Do Cats See Color?

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

When you look at a rainbow in the sky, you see shades of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Do you ever wonder what your cat sees when they look at a rainbow? Can your feline friend distinguish the same range of color that you do? Do they see bands of black and white? Do the colors look blurred?

How cats see color is a long-standing topic of research and the results are pretty amazing. While cats cannot appreciate all the colors that humans do, their world is not entirely black and white. In fact, cats live in a colorful world.

What colors can cats see?

Color is discerned by the nerve cells in the eye. The retina of the eye has two main types of cells: rods, which detect light levels and motion; and cones, which differentiate colors. Human and feline eyes have three types of cones that can identify combinations of red, blue, and green. But because humans have 10 times more cones than cats do, humans appreciate more color variations than cats.

From scientific observations, cats do not appear to perceive the full range of colors that humans can. Some scientists believe that cats see only blue and gray, while others think they also see yellow, like their canine counterparts, making their vision like someone who is red-green color blind.

How does a cat’s vision compare to human vision?

Cats can perceive different colors, even if they cannot appreciate the entire spectrum of color that humans do. They just may not see the “true” color of an object. They are also less sensitive to changes in brightness, so they can’t perceive color in the rich, vibrant tones that we do.

"In some respects, feline vision is not as acute as human vision."

In addition to color perception, felines and humans have other visual differences. In some respects, feline vision is not as acute as human vision. Cats are more near-sighted than we are. When looking at an object from the same distance, the object may appear crisp to us, but blurred to our cats. For example, if a human sees an object clearly from 100 feet, it will appear blurry to a cat. In fact, the object will not appear sharp until the cat is about 20 feet away.

Are there other visual differences between cats and people?

Felines have some visual advantages over humans. Cats have eyes that are set more on the sides of the head, which allows them a broader range of peripheral vision than we have. The trade-off is a smaller range of visual acuity, so cats do not have the depth perception that we do.

Also, cats have elliptical pupils that dilate maximally, allowing them to capture as much light as possible. They also have reflective cells under the retina, which form the tapetum. The tapetum reflects all the light information back through the retina, increasing a cat’s ability to see in low light. It is also what makes a cat’s eyes glow at night or when a photo is taken with a flash.

"When compared to humans, cats see better in dim light (dusk and dawn) 
and more accurately detect motion."

Cats also have more rod cells in the retina than their human friends. Rods are responsible for detecting motion, even small movements at great distances. So, when compared to humans, cats see better in dim light (dusk and dawn) and more accurately detect motion.

Why do cats’ eyes work like this?

Cats are equipped with visual adaptations that allow them to survive and thrive in the wild. Seeing well in dim light and picking up slight movements in the forest at great distances improve the cat’s hunting ability. These assets also help cats know when they are the prey and need to flee.

Knowing how and what your cat can see will help you make good choices for them. For example, you should keep your cat’s color range in mind when shopping for toys. They will enjoy yellow and blue toys more than red ones. And you’ll understand why they suddenly become alert when they spot a bird flying 50 yards away. You’ll also know that, to get their complete attention, you should stand directly in front of them where the range of visual acuity is greatest.

And the next time you are lucky enough to be graced with a rainbow in the sky, rest assured that your cat can enjoy it, too. They won’t see all the colors of the rainbow, but they may see a bit of yellow and blue – and that will be just fine for them!

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