- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Do you ever wonder how the world looks through your cat’s eyes? Their amazing pouncing accuracy shows us that our feline friends are masters of motion detection and aim. But does the color of their favorite pouncing toy make a difference? Here’s the truth about whether cats are really color blind.
Do cats see only black and white?
Nope. Cats can definitely see some colors, although their range of color, compared to humans, is less vibrant and more pastel. Artist Nickolay Lamm created photos that compare a cat’s view of the world with an average human’s view. In the photos there, you’ll see that the verdant greens really pop in the “human vision” version and have a more somber sepia-tone quality in the “cat vision” version.
Why can’t cats see like humans?
Humans actually have excellent color vision compared to most other mammals. Color vision relies on special neurons in the retina of the eye, color-sensitive cells called “cones.” Humans have three types of cone cells (and about 12 percent of women have four types), whereas cats have just two types. We also have about 10 times as many cones in our eyes than cats do. That allows us to see a way more colorful world—up to a million colors for those us of with three types of cone cells, and as many as 10 million for women who have four cone types.
Since cats are dichromats (the scientific word for animals with two-cone vision), their vision might compare to some varieties of dichromatism, also called color blindness, in people. This includes the familiar red/greed color blindness that’s most common in people. Some scientists believe that cat vision is limited to a blue/gray/green spectrum, while others think that cats can also see yellow hues.
How do we know that cats can see color?
I asked my cat Gandalf Carrot Cupcake if he can see the snake in this Ishihara colorblindness test. Instead of leaping into the air as though he’d seen a cucumber, he glared at me and went back to licking his belly.
Such an uncooperative test subject made me wonder how anyone figured out what colors cats can see.
Cat color vision has been studied in at least two ways. One is pretty similar to the red/green test above, and scientists have been extra clever by using the most irresistible cat lure: LED laser pointers. Using single-color LEDs, one study tested cats’ responses to color. Their conclusion? Cats have a gap in their color vision around 505 nanometers (bright green), which makes them a pretty darn accurate model for red-green colorblindness in people.
Of course, scientists have also looked at the eyes of cats and counted the numbers of cone (color receptors) and rod (light receptors) cells. Although the number and variety of cone cells are limited in a cat’s eye, they excel when it comes to light-receptive rod cells.
Can cats see in the dark?
If we’re talking night vision, cats have thee huge advantages. With six to eight times more light-receptive rod cells in their eyes than humans, cats are able to see much better in low-light conditions. Rod cells also help with detecting motion in low light, an important skill for hunting at dawn and dusk.
A second reason that cats have such good low-light vision is the shape of their pupils. When constricted, a cat’s pupils look like narrow slits. But when dilated, their elliptical pupils can dilate to nearly the full size of their eyelids, which is a great way to let in as much light as possible.
The third amazing adaptation for night vision is their supernatural-looking glowing eyes.
Cat eyes have a neato structure called a tapetum lucidum behind the retina. The tapetum mirrors the light that passes between the rod and cone cells, basically giving those cells a second chance to pick up the light that would be missed otherwise. When light bounces off the tapetum, we see the cat’s eyes glowing. Most cats have a green glow, but Siamese cats can glow yellow, and the glow from white cats with blue eyes can be blood red!
Why do cats have a wider peripheral vision?
Cat eyes are positioned slightly closer to the sides of their heads, while people’s eyes point directly forward. This gives cats an advantage for peripheral vision, an increase to 200 degrees, versus a human’s 180-degree view.
There is a tradeoff, however, between peripheral vision and depth perception. The closer-together eyes of people give us better depth perception than cats. But don’t pity our feline friends. Cats have the best depth perception of any carnivore species, which makes them exacting visual hunters.
How accurate is cat eyesight?
Compared to humans, not so good. If a person can see an object at 100 feet with 20/20 vision, a cat would have to be 20 feet away to see clearly, which puts cat vision at a measly 20/100. No wonder Toonces the Driving Cat had such a hard time getting his family home safely.