Can Cats See in the Dark?

Orange cat sitting on window at night

With their generally cute and playful attitude, it can be easy to forget that cats are miniature versions of apex predators and are perfectly designed night hunters. Anyone who's been awakened by their cat in a frenzied sprint around the house at the crack of dawn knows cats love to hunt when it’s dark. 

So it’s easy to see why people think cats have night vision superpowers, but how well can cats really see in the dark?

Can Cats See with No Light?

No. Despite their mystical air, cats, unfortunately, don’t have supernatural abilities — at least that we know of. Cats’ eyes work similarly to other mammals and need some level of light to see. However, cats can see a lot better in darker lighting situations than people. Feline eyes only need one-sixth of the ambient light human eyes do. Cats are crepuscular, meaning they’re most awake at dusk and dawn. So their hunting time is usually in low light, but not complete darkness. This is also part of the reason cats sleep so much during the day and late at night.

So while cats don’t possess night vision abilities like a snake’s infrared, they still have really refined eyes designed to see well in low light situations. They also have other sharpened senses they can rely on when eyesight doesn’t cut it.     

How Do Cats See in the Dark?

If you’ve ever taken a long look into a cat’s eyes, you’ve noticed that they’re very different from your eyes. For one, cats' pupils look like small slits most of the time. This is because during the day they need to regulate how much light is coming into their sensitive eyes. Once it starts getting darker, their pupils expand and become big circles — which is of course irresistibly adorable. 

However, this seemingly cute feature is one of the many adaptations that make cats master night hunters. Paired with curved corneas and large lenses, the ability to expand their pupils puts cats' vision into night mode. Opening the pupils this wide also blurs cats' vision, but their eyes are capable of a 135- to 300-fold change, compared to a human eye’s 15-fold change. So cats can adjust to a much broader range of lighting than humans can.

They also have a tapetum, which is a reflective layer in their eye that helps reflect more light in and is responsible for the glare you sometimes see in cats’ eyes. Cats' eyes can capture over 50% of the available light because of this feature. It’s believed cats may even be able to pick up ultraviolet light.

Another night vision adaptation has to do with a cat’s photoreceptors, the sensors that react to light in the eye. Cats have a higher ratio of rod to cone photoreceptors than humans. Rod photoreceptors are used for night vision and peripheral vision, and cones are better at seeing colour and seeing in brighter lighting. Since cats have more rods than cones, they can see much better than humans can in dim light, but not as well in bright daylight.   

What Would It Be Like to See Like a Cat?

Cats are mysterious creatures, and cat lovers have probably all wondered what it’s like in the feline world. And while you may never know what it's like to balance perfectly on a windowsill or stalk without making a single sound, thanks to artist Nickolay Lamm, you can know what it’s like to see like your cat. In 2013, this cat-loving artist published a series of images that show a side-by-side comparison of a simulation of human vision and a simulation of cat vision using image manipulation techniques.

The most immediate thing you notice is the cat vision images are much less saturated overall. Cats see in a grungy, washed-out colour palette, which seems fitting. They also mostly only see in blues and greens, and they have a hard time differentiating between reds and pinks. 

Cats also have a much wider peripheral vision than humans but are very nearsighted. Specifically, cats' field of vision is 20 degrees larger, but humans can see five times as far with the same detail. Cats' vision looks blurry, like a person who needs glasses, so they'd have trouble making out the view at an overlook or seeing buildings out of an apartment window.  So the cat vision simulation has a much broader view but is more blurred at farther distances than human vision images. 

Find some more cool cat facts here.

How Cats Use Their Other Senses to Navigate in the Dark

Like most night hunters, cats can’t always trust their eyes to navigate when it gets really dark. That’s where their other senses kick in. All five of a cat's senses are super-sensitive and used to create a complete picture in dark environments. Here’s how cats' other four senses are designed to guide these nighttime predators.

  • Smell. Cats have an excellent sense of smell, with nearly 40 times as many odour sensors than humans. Smell helps cats locate small creatures and find their way through dark spaces. Some researchers think cats' sense of smell may be even sharper than dogs’. This is because cats have a dual scent mechanism — they have their nose, and they have another receptor in their mouth called the vomeronasal organ. This second scent sensor is used to identify pheromones, which means your cat can identify you without seeing you. 
  • Sound. The conical ears of a cat can pick up on a wide range of frequencies human ears can’t. They also pick up on quieter and farther sounds. Cats' ear shape helps both amplify sounds and identify their origin. Knowing exactly where a sound came from helps cats track prey, but it also helps them create a complete scene when they can’t see. Ambient noises like a dishwasher, fan or leaves rustling can help orient them. Some people tend to associate white cats with blue eyes with hearing loss, but those cats don’t necessarily have an increased risk of deafness. 
  • Touch. Whiskers act like a cat’s radar when they’re judging distance. They’re actually using their whiskers to perform all those crazy accurate stunts, like leaping onto a thin ledge or moving smoothly through small spaces. Interestingly, cats have whiskers on both their face and their front legs that help them sense objects and prey around their feet. They also have sensitive fur, which is why cats like boxes to rub on.
  • Taste. Cats actually have a much weaker sense of taste than humans, and it’s likely they can’t even sense the taste of sweet. It’s believed that their poor sense of taste is made up for by their extremely good sense of smell, which can perform most of the functions of taste. And given that their vomeronasal organ is inside their mouth, too strong of a taste palette might cause interference. Cat’s don’t like bitter taste because they think it’s dangerous. Learn what foods cats like.

Some cat owners might swear that their cat also has a sixth sense. However, there isn’t conclusive evidence of this. Cats may appear to have mystical abilities when they seem to predict things before they happen or land on their feet no matter how they fall, but they’re actually just hyperaware creatures. The combination of all their powerful senses creates an intuition that can sometimes appear magical.

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