As the sun sets and you wind down for the evening, you realize that Fluffy’s day has only just begun. There’s no time like 3 a.m. to sprint down the hallway, chatter at mice scurrying in the backyard, and clear knick-knacks from the fireplace mantle one by one. There’s no doubt that cats have ‘night vision’ to some degree, but how well can cats see in the dark?
Cats see very well in the dark thanks to their eyes’ rod-to-cone ratio. These extra light-sensitive rods thrive in dim light, allowing cats to see clearly in about ⅙ the light as humans. While this allows crepuscular cats to hunt for prey at dusk, it comes at a cost: Less color and near-sightedness.
Our furry friends can certainly function better after dusk than we can without resorting to that blinding hall chandelier. But that doesn’t mean those black-out curtains give your cat unlimited visual acuity. To learn about how well cats can see in the dark, read on!
Cats & Night Vision: Does It Exist?
Cats don’t have the classic ‘night vision’ you experience when sporting tactical-style night vision goggles. But compared to humans, cats can see remarkably well in the dark and low light.
Let’s dive into the ‘how’ and ‘how much.’
Rods & Cones
To understand how Fluffy can find that crinkle toy at 3 a.m. in a near pitch-black bedroom, you need to learn about the basic feline eye structure. The retina is a fine tissue lining a cat’s eye in the rear, both highly sensitive to light and carrying two vital photoreceptors:
- Cones are responsible for visual acuity and speed detection, high-resolution images, and color vision (for identifying reds, blues, and greens).
- Rods are most sensitive in low light, allowing cats to detect quick motion in the evening (like a lizard climbing a tree).
A cat’s rod-to-cone ratio is far more off-balanced than a human’s, explaining why cats see the world much differently than we do. The latest research suggests that cats have up to 6-8 times more rods than humans’ 120 million rod receptors. In other words, Fluffy can see just as well as you do in about ⅛ to ⅙ of the light. This explains why cats have no trouble finding the litter box in the bathroom relying on nothing more than the moonlight!
Unfortunately, a cat’s remarkable night-time visual acuity means sacrificing vision elsewhere. In this case, cones. Cats have just 10% of a humans’ cone receptors, leaving them struggling with color vision. In simple terms, your cat can see most of the color spectrum, though with far duller saturations and hues. Cats can jumble up a pink or red mouse toy, but this hardly impacts their ability to locate and catch rats in the garage.
Other Night Vision Helpers
Beyond the retina, a cat’s eyes work in mysterious ways to enhance this slight ‘night vision.’ Helping cats to see better at night are:
- The tapetum lucidum: A mirror-like structure wedged behind the retina that can reflect light into the eye, allowing more light to enter in a dark basement.
- Dilation: A cat’s usual slit-shaped pupils can widen to 135 times their normal size to allow more light into the retina while on a midnight hunt.
- Peripheral vision: Cats also have a 200° visual range (compared to our 180°), giving cats a wider visual field after dusk, too, to locate mice in a field.
- Depth perception: The front-of-head placement allows a cat’s eyes to detect how far a slithering snake is before stalking, running, and ambushing.
- UV light: Scientific research reveals that cats can also see UV wavelengths like birds and mice, letting them notice things we cannot — like urine trails or reflective bugs on a wall.
A cat’s excellent vision does have its flaws, however. For example, a cat’s vision becomes blurry after about 20-feet (near-sightedness), blocks out vibrant colors, and struggles in bright light.
Does your cat follow invisible bugs up the wall, scout out chipmunks behind the shed, or ignore that dangling mouse toy bumping her nose? The video below explains how cats see the world:
How Cats Learn About a Dark Environment
The fact that Fluffy has six times better night vision than you is impressive. But it doesn’t fully explain how she can find her way around the apartment when the lights are switched off. The answer isn’t so complex! That’s because cats rely on their other senses and organs to learn more about their environment and survive.
The following ‘tools’ make-up a cat’s darkroom back-up plan:
Those facial whiskers aren’t just long, rough, and untamed hairs. A cat’s whiskers are technically ‘touch receptors’ that allow cats to learn about their immediate environment. This theory explains why cats know to back away when approaching a tight squeeze in the fence; their whiskers brush against it, knowing very well it’ll be too snug.
At night, these ultra-long strands act similar to bumpers. Fluffy will creep through a room slowly and figure out where she is and what’s nearby by waiting for that coveted whisker touch. It’s no longer so surprising that your cat tiptoed into bed or found the one mouse toy at night.
Sense of Smell
They might not dart into the kitchen when you’re making a cold-cut sandwich or rifle through the kitchen trash looking for scraps, but cats’ olfactory sense is lightyears beyond other domestic species. Felines reportedly boast up to 200 million sensors in their noses, helping them to sniff out mouse urine trails, unfinished kibble sitting in a bowl, and your pheromones on a blanket.
These carnivorous critters can rely on this robust sense to track live prey and learn whether a predator (like a coyote) is nearby. A defensive kitty can respond accordingly, either pursuing chase or seeking shelter.
Sense of Hearing
A cat’s hearing is also quite extraordinary and assists during pre-dawn hunts. Cats can reportedly hear nearly two octaves above humans while also detecting high-pitched sounds nearing 64 kHz. Not surprisingly, those perky, swiveling ears can hear mice squeaking in the attic, insects buzzing overhead, and leaves rustling in the yard.
Once a cat hears an obscure noise, her ears will angle toward the sound, following the sound while depending on her ‘night vision’ skills. If you wondered how Fluffy knew to sprint to the window at 6 a.m. as a bird perched on the sill, she has her ears to thank!
Are There Any Species With Night Vision?
Learning that your cat’s ‘night vision’ is more like ‘dim vision’ can be disappointing, but there are species that can see in near-complete darkness. These sharp-sighted critters include:
- Tarsiers (can see in just 0.001 lux)
- Elephant hawk moths (color-vision too!)
The common theme between these animal species is nocturnality! One of the biggest myths in the cat lover community is that our feline friends are nocturnal. In reality, they’re crepuscular — which is very easy to confuse.
Since domestic cats are most active at dawn and dusk while squeezing naps in between, there’s no instinctual need for complete night vision. Meanwhile, a snow owl’s beady eyes, 270° neck swivel, and tapetum lucidum (a mirror-like structure in the eye) allow them to spot, swoop down, and catch scurrying voles in the dark wilderness.
A cat’s hardwired crepuscular instincts mean those midnight snacks and play sessions are inevitable. But when this ‘night vision’ skill leaves you restless, here are some tips to keep the whole crew happy:
- Leave a dim light on elsewhere in the house.
- Keep Fluffy’s toys and scratching posts away from the bedroom.
- Play with your cat during the day to curb that night-time boredom.
- Get an automatic feeder; prevent those 3 a.m. snack calls.
Next time your cat gets the zoomies, it’ll be during daylight hours and without barrelling into the bathroom door or becoming tangled in the blanket.