Can Cats See in the Dark?

Cats have great night vision, but at a cost

Cats can see in dim light, but not truly in the dark.
Cats can see in dim light, but not truly in the dark. Kech, Getty Images

If you've ever tripped over your tabby at night and received the "Why didn't you see me?" glare, you know cats can see much better in darkness than people can. In fact, your cat's minimum light detection threshold is about seven times lower than yours. Yet, both feline and human eyes require light to form images. Cats can't see in the dark, at least not with their eyes. Also, there's a downside to seeing better at night.

How Cats See in Dim Light

The tapetum lucidum of a cat's eyes reflects light back toward the retina (or camera).
The tapetum lucidum of a cat's eyes reflects light back toward the retina (or camera). AndreyGV, Getty Images

A cat's eye is built to collect light. The rounded shape of the cornea helps capture and focus light, eye placement on the face allows for a 200° field of view, and cats don't have to blink to lubricate their eyes. However, the two factors giving Fluffy the advantage at night are the tapetum lucidum and the composition of light receptors on the retina.

Retinal receptors come in two flavors: rods and cones. Rods respond to changes in light levels (black and white), while cones react to color. About 80 percent of the light receptor cells on a human retina are rods. In contrast, around 96 percent of the light receptors in a cat's eyes are rods. Rods refresh more quickly than cones, too, giving a cat faster vision.

The tapetum lucidum is a reflective layer positioned behind the retina of cats, dogs, and most other mammals. Light passing through the retina bounces off the tapetum back toward the receptors, commonly giving animal eyes a green or gold reflection in bright light, compared to the red-eye effect in humans.

Siamese and some other blue-eyed cats have a tapetum lucidum, but its cells are abnormal. The eyes of these cats shine red and may reflect more weakly than do eyes with normal tapeta. Thus, Siamese cats might not see in the dark as well as other cats.

Seeing Ultraviolet Light (UV or Black Light)

Humans can't see black light, but cats can.
Humans can't see black light, but cats can. tzahiV, Getty Images

In a sense, cats can see in the dark. Ultraviolet or black light is invisible to humans, so if a room was lit entirely by UV, it would be completely dark to us. This is because the lens in the human eye blocks UV. Most other mammals, including cats, dogs, and monkeys, have lenses that permit ultraviolet transmission. This "superpower" might be useful to a cat or other predator by making it easier to track fluorescent urine trails or see camouflaged prey.

Fun Fact: Human retinas can perceive ultraviolet light. If the lens is removed and replaced, like for cataract surgery, people can see in UV. After having one of his lenses removed, Monet painted using ultraviolet pigments.

Trading Light for Color

Cats see blue and yellow better than red and green. They can't focus as clearly or distantly as humans.
Cats see blue and yellow better than red and green. They can't focus as clearly or distantly as humans. masART_STUDIO, Getty Images

All the rods in the feline retina make it sensitive to light, but this means there's less room for cones. Cones are the eye's color receptors. While some scientists believe cats, like humans, have three types of cones, their peak color sensitivity is different from ours. Human color peaks in red, green, and blue. Cats see a less saturated world, mostly in shades of blue-violet, greenish-yellow, and gray. It's also blurry in the distance (greater than 20 feet), like what a near-sighted person might see. While cats and dogs can detect motion better than you can at night, humans are 10 to 12 times better at tracking motion in bright light. Having a tapetum lucidum helps cats and dogs see at night, but in the daytime it actually reduces visual acuity, overwhelming the retina with light.

Other Ways Cats 'See' in the Dark

Cat whiskers use vibration to map the surroundings.
Cat whiskers use vibration to map the surroundings. francesco, Getty Images

A cat uses other senses that help it "see" in the dark, sort of like bat echolocation. Cats lack muscles used to change the shape of the eye's lens, so Mittens can't see as clearly close up as you can. She relies on vibrissae (whiskers), which detect slight vibrations to build a three-dimensional map of her surroundings. When a cat's prey or favorite toy is within striking range, it may be too close to see clearly. A cat's whiskers pull forward, forming a kind of web to track movement.

Cats also use hearing to map surroundings. At the low frequency range, feline and human hearing is comparable. However, cats can hear higher pitches up to 64 GHz, which is an octave higher than a dog's range. Cats swivel their ears to pinpoint the source of sounds.

Cats also rely on scent to understand their environment. The feline olfactory epithelium (nose) has twice as many receptors as that of a human. Cats also have a vomeronasal organ in the roof of their mouths that helps them smell chemicals.

Ultimately, everything about feline senses support crepuscular (dawn and dusk) hunting. Cats don't literally see in the dark, but they come pretty close.

Key Points

  • Cats can't see in the dark, but they can detect light seven times dimmer than humans can.
  • Cats can see in the ultraviolet range, which appears dark to humans.
  • To see in dim light, cats have more rods than cones. They sacrifice color vision for improved night vision.

Sources and Suggested Reading

  • Braekevelt, C.R. "Fine structure of the feline tapetum lucidum." Anat Histol Embryol19 (2): 97–105.
  • Dykes, R.W.; Dudar, J.D.; Tanji, D.G. Publicover NG (September 1977). "Somatotopic projections of mystacial vibrissae on cerebral cortex of cats." J. Neurophysiol. 40 (5): 997–1014.
  • Guenther, Elke; Zrenner, Eberhart. (April 1993). "The Spectral Sensitivity of Dark- and Light-Adapted Cat Retinal Ganglion Cells." Journal of Neuroscience. 13 (4): 1543–1550.
  • "Let the light shine in." Guardian News.
  • Douglas, R.H.; Jeffery, G. (19 February 2014). "The spectral transmission of ocular media suggests ultraviolet sensitivity is widespread among mammals." Royal Society Publishing: Proceedings B.
  • Snowdon, Charles T.; Teie, David; Savage, Megan. "Cats prefer species-appropriate music." Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 166: 106–111.
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Can Cats See in the Dark?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, February 17). Can Cats See in the Dark? Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Can Cats See in the Dark?" ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).