When you look at your cat, you see an affectionate, loyal, and gentle friend – albeit a creature that’s occasionally aloof. You know she’s on the hunt when her pupils dilate, that she’s comfortable when her tail slowly swishes, and that she’s afraid when she arches her back and her hairs stand up. But now you’re wondering: What does my cat see when she looks at me?
When cats look at humans, they see another large cat lacking balance and agility. With limited cones and many rods, cats are colorblind (may not see you well in bright lights), near-sighted (see a blurry figure when you’re 20+ feet away), and struggle to identify their human’s faces 50% of the time.
As smart and intuitive as cats can be, the way they see humans is very different from other household pets (like dogs). To learn about what cats physically see when they look at people and how this impacts their perception of humans, read on!
How Your Cat Physically Sees You
When you think about what your cat sees when she looks at you, you probably wonder what she thinks about you. Does she think you’re a cat too? Can she tell the difference between you and the other members of your family?
Those are fantastic questions, but it’s also important to learn about what she physically sees when she looks at you.
Cats Are Somewhat Colorblind
Cats aren’t colorblind in the sense that they see strictly in black, white, and shades of grey.
Yet, your four-legged friend does have trouble picking up on certain colors in the spectrum, specifically shades like red, pink, brown, and orange. This color blindness is due to a lack of “cones” in their eyes, approximately one-tenth of the number of cones we humans have.
So if you’re standing far off in the distance and the color of your clothing isn’t easy to distinguish from what’s behind you, your cat may not even realize you’re there at first.
Cats Tend to Be Near-Sighted
It’s safe to say that what cats see dramatically differs from what we see, especially in the sense of physical distance.
You may be able to see a squirrel or a car 100 to 200 feet in the distance, which appears to be nothing more than a blur to cats, especially if the object in the background isn’t moving at all.
Cats can pick up the same detail as you, just at 20 feet away.
This near-sightedness in cats also complicates your cat’s ability to see objects or animals moving slowly in the distance. In terms of clarity comparisons, humans have 20/20 vision and cats hover closer to 20/100.
With that in mind, your cat may not realize you are moving if you’re standing on the opposite end of the room or may only see a slight blur.
Cats Have Incredible Night Vision
Growing up, you probably heard that cats had night vision.
While cats are undoubtedly a nocturnal species, their night vision does have its limitations – they can see in one-sixth of the amount of light humans require. This night vision ability comes from a cat’s curved cornea and ability to dilate their eyes to make use of any nearby light.
This night vision comes from the immense number of rods that cats have in their eyes, a feature that also helps cats notice quick movements in dim lights. So while you may not notice your cat lying on the floor napping in the middle of the night, she most likely sees you.
Here’s a video that’ll show you exactly how cats see you and the world around them.
Cats May See You as a Very Large Cat
It’s quite clear that there are physical differences in the anatomy of cats and humans (For example, the number of legs, ear placement, and the presence of tails). While cats may recognize that we don’t look exactly like them, the way felines interact with humans may reveal something bigger: That cats merely see us as very large cats with a little less balance.
Just compare how cats behave towards us and how they act toward other cats – you’ll notice it’s quite similar!
Here are a few examples.
When a kitten kneads on her mother’s belly, she’s trying to stimulate milk production for feeding. Now, your cat has likely been apart from her mother since she was at least 12 weeks old. Yet you may notice that she kneads on your chest or the blanket beside you before she lays down for a nap. She’s not kneading for milk like she once did with her mother, but she’s kneading you because you provide a source of comfort and have assumed a maternal role.
You also have to think about how cats greet one another. When your cat sees a neighborhood or household cat that she’s friendly with, she may rub her nose or behind on the cat to say, “Greetings.” Interestingly, this is also how she greets you when you wake up in the morning or get home from a long day at work.
Some social cats will also groom one another in an attempt to bond, groom them, or even take care of one another in the hygienic sense. So if you’ve ever felt the sandpaper roughness of your cat’s tongue on your hair or on your skin, she was likely treating you how she would treat her feline friends.
While your cat may see you as a part of her pack, that doesn’t mean she thinks of you as her immediate equal. After all, you do seem to lack the impressive cat-like balance and agility that she possesses – evident in the number of times you trip over her as she weaves between your legs or as she’s napping on the floor at night.
Cats Can’t Tell Humans Apart Too Well
There’s no doubt that your cat knows who you are. She greets you at the front door when you get home from work, occasionally comes prancing over when you call out her name, and kneads on your chest as she cuddles up for a nap.
Yet, studies show that cats aren’t too great at recognizing their owner’s faces, at least not as well as dogs can. When cats are shown an image of their owner, they can only identify them 54.5% of the time. Interestingly, they can pinpoint a familiar cat’s face 90.7% of the time.
While your cat may not be able to physically identify you as her owner through sight, she can recognize you in a much broader sense. That explains why she treats you – her owner – much more affectionately and loyally than your visitors.
Your cat will “see” who you are based on your:
- Voice: Your cat does recognize your voice, though most cats don’t care to respond when their owner calls for them.
- Smell: Your cat has 40 times more odor sensors than humans (200 million), meaning she may identify you by your perfume, shampoo, or even your natural musk.
- Actions: Your cat may know it’s you coming down the stairs by the sound of your footsteps or hear the sound of food in their bowl and know it’s you preparing their meal.
The moral of the story is this: Your cat may not be able to pick out a picture of you in a photo line-up, but she sure can pick you out of a crowd if you allow her to use her other senses.
It may be disappointing to learn that your cat couldn’t pick you out of a crowd a mile away or sees you as her “equal” in the feline world.
Yet, the best way to understand how your cat “sees” you is by reading her behavior. A cat that rubs against you, brings you her favorite toys, snuggles with you for a nap, and purrs when you pet her sees you as her master and her friend.
You can’t change how your cat physically sees you, but you have a lot of pull in how she perceives you – make great use of this power!
- The Royalty Society Publishing: The spectral transmission of ocular media suggests ultraviolet sensitivity is widespread among mammals
- Live Science: Feline Vision: How Cats See the World
- Rover: Can Cats Really See in the Dark?
- National Geographic: What Do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised
- Journal of Vision: Dogs, but not cats, can readily recognize the face of their handler
- Animal Cognition: Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus)
- PAWS Chicago: Cat Senses-How Felines Perceive the World