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Can Cats See Colors? Explaining Feline Vision

Many owners are keen to know: can cats see color and, if so, what colors can cats see? Do they perceive the world in a similar way to us, or does it look completely different? This article explores the science behind color vision and how our cat's experience may differ from ours.

Explaining cat vision

Given that the cat is a natural hunter, it is no wonder they have excellent vision in low light. They tend to hunt at dawn and dusk, and their eyes are honed to pick up on small movements far away.

While cat anatomy and human anatomy are very different, there are plenty of similarities when it comes to our eyes. The eye determines how much light is let in, and the brain processes the images it sees.

Cats have very good peripheral vision, utilizing about a 10% larger field than humans do.

The anatomy of a cat's eye

Some of the major parts of the cat's eye include:

  • Iris
  • Lens
  • Cornea
  • Sclera
  • Conjunctiva
  • Retina
  • Tapetum lucidum
  • Pupil
Cat eye anatomy

The iris makes the pupil bigger or smaller, depending on how bright the surrounding area is, and is the colored part that encompasses the pupil. The lens changes shape to help focus light onto the retina.

The cornea is the transparent surface at the front of the eye, while the sclera is the outer white part of the eye. When we talk about the conjunctiva, this is the membrane that lines the eye.

It is the retina that contains the rods and cones, or the 'photoreceptors.' It is at the back of the eye and is responsible for visual processing. The cones are used to see colors in humans, but for cats, they are more important for judging speed, depth perception, and distance. Cats have far fewer cone cells than us, limiting their color vision. The rods allow for vision in dim light; something which cats are far better at than us.

There is also tapetum lucidum, which magnifies light and creates a visible 'glint' or reflection. This is something we can see when a light is shone directly onto the eye in darkened areas. Humans do not have this, which is one of the reasons why a cat's vision is better than ours in the dark, as it enhances vision by reflecting light to the back of the retina.

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Can cats see in color?

It is largely believed that cats do see colors, but not as many or as vividly as humans can. Feline vision is a debated topic, and some researchers think cats see only blues and grays, while others suggest they can see yellows, reds, and greens. Most agree any color vision they have is likely muted compared to ours, particularly the red and green.

While there have been a number of studies on cat vision (some dating back to the early 1900s), the research is ongoing and we still don't have concrete answers.

What the world looks like to your cat

It is valuable to remember that cats are hunters with a prey drive, and their vision has evolved taking this into account. They are crepuscular, meaning they are most active when light is dim, both as the sun rises and sets.

They are very adept at detecting motion and quickly perceive even the slightest of movement. This ability is pronounced when there is a color contrast between the object and its background. Although cats cannot see colors as well as we can, they are good at distinguishing objects based on the contrast of color. Their tapetum lucidum enhances the contrast while the pupil can enlarge significantly, meaning they can see very well at night.

Many of us are aware that cats have a superior sense of smell to us, and it strongly influences their interactions with the world. It compliments their vision and they rely on it heavily for navigating around them, identifying other animals, and hunting.

Considering your cat's vision

By understanding how a cat's senses work, you can tailor their environment to suit them.

  • Consider using toys with high contrast and things that encourage hunting and natural movements. Steer clear of red laser toys; instead, choose something like wind-up mice.
  • You can help your cat navigate the home by making sure it is brightly lit and that there are shadows for them to interpret. Older cats, in particular, can experience deteriorating vision and may need more light than before.
  • Consider contrasting hues for obstacles, surfaces, and edges. This can prevent falls and injuries, keeping your cat safe within the home.

A cat's vision is adapted to their lifestyle as active hunters who are most active at dawn and dusk when light is low. Although their world is less colorful and detailed than ours, they excel at seeing moving objects, even in dim light. By understanding how cats see, you can better set up their home to meet their needs, greatly enhancing their quality of life.


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