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Can Cats See in the Dark? Feline Night Vision Examined

Kristin Hitchcock

By Kristin Hitchcock

cat walking in the dark

Cats can see better than humans in some situations, but not all. However, the answer to how well cats can see in the dark is a bit more complicated than most people think. Vision is multifaceted.

Cats can “see” in the dark. However, they don’t see color or anything of that sort. Their vision at night is still worse than their vision during the day. It isn’t as if they aren’t affected by the lack of light at all.

In complete darkness, their eyesight is likely very similar to ours. Every species needs light to see – including our cats.

The reason for this difference in perception is related to how a cat’s eyes are designed. There are significant differences between human eyes and cat eyes.

Cat Eyes vs. Human Eyes

Blue golden shaded british shorthair cat with green eyes
Image Credit: Anna Azarenko, Shutterstock

Cats have a wider field of vision than people. They can see more on the sides of their head, in other words. However, the difference is only by about ten degrees on each side – not much.

This slightly longer field of vision helps them see prey animals that are scurrying around next to them.

On top of that, cats have lots of rods in their eyes. These are the structures that detect light – and also movement. They have about six to eight times more rods than people do.

Cats can see the tiniest flickers of movement, and these changes in movement stick out considerably. Sure, we can see small movements too – but they stand out to cats!

The increase in rods is precisely why cats can see better at night. It isn’t that they can see everything the same at night and during the day. However, these rods help them notice small movements at night that we wouldn’t be able to see. Even in low light, they can see a mouse scurrying across the ground.

However, cats also have fewer cones than humans. Humans have about ten times more cones than cats. We see much richer colors for this reason. It isn’t that cats are colorblind. They can’t see as many shades as we can. Many different shades of blue likely look like the same blue.

Their color range is a lot smaller.

However, this is mainly because color isn’t essential for cats. They are carnivores, so they eat things that move. Movement is much more important than color is. After all, a brown mouse probably doesn’t look that different against a brown forest floor.

We don’t exactly know what colors a cat can see and which they can’t. It isn’t easy to run studies on accurate color perception – and we can’t exactly ask! Some experts believe that cats can see yellows and blues best, as well as shades of gray. Their world may not contain as many reds and purples as ours.

Purple may look like blue, for instance. However, there is no way to really know.

How Do Cats See at Night?

orange cat in the dark
Image Credit: fernando zhiminaicela, Pixabay

Cats don’t precisely have night vision like many people have been led to believe. Instead, they can pick up on small movements at night that we can’t see or recognize. Because they have more rods in their eyes, they are much more sensitive to light.

They need about one-sixth of the light people need to see since they have about six times the rods.

However, their color vision won’t be any better than ours. Their cones still need high levels of light to function, just like ours. Our range of color vision is probably similar at night when everything looks like a shade of grey.

The difference is that cats can pick up on movement and see general shapes.

They technically “see” better at night than we do, but their sense of color is equally affected by the lack of light.

Can Cats See in Total Darkness?

No, cats cannot see in total darkness. Just like people, cats need light to see. Otherwise, their rods won’t have any light to pick up. In total darkness, they will see just as much as we can, which is usually nothing!

They are much more adapted to lower levels of light than people are. They’re much better at noticing shapes and movements when light levels are low.

If you remove all light, they won’t be able to see anything, though – and neither would any other species with the same sort of vision we have. There is a reason bats use echolocation at night – eyes don’t work without light.

tabby cat in the dark
Image Credit: monicore, Pixabay

Is Cat Night Vision Like Looking Through Night Vision Goggles?

Cats can see at night because they have more rods in their eyes. They pick up more light from their surroundings, which allows them to see shapes and movements. However, they see precisely as we do at night – just a little bit better.

They need about a sixth of the light we need to see. So, if you take a dark night and increase the light level by six, that’s about what our cats are seeing. (Except, remember that they can’t see color quite as well as us, so the color spectrum will likely be a bit different!)

Night vision goggles use a completely different method to see. They capture infrared light, which allows you to see what’s going on at night. This light is given off by hot objects, like people and animals. Therefore, you can only see hot things with night vision goggles – but those hot things stand out.

The image you see through night vision goggles is dependent on the image made by the heat given off by things within the frame. If nothing is giving off heat, you can’t see much of anything at all.

Cats cannot see infrared light at all. Therefore, their vision doesn’t look like anything we see through night vision goggles.

However, some animals can see infrared like pit vipers. Some parasites, like bed bugs, also see in infrared. It is a huge benefit when they’re trying to track down their prey.

How Do Cats See at Night?

There are three significant ways that a cat’s eyes have adapted to seeing at night.

Firstly, they contain more rods – as we have previously discussed. These rods detect light. With more rods, cats can detect more light at a time than humans can.

Secondly, cats’ eyes are designed to let in more light. Those extra rods wouldn’t be very helpful if the light weren’t reaching them, after all.

Thirdly, cats have an extra reflective layer on the back of their eye that we don’t have. The incoming light is much more likely to hit a rod than when it enters a human eye. This isn’t much of an issue for us since we have a lower number of rods, to begin with.

However, it means that cats are much more likely to use all the rods in their eyes – and therefore be able to see well at night.

This mirror is actually why a cat’s eyes are reflective at night. The mirror layer bounces the light back at its source – which would be our flashlight or headlights in this case.


Cats do have night vision – in a sense. However, it is nothing like night vision goggles. Instead, it looks exactly how we see at night, but a little bit better.

While it is hard to estimate, likely, cats are likely better at detecting movement and shapes at night. They don’t have the same range of color that we do. Therefore, they don’t pick up colors at night. It isn’t like night never happened; their eyes are just much better at picking up small movements than we are.

Cats also can’t see infrared light, so it isn’t like they’re looking through a pair of infrared goggles. Some animals can see this sort of light, but our felines don’t fall into this category. They see the same light that we do – just better!

In the end, we can’t be exactly sure how our cats see. After all, we can’t exactly ask them. (And trying to compare vision would be extremely difficult even if we could, I imagine.)

However, we can look at clues in their eye anatomy to help us figure it out.

Looking for more in-depth cat information? Take a look at:

Featured Image Credit: kudla, Shutterstock

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