Can Cats See in the Dark? Discover How Cats See the World at Night

Can Cats See in the Dark

Cats’ antics and hyperactivity at night are fair enough reasons why cat owners believe that they can see in the dark. But can cats see in the dark? Even in total darkness?

Let’s delve deeper into the intriguing questions surrounding our fluffy companions’ night vision.

It may be easier to believe that cats are nocturnal creatures, but in reality, they are not.

Instead, cats are crepuscular, which simply means that they are more active around dusk and dawn.

This explains why they tend to have that excess energy to do some crazy things at night.

Next time that you bump into your cats while they are running around in your living room at 3 am, you already know better.

Their hyperactivity around this time is just part of their instinct, and it’s not because of their extraordinary ability to see in the dark.

Related article: Top 20 Cat Myths Debunked

Can Cats See in the Dark?

Technically, yes, they can. However, they cannot see in total darkness. Cats still need even just a little bit of light so they can see in the dark.

Cat vision at night is far more advanced than humans, though. Cats eyes can pick up the details of objects around them in low lighting because they were designed intelligently.

And with their ability to identify the shape of images around them while responding to changes in light levels, cats can easily maneuver in the dark.

However, this is just one of the reasons that make your fluffy companions the perfect tiny twilight hunters.

Discover the other features that help cats see better in low light, and learn more about the differences between cat vision and human vision as you move along this article.

Can Cats See in the Dark? Discover How Cats See the World at Night 1

How Cats See the World?

Have you ever wondered how the world looks like in the eye of a cat? Do they see the same radiant colors that a human eye can see? Well, it turns out that cats cannot marvel at the same pretty colors that we, humans can see day and night. 

Cat’s eye sees things mostly in gray, yellow, some blue, and a bit of green. Also, cat eyes see lesser saturated colors than what humans can see. All of these don’t stop them, though, in enjoying the world as much as we do (or even way better). 

What they lack with their color vision, they compensate with their amazing eyesight. Cats can easily detect even the slightest and fastest movement around them. And this is true even in times when the light levels make it somewhat impossible for humans to see clearly, just like in moonless evenings. 

Cats are also near sighted so they can’t see far-away objects clearly as humans do. To give you a better idea, according to Purina, “Humans can be up to five times further away to see something in the same amount of detail as a cat would see up close.” 

However, compared with humans, cats have a wider field of vision at 200 degrees. Humans have a field of vision of 180 degrees. More so, peripheral vision for cats is 30 degrees on each side, while for humans it’s 20 degrees for each side. 

This time, we are confident that you already have a better understanding of how cats see the world.  But just in case you want to see how the world looks like exactly in the eyes of your feline friend, Nickolay Lamm published a series of images in 2013 that demonstrate the differences between human vision and cat vision. You might want to check that out. 

Related article: Can Cats See Color?

How Does Cat’s Night Vision Differ From Humans?

To talk about the differences between cat vision and human vision at night we should first understand the retina of cat eyes and human retina.

This is the part of the eyes where cells called photoreceptors are found. All eyes (dogs, cats, humans, and so on) have two types of photoreceptors – cones and rods.

Cone receptors are responsible for the processing of colors and day vision, whereas rod receptors are responsible for peripheral vision (vision from side to side), motion sensing, and night vision.

Cats are richly gifted with rods, but not with cones. This is why cats can see better in dimmer light than us, but their color perception is not as vivid as ours.

On the other hand, we, humans can see clearly in bright light than cats because we have more cone receptors in our eyes.

can cats see in the dark

Reasons Why Cats Can See Better in the Dark Than Humans

As mentioned earlier, cats have intelligent eyes that enable them to see better in the dark. They also have curved corneas and elliptical, slit-like shape pupils.

And cats also possess an additional layer of tissue behind the retina called tapetum lucidum. This extra layer which happens to be absent in the human retina also strengthens cats’ ability to see better in the dark. 

Now, let’s talk further about these things and other reasons researchers think why cats have better night vision than humans.

1. Pupil shape

The pupil, which is the black center part of the eye is circular in humans, and elliptical, slit-like in cats.

This significant difference in the pupil shape in cats isn’t just there to add beauty to their facial features, though we can’t deny that it is really aesthetically pleasing.

Again, cats’ pupil shape might just be a superficial facet that gives birth to the term “cat’s eye,” but technically speaking, it has an essential role in their ability to see in the dark.

During the day, they appear like a vertical slit because the pupils constrict to limit the amount of light that passes into the eye. This allows them to have a better focus amidst the abundance of light in the day.

During the night, the cat’s pupils expand or become larger to increase the amount of light that enters the eyes. To give you a better idea, cat pupils can dilate by 135 fold during nighttime, as compared to 15 times for humans.

Hence, the vertical pupil shape of cats allows them to see better in the dark and helps them not to be blinded by too much light during the day.

2. The abundance of rods in cats’ eyes

Like what we’ve mentioned earlier, cats’ eyes have a lot of rods than cones (while humans have the opposite). While the human retina has about 120 million rod cells, the cat’s eye has six to eight times more rod cells than the human eye.  

The abundance of rods in cats’ eyes explains why they have better night vision than humans since rod receptors are responsible for the eyes’ ability to see at night, as well as for peripheral vision, and motion sensing.

3. Cornea size

The cornea, which is the clear, outer protective layer of the eye, is larger in cats than in humans.

And because of the larger surface area of cats’ eyes due to their huge corneas, there is also a greater amount of light that enters the eye.

This, in turn, makes it easier for them to see and focus, even in times and situations when we humans can barely see due to limited lighting.

4. Tapetum lucidum

Although it sounds like a Harry Potter spell, tapetum lucidum is not connected to magical or witchcraft stories at all. Instead, it is an extra layer of tissue behind the retina of the cats.

Tapetum lucidum is not found in humans, but it has a crucial use in cats. This additional layer of eye tissue behaves as reflectors, bouncing light back into the eyes and thereby giving the cats’ a higher ability to see in the dark.

This extra layer of tissue in our furry companions’ eyes is also what appears as a green reflective surface that we see when we take a picture of them with a flash.

And it’s also the reason why cats’ eyes glisten when we see them outdoors at night.

5. UV light vision

Are you already impressed by your cat’s intelligent eyes? Well, it turns out that there’s more to them than meet your human eyes.

Apart from the structures and features that are special to cats, there’s another thing that helps them to see better at night than humans.

Unlike us, cats have UV light vision, which allows them to see things like urine trails and patterns in flowers that help them in hunting for prey at night.

This is made possible through the cat’s ocular media, or the transparent portions of the eyes. So what happens is that their ocular media transmits UV wavelengths, which then, gives way for light to enter into the retina.

And once again, when there’s more light in the retina, there’s also a better night vision just like what happens when the cat’s pupils expand at night to attract more light into the eyes.

Can Cats See in the Dark? Discover How Cats See the World at Night 2

Senses That Help Cats See Better at Night Than Humans

By now, we’ve obviously settled that cats have better night vision than humans because of how their eyes were made. However, it’s not just their eyes that allow them to navigate through darkness flawlessly without stumbling on anything. 

In particular, our feline friends also receive help from their extraordinary sense of smell, and hearing, as well as their whiskers. The strong sense of smell of cats may even be more sensitive than of a dog’s, and this is due to their specialized organ found on the roof of their mouth, called the vomeronasal organ.

This organ allows cats to smell and taste, strongly, at the same time. And they can use this added advantage in getting more information about their surroundings. Moreover, our furry companions also have sensitive hearing, which allows them to identify even the slightest, high-pitch sounds from far away.

Finally, the power of a cat’s whiskers can’t be overlooked when talking about how they can navigate through the night easily without getting hurt.

A cat’s whiskers are connected to nerves that allow them to feel the slightest touch, movement, or even a gust of wind. Their whiskers help them detect any potential obstacles so they can run through a maze at night without stumbling even on objects that they cannot see.

A cat’s night vision may not be as powerful as most people would expect, but their eyes are undeniably intelligent and we can’t disregard the fact that they can see clearly in the dark than us. Their eyes, ears, nose, and whiskers all work together to give them a stronger sense of the world they move in. 

In total darkness, when cats can’t see, their whiskers, nose, and ears, will serve as their eyes, and they can go on just fine. 

Can Cats See in the Dark? Discover How Cats See the World at Night 3

Do cats need a light on at night?

The shortest and most general answer is no. Cats do need some light to see but they don't need nearly as much as we do. A cat's eyes are so sensitive that they need only one-sixth the amount of light as we do.

Do cats have good eyesight in the dark?

Night vision — Cats can't see fine detail or rich color, but have a superior ability to see in the dark because of the high number of rods in their retina that are sensitive to dim light. As a result, cats can see using roughly one-sixth the amount light that people need.

Can I leave my cat in the dark?

Cats can sleep in light and in near-darkness, and they can see in light and near-darkness. Whether you leave the light on or turn it off, is the same to your cat. ... Turning the light off certainly won't hurt her. Cats also can, just like we can, shut their eyes when they sleep.

Are cats scared of the dark?

Yes, cats can be afraid of the dark although not all cats are. The fear can be based on a bad association such as being chased, captured, abused or hurt when dark. A cat may have been attacked by another animal, abused by a human or was thrown out of the house at night.

  • Updated April 12, 2021
Mary Nielsen

A huge animal lover, born and raised around dogs, cats, chickens... Self-educated pet care nerd. Currently parent of three adopted cats and one small mutt. Animal adoption advocate. Loves a good book (about animals) and playing the piano.