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Can Cats See in the Dark? 8 Cat Night Vision Facts

tabby cat at night
Image Credit: Mookmixsth, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 30, 2023 by Catster Editorial Team

If your cat keeps you awake playing in the middle of the night, you might assume that they can see in the dark. The truth is that a cat can’t see in total darkness any better than we can, which is to say not at all!

So, while cats can’t actually see in the dark, they’re much better than us at making the most of whatever light there is. Their eyes are perfectly adapted to prowling around on a night lit only by a sliver of moon. Here are eight cat night vision facts to help you appreciate your feline friend even more.

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The 8 Cat Night Vision Facts

1. The shape of their eye helps them see in low-light conditions

While cats can’t see in pitch-black darkness, they can see much better than we can in very low light conditions. Thanks to the large lens and curved cornea of their eyes, they can take advantage of any light available.

Cat Silhouette
Image Credit: ClaudiaWollesen, Pixabay

2. Cats only need 1/6 of the amount of light that we do

We might be looking around thinking that it’s pitch black, but our cats can still see just fine. Their eyes can see much better in low light than ours, so cats only need 1/6 of the light that we do in order to be able to see.

3. Cats have a “mirror” in their eyes

This is not a real mirror, of course, but an evolutionary adaptation that achieves kind of the same thing. Have you ever noticed that your cat’s eyes glow a green-silver color? This is the “tapetum lucidum” that sits behind the retina. This reflective layer contains 15 different types of cells. It acts as a type of mirror to catch any light that hasn’t been absorbed by the rods.

This means a cat’s eyes are much better at capturing any available light, even in extremely low-light situations.

close up of a cat's eye
Image Credit: Ihtar, Pixabay

4. Some cats might not see as well in the dark as others

The tapetum lucidum is the “mirror” within a cat’s eyes that glows a green-silver color when light reflects off it. But have you noticed that some cat’s eyes glow a red color instead? Blue-eyed cats have a tapetum lucidum with abnormal cells, which is why they glow red and not green. It’s thought that as a result, blue-eyed cats might not see in the dark as well as cats with eyes of any other colors.

5. Cats’ eyes contain more rods than our eyes

All mammal eyes contain rods and cones, which are types of cells known as photoreceptors that convert light into electrical signals that are then transmitted to our brains. Cones work best in conditions with a large amount of light, and rods are designed to work best in low-light conditions.

Cat’s eyes have more rods than a human eye, meaning it’s easier for cats to see in very low-light conditions than it is for us. Compared to our eyes, which have 80% rods and 20% cones, cats have 96% rods and only 4% cones.

Rods are also used for peripheral vision and motion-sensing — just more reasons that cats are such great hunters!

cat in the dark
Image Credit: fernando zhiminaicela, Pixabay

6. Cats might be able to see ultraviolet light

Light within the ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum is completely invisible to us humans because it’s blocked by our lenses. Research suggests that cats, as well as other mammals, like dogs, can actually see ultraviolet light.

Scientists are still trying to work out exactly why cats have this adaptation. It’s thought that it could be something to do with tracking their prey, but for now, the exact reason is still unclear.

7. Cats’ pupils collect the maximum amount of light

If you’ve ever looked closely at your cat’s pupils expanding and contracting, you’ll see there’s a huge range between the thin vertical line of high-light conditions and the wide-open pupil used in low-light conditions.

The shape of a cat’s pupil is better at adapting to low-light conditions. Our pupils only allow for a 15-fold increase or decrease in size. Amazingly, a cat’s pupil can achieve a 300-fold increase! So, a cat’s eyes are much better at adapting to seeing in the dark.

tuxedo domestic shorthair cat with large dilated pupils
Image Credit: Mary Swift, Shutterstock

8. A cat’s eyes inspired reflective road studs

The reflective road studs that help us navigate dark country roads are known as “catseyes” in some countries. That’s not a coincidence because their design was actually inspired by a cat’s eyes! The inventor, Percy Shaw, invented a road stud containing a small convex lens, like that of a cat’s eye. This reflects the light of your car’s headlights to you, making it easier to see where you’re going.

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Additional Information:

Featured Image Credit: Mookmixsth, Shutterstock

About the Author

Emma Stenhouse
Emma Stenhouse
Emma is a freelance writer, specializing in writing about pets, outdoor pursuits, and the environment. Originally from the UK, she has lived in Costa Rica and New Zealand before moving to a smallholding in Spain with her husband, their 4-year-old daughter, and their dogs, cats, horses, and poultry. When she's not writing, Emma can be found taking her dogs for walks in the rolling fields around their home...and usually, at least some of the cats come along, too! Emma is passionate about rescuing animals and providing them with a new life after being abandoned or abused. As well as their own four rescue dogs, she also fosters dogs for re-homing, providing them with love and training while searching for their forever homes.

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