Can Cats See Color?
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM August 31, 2019
You’ve been standing in the toy aisle at your local pet store for the last 20 minutes trying to decide if you should get the pink feathered wand or the green one. To you, it’s a very important decision. You want to make your kitty happy, but does your cat even notice the difference? Feline vision differs from that of humans in many ways, including their ability to see better in the dark, but who has the edge when it comes to seeing color?
Can Cats See Color?
Yes, cats can see color, but they don't see it in the same way that most humans do. The spectrum of color that cats see is more like that of a red-green color-blind person, meaning that they see more in shades of blue, yellow, and gray hues. Moreover, a cat’s vision also lacks the same richness in hues and saturation due to differences in photoreceptor cells located in the eye.
Why Are Cats Only Able To See Certain Colors?
The ability to see color in all critters depends on the makeup of the retina, a layer of tissue at the back of the eye. The retina contains special cells called photoreceptors that are responsible for converting light into signals that are processed in the brain. Those signals are translated into the images that we see. There are two types of photoreceptors: rods and cones. The number of rods determines how well an animal can see in the dark; the number of cones determines color perception and vision in the daylight. Cats have a high number of rods and a low number of cones. This means that cats can see well at night but can’t differentiate between colors very well.
The fact that a cat’s eye contains cone photoreceptors at all means that they can see some colors, just not all the variations that humans do. Both humans and cats have three types of cones that allow them to see combinations of red, blue, and green. Yet with fewer cones, the visual color combinations are more limited for cats. The lower number of cones also makes a cat’s vision less sensitive to brightness of color, meaning the colors that they see are less vibrant and more muted than what we humans see.
How Is A Cat’s Vision Beneficial To Their Survival?
The other type of photoreceptor cells are rods which help detect motion and light levels. Cat eyes have a high number of rods. This allows them to see better in the dark and to detect movement at greater distances in lower light environments. Cats also have a reflective layer under their retina, called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects light back into the retina. The tapetum is what is responsible for that shiny glow you see when you catch your cat in the middle of their midnight mischief. The tapetum, coupled with the elliptical shape and the ability to dilate their pupils enhances a cat’s ability to see in low light or darkness.
For most domestic, indoor cats, it may only ensure that they don’t bump into the couch while they are doing their nightly rounds. However, for cats in the wild, it can mean the difference between catching dinner and going hungry. As you may know, cats are crepuscular creatures, meaning they are most active during the dawn and dusk hours. During these low light periods of the day, having an enhanced ability to detect motion helps outdoor and wild cats stalk and catch their prey. The ability to determine if your shirt is apricot or peach colored is of no benefit when it comes to a cat’s survival in the wild.
Do All Types Of Cats Have The Same Vision?
It seems that the ability to see color spans all species of felids, from tigers to housecats. They all see roughly the same color spectrum, viewing their world in mostly blues, yellows, and grays. All cats have the reflective tapetum lucidum, as well as a plethora of rods to see better in low light or in the dark. In addition, due to the location of their eyes, they have a wide peripheral view of their environment to better help keep tabs on their prey and predators (toys and treats in our cats' cases).
With all of those similarities, you might think that your cat’s eyes are just miniaturized versions of wild tiger or lion eyes and that is mostly true. The main difference in the vision of smaller and larger cats is the shape of the pupil. Small cats, like our housecats, have a pupil that is an elliptically shaped slit. Their pupils can fully dilate into large circles in low light or when your cat is frightened. The shape of the pupil is important to allow as much light in as possible during darker hours without causing the cat to be blinded during the full light of the day. Lions, tigers, and other large cats have a round pupil similar to ours. These pupils also fully dilate to let in sufficient light during darker hours. The difference in the shape of the constricted pupil between small cats and large cats is thought to be with how close they are to the ground. The shape of the pupil may aid these animals differently based on their point of view to best help them see their prey and predators around them.
The Difference Between Human Vision Versus Cat Vision
The question you may be wondering is who has the better vision, you or your cat? While you see ROY G BIV when you look at a rainbow, your cat probably only sees various hues of yellow, grey, and blues. But color isn’t everything. Your cat has a wider field of vision than you do. Most humans have a peripheral vision of 180 degrees, meaning that half of our surroundings aren’t seen by us at any given time. For a cat, that field of view is more like 200 degrees. This gives them a greater ability to see that rainbow if it is located just behind them.
Also, cats are not known for their visual acuity since they are very nearsighted. For humans, we strive to attain 20/20 vision. Cats fall more into the 20/100 range, meaning that they can see things at 20 feet that humans see at 100. This only means that your cat won’t be winning any medals for marksmanship, but they’re still able to see your face and their food bowl when dinnertime comes around.
As for night vision, cats are way more advanced at seeing in the dark than we are. Since a cat’s eye contains about 10 times more rods than a human eye (along with the tapetum lucidum), cats only need about 1/6 of the amount of light that we do in order to make out objects and movement in the dark. So if by some miracle a rainbow appears at night, your cat will be able to enjoy it more than you can!
Let’s lay the myth that cats can’t see color to rest. Cat’s eyes contain all of the necessary components to see color, just not in an amount and variety to see all of the color combinations that we do. What cats lack in color vision they make up for in their ability to see in the dark and to detect even minute movement, aiding them in their search for food during the low light levels of the day. For our housecats, their visual color spectrum just means that they may be indifferent to the color of some of the toys we buy them.