Whether or not cats can see colour has been the subject of debate amongst vets and owners for many years. Not only have we pondered how cats use night vision but if they can see colours, and if so, in what shades? Some people seem to think that cats see in black and white, but what’s really the truth? Can cats appreciate a rainbow of colours or not?
In simple terms, yes - cats can see colour but it’s very interesting to explore what kinds of colours they can see, how their eyes work, and how this helps them to navigate the big wide world.
We’re here to discuss the extent of what cats can see by taking a look into:
The anatomy of the feline eye
Rods and cones
The colour perception debate
And how cats see the world
Cats have very large eyes in comparison to their head. The white part of the eye is called the sclera and is covered by the conjunctiva, which is a thin membrane that covers the inside of the eyelid.
The cornea is a clear dome that protects the eye and allows light to pass through. Light enters feline eyeballs through vertical pupils that are slit. However, these pupils can dilate naturally when cats are excited or satisfied, and to quite a large size, which is what often makes cats look extra cute.
Feline eyes and human eyes differ quite a lot. Though the structure is pretty similar, compared to humans, cats can see better in dim light and are far better at detecting the movement of prey. This is because cats have more rod cells in the retina. Rods are the cells responsible for detecting motion, including those at far away distances.
The retina is a layer of tissue found at the back of the eye. It contains cells called photoreceptors which convert light into electrical signals. Once converted, these signals are processed by nerve cells and sent to the brain, resulting in images.
Whilst cats have a higher concentration of rod receptors, they have a low concentration of cone receptors (human eyes are the opposite). This means that they can see well at night but can’t detect colour as well as we can.
Cats' eyes also contain something called the tapetum lucidum. It is a layer of tissue that can be found just behind the retina. Simply put, this structure enhances visual sensitivity at lower light levels ultimately increasing a cat’s ability to see in the dark. The tapetum lucidum works by reflecting light back through the photoreceptor (rods and cones) of the eye.
The tapetum lucidum is what causes cats' eyes to appear to glow in the dark when a car headlight or camera flashes at them and in fact enhances their hunting abilities.
Rods and cones are the two types of photoreceptor cells in the eye. They can be found within the retina of the eye and work to help cats see the world around them.
Cones work to detect colour and help with daytime vision whereas rods work to detect motion and light and are responsible for night and peripheral vision. Cones can detect colour and rods can detect shades of grey.
As mentioned above, cats have a higher concentration of rod receptors and a lower concentration of cone receptors. Humans have the opposite which means we can’t see as well during the nighttime but can detect colour more brightly than cats can.
Cats also have a wider field of vision than humans do. It is estimated that cats can view up to 200 degrees compared to the human visual field of 180 degrees.
There’s a misconception held by many people that cats can’t see colour at all and view the world in monochrome hues. In actual fact, cats are thought to be trichromats like humans.
This essentially means that they can view red, green, and blue - though not to the same extent as we can. Some scientists have compared what a cat sees to what a colour blind human may see. Therefore shades of red and pink can be a bit confusing and purple may look like blue.
Cats were traditionally thought to be dichromats which meant the eye only contains two types of cones, however, this has been proven to be somewhat untrue and it is now thought that they have three types of interacting cones.
Though cats can’t see the same richness of colour and saturation as we can, they are still sensitive to certain colours such as blue and yellow, similar to their canine counterparts.
Many cat experts believe that cats are shortsighted which essentially means they can’t see objects as further away as we can. This further supports their innate hunting ability by allowing them to view close-up objects in more detail.
Though cats may not be able to view the same rich colours as we can, they do have amazing night vision which helps them to hunt and stay out of danger in darkness. Because of the higher amount of sensitive rods in their retina, cats can see using around one-sixth of the light that humans would need.
It’s also suspected that a cat’s visual acuity (this means the clearness of their vision) is weaker than humans'. So whilst they are more attuned to their surroundings and have wider fields of motion, cats cannot see as clearly as us. Some scientists suggest that a cat has to be at 20 feet to see what a human can see at 100 feet.
However, cats have incredible depth perception, think of their eyes like binoculars. Essentially, this means that they have a wide field of vision to hunt prey and detect motion.
Cats have a very unique way of seeing the world that even the most advanced veterinarians and scientists still don't yet fully understand. However, what we do know is that cats can certainly see colour, just not in the same range as human vision. This is due to the different wavelengths of light that cat eyes can perceive.
Because the retina in the eye contains a higher concentration of rod cells (a type of photoreceptor) that helps cats to see at night, they can detect slight movements which also allows them to have incredible night vision.
Rods and cones are the biggest difference between human and cat eyes and shape the way we both see at day and nighttime. Cats have a broader range of vision than the average human, thanks to their cone cells and other light receptors.
Many scientists believe that cats can see the equivalent of what a colour blind human can see, with a wider range of vision that allows them to detect rapid movement and potential prey. This continuing research into cat vision and the colour debate helps us not only understand our furry friends more but also allows us to provide them with the best care, ensuring their vision health.
In fact, it's one of the common misconceptions that cats only see in shades of grey. They do have types of cells that allow them to see some colours, but not the entire spectrum that humans can. Their kinds of cones are different from ours, which gives them a superior ability to see in low light conditions and detect motion, making them efficient hunters.
By better understanding the complex world of cat vision, we can ensure that our feline companions are well-cared for and that we can address any potential vision health issues. The more we learn about their eyes, the more we can appreciate the unique way they perceive the world around them.
Want to read more about cats and kittens? We’ve provided links to some intriguing articles on hypoallergenic cat food and top cat names. Oh, and if you’re interested in finding out why cats knead, you’re in luck.
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