect off the mirror layer and be bounced. The light now has a second chance to hit a rod, and to be put to work," ABC explains.

These magical mirrored eyes are why cats can see stuff moving around the room that you can't see, usually just dust bunnies and not something spooky.

What About Color Spectrum Vision?

It's a myth that cats only see the world in black and white, notes AdelaideVet, but your feline friend definitely does not experience the same color spectrum as you. On one hand, cats technically are color-blind because they can't see all colors; on the other hand, cats can see some muted colors.

Scottish Fold cat lying on the back with big yellow eyes staring straight forward.

The physical structure of a cat's eye is what prohibits them from seeing the rainbow. Humans have three photopigment receptors and cats only have two, thus limiting their color acumen, describes Manhattan Cat Specialists. "Colors that would appear to be very rich to us are more pastel-like to the cats." This is the cone cells at work again. Cats are great at seeing the world in shades of gray, and they do well with blues and yellows. But just like humans who are considered colorblind, cats have trouble distinguishing greens and reds. Red, in particular, is just seen as "dark" to your kitty.

Is There Any Truth to Predator Vision?

Our feline friends are sly and accurate hunters, a skill for which they can thank their cat eyesight. Their visual acuity allows them to see even the smallest movement or well-hidden shape. Cats (like humans) have limited peripheral vision, but make up for it with their strong vision as well as the placement of their eyes. Because their eyes face forward (like humans), cats can determine the exact distance between themselves and their prey, ensuring accuracy and success in besting an opponent.

Cat Vision Versus Hearing: Is One Stronger?

With all the amazing attributes of cat vision, you may be surprised to learn that a cat's eyesight is not their sharpest sense: It's their hearing.

A cat's sense of hearing is so sophisticated that, as Animal Planet describes, "a cat up to 3 feet away from the origin of a sound can pinpoint its location to within a few inches in a mere six one-hundredths of a second. Cats also can hear sounds at great distances ... and also can detect the tiniest variances in sound, distinguishing differences of as little as one-tenth of a tone, which helps them identify the type and size of the prey emitting the noise."

There are a lot of cat myths and misconceptions out there, and while biology explains much of what's so mysterious about how they see the world, there are still plenty of peculiar cat behaviors that make them the enigmatic creatures we all love. But between their sense of hearing and their visual acuity, it's no wonder why cats rule the world.

Contributor Bio

Christine O'Brien

Christine O'Brien

Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is a professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA), a STEAM educator, and a devoted pet parent. Her work also has appeared in Fit Pregnancy, What to Expect When You're Expecting Word of Mom, and Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien