Can Cats See In The Dark?

Key takeaway

Cats have a very special ability to see in low light conditions, thanks to the anatomy of their eyes. Cats can't see in total darkness, but they prefer low light and become more active around dusk and dawn, which is why many cats nap during the day when it's brightest.

Your cat likes to move around and play at night, so you might wonder, "Can cats see in the dark?" They don't have true "night vision," but cats can see better in the dark than humans. Cats see well in low light, so your cat might be more active around dusk and dawn. Also, cats have larger pupils than humans to help them see better when there's less light, which helps them see in the dark. 

Many pet parents may believe their cats have night vision because they can easily get around in the dark. However, cats' eyes can grab light from anywhere, and every house has at least some light, even at night. So, if you notice your cat is more active in the early morning or late afternoon, you may think they're nocturnal. However, they are actually crepuscular, which allows them to hunt at dawn and dusk when most of their prey is active. So, if you've ever wondered, "How well can cats see in the dark?" you've come to the right place. This article will discuss how cats can see in the dark and how their night vision differs from yours.

Anatomy Of The Cat Eye

Can cats see better in the dark? Not necessarily. How your cat sees in the dark depends on the anatomy of their eyes. Cat eyes work similarly to human eyes in that they focus on objects and can adjust the amount of light they let in.1 A few features of a cat's eye include:

  • Orbit: The name of the eye socket that contains muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and other structures.
  • Sclera: The tough outer layer of the eye. 
  • Conjunctiva: The thin membrane near the front of the eye that covers the sclera and inside of the eyelid. 
  • Cornea: The cornea is clear and runs over the eye's surface. It is responsible for letting light in, protecting the eye, and helps focus light towards the back of the eye.
  • Iris: The iris is the front of the eye which helps to focus light towards the back of the eye. It is circular and colored and responsible for making the pupil larger or smaller by controlling the amount of light that enters the eye. 
  • Pupil: The pupil is the black center of the eye that is controlled by a muscle. A cat's pupil will enlarge in dark environments to let more light in. 
  • Lens: The lens behind the iris changes shape to focus light onto the retina and can become thicker to help the eye focus on objects. 
  • Retina: The retina contains photoreceptors, cells that sense light. 
  • Photoreceptors: There are two main types of photoreceptors in cat eyes: cones and rods. Cones help cats see binocularly while rods collect light to help cats better see movement in dim light.1

What helps cats cats see in the dark 

How Can Cats See In The Dark? 

Now that you understand the different parts of a cat's eye, it's time to learn how their eyes work to help them see better in the dark and how well cats can see in the dark. There are many reasons why cats can see better in the dark than humans, but their anatomy is one of the most significant. Here's why cats can see in the dark. 

Shape of Pupils

As you've just learned, pupils help cats see in dark environments by enlarging to let in more light. One aspect of a cat that's unique is their pupil shape. Cat pupils are vertically slit-shaped, which can help them see better in the dark. This pupil shape allows cat eyes to capture more light when it's dark. The pupils also dilate and frequently expand to capture more light, allowing cats to see better in the dark than humans. 

Number of Photoreceptors

Photoreceptors have different functions, with rods being responsible for helping cats see in the dark and having peripheral vision while cones help with color processing and daytime vision. Cat retinas contain anywhere from six to eight times the amount of rods in a human retina,2 allowing them to see better in the dark than humans. 

Size of Cornea

The cornea bends light, helping cats focus on objects. Cats have larger corneas than humans, which may be responsible for their ability to see better in the dark. Large corneas allow more light to enter the eye, helping cats focus on objects in the dark. 

Tapetum Lucidum

Cats have an additional layer of tissue in the eyes behind the retina that magnifies light called the tapetum lucidum.1 This part of a cat's eye is reflective and responsible for any glinting or glowing eyes you may see when looking at your cat at night. It works similarly to a mirror and contains different types of cells to catch light that hasn't been absorbed by rods. 

Humans don't have a tapetum lucidum, making it completely unique to animals, including cats, dogs, deer, horses, and even cows. The tapetum lucidum is responsible for reflecting light into the eye to help cats see in the dark. 

UV Vision

Cats can see UV light, which allows them to see more than humans. For example, UV light can help cats track predators or learn more about their surroundings. Cat eyes transmit UV wavelengths that help light enter the retina and improve their vision. 

Other Senses

Cats use other parts of their bodies to "see." While their eyes can see well in the dark, cats are adept at moving around in low light because of their other senses, including touch, hearing, and smell. Whiskers are touch receptors that can help your cat understand their environment and detect obstacles in their way. Your cat's ears help them hear sounds humans can't, which can help cats move around in the dark. Cats also have a powerful sense of smell that's stronger than a human's, so cats may use their sense of smell to navigate in the dark. 

Movement Tracking

Cats have better vision in the dark than humans, but they're nearsighted, so they can't focus on objects at a distance. However, cats are much better than humans at tracking movement, which can help them see better during the day and in the dark. 

The Development Of Cat Night Vision

Cats have vertically slit pupils, which allow them to see in low light without being blinded by the light during the day. They also allow a cat to hunt and ambush predators.3 Cats are natural hunters, which is why your cat probably has many toys that allow them to use their natural instincts safely indoors. However, cats weren't always domesticated, and they had to hunt for food, so their eyes needed to be able to track prey in low light.

Ultimately, cat eyes developed to have more rods and different pupils than humans because they needed to be good hunters. A slit pupil may allow for better distance gauging and seeing movement to help cats understand how fast they need to run or jump to catch something already in motion. 

Cat Vs. Human Night Vision

So how well do cats see in the dark compared to humans? As you can already guess, cats see much better than humans in low light or darkness. Ultimately, slit pupils help cats see better in the dark than humans because they allow more light into the eye, helping it to capture more light in low light than the human eye. Their pupils also expand more than a human's pupil to capture more light, allowing them to see better in the dark. 

You may be jealous of your cat's ability to see in the dark, but there are several ways human vision is better than cat vision. For example, you see more color than your cat. Can cats see color? Cats see color differently, so they see more shades of gray than humans, a trait that's perfect for low-light situations. 

Of course, there are many situations when humans have better vision than their feline companions; they just can't see better in the dark. For example, humans also have more clarity in their vision. Additionally, cats are nearsighted, so they have to be close to an object to see it as well as humans do from a greater distance.

However, since cats have more rod cells than humans, they see better in the dark. On the other hand, humans have more cones than cats, which is why humans are better at seeing color. Another significant difference between the night vision of humans versus cats is the tapetum lucidum. 

As you've already read, humans don't have this reflective layer at the back of the eye. Cat eyes have a tapetum lucidum that bounces and magnifies light in low-light situations. Dogs also have a tapetum lucidum, so if you've ever wondered, "Why can cats and dogs see in the dark?" it’s likely because of this special layer of tissue, among other reasons. The tapetum lucidum is also why you'll see a reflective glare when taking a photo with a flash of your pet or glowing eyes staring back at you at night. 

Caring For Your Cat's Eyes

Compared to dogs, cats typically have fewer eye problems. However, because your cat's eyes are similar to yours in several ways, they are susceptible to many of the same eye problems as humans and other pets, including glaucoma.1 Even though cats aren't prone to eye problems, they can still get infections like pink eye. If you notice any signs of eye infections in your cat, it's best to take them to the vet for treatment immediately. Some signs to watch for include:

If your cat has an eye issue, you may be given prescription eye drops to help them heal. Typically, there's nothing a pet parent needs to do to take care of their pet's eyes. Most cats don't need their faces or eyes cleaned. However, cats with watery eyes may benefit from having their eyes wiped from time to time.

Cats can have eye problems for several reasons, including:

  • Allergies: Cats can have environmental allergies that cause itchy or watery eyes. Common causes of allergies in cats include fleas and pollen. 
  • Bacterial infections: Bacterial infections, such as Salmonella, may cause eye problems in cats with symptoms such as red eyes, discharge, and pawing at the face. Risk factors for bacterial infections include a poor diet, underlying health issues, and exposure to infected animals. 
  • Viral infections: Viral infections in cats may also lead to eye problems. For example, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) may lead to eye infections, among other symptoms. Additionally, Feline Herpesvirus is a common cause of eye infections in cats.
  • Pink eye: Cats can get pink eye like dogs and humans with symptoms such as swelling, redness, and irritation. Pink eye can be caused by other infections, allergies, or foreign objects.
  • Dry eye: Also known as Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca, dry eye is typically a result of a bacterial infection and causes excessive blinking, swelling, and light sensitivity. 
  • Upper Respiratory Infections: Some upper respiratory infections in cats may cause eye infections with symptoms such as redness, inflammation, and discharge. 

Treatment for cat eye problems will depend on the cause. For example, if your cat has pink eye due to allergies, a vet may treat the allergies while simultaneously treating the symptoms of pink eye to make your cat more comfortable. Treatment for eye infections in cats typically involves some form of medication, especially eye drops.

Your cat's eyes require care, especially if they have signs of an infection that can lead to blindness. Understanding what a healthy eye looks like can help you determine when to take your cat to the vet. 

Healthy cat eyes are clear and moist.4 Cats with healthy eyes don't normally scratch at their eyes or experience swelling and inflammation. Cats should be able to keep their eyes open; those suffering from eye infections may be more comfortable with their eyes closed or partly open. Even though cats see better than humans at night, they should still be comfortable and see well during the day. If your cat is hiding from the light or squinting, it could indicate an infection.4

If you notice your cat's eyes look different from usual, monitor them closely to see if they get better on their own. Some cats may suffer from allergies that can cause itchiness and watery eyes. However, it's always best to take your cat to the vet at the first sign of infection to ensure their eye health. 

Tips for cat eye health

Here are tips to keep your cat's eyes healthy:

  • Wipe away dirt if you notice any on your cat's face, especially near their eyes. 
  • Protect eyes during bathing
  • Groom your cat if their fur covers their eyes since it can scratch their corneas
  • Prevent and manage tear stains properly by using tear stain removers designed specifically for cats

Any time you're worried about your cat, it's best to take them to the vet to ensure they're not experiencing discomfort or an infection that can impact their ability to see. If your cat is experiencing symptoms related to eye infections or they're having difficulty getting around, take them to the vet for an eye exam to treat any underlying causes and prevent recurring issues. 

Can Cats See In The Dark: FAQs

Can cats see in total darkness?

Cats do not have true night vision, so they can't see in total darkness. Instead, their eyes take in the amount of light available to help them see in low light. Even though it may seem like your cat is playing all night, they're not nocturnal; cats hunt and become more active around dusk and dawn when there's still enough light for them to see properly. So even though it might seem like your house is completely dark at night, it likely isn't, with light coming in from outside or another room that allows your cat to see their surroundings. 

Cat eyes let in more light than human eyes, so even though your home may look totally dark, your cat’s eyes will still be able to capture light your eyes can’t. Additionally, cats have other ways of moving around their environments by using their other senses, such as the touch receptors in their whiskers. 

Should I leave a light on for my cat at night?

Cats don't need you to leave a light on them unless you're leaving for long periods of time and don't want them to be in the dark. Cats can see better at night than humans, and keeping the lights off at night will not impact their ability to see or sleep. Remember, cats typically sleep just fine when it's light out during the day. Additionally, some cats might not prefer to be left in the dark for too long. 

Leaving your cat in the dark with no light can be stressful for them, so it's always best to ensure they have a well-lit area to play in during the day. It's also not necessary for you to leave a light on for your cat at night because your cat can see in the dark, and while cats may seem active when the sun goes down, they are typically not active all night, so they might want to use some of their free time to sleep. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether or not you leave a light on for your cat as long as they're not left in complete darkness. 

Do cats prefer the dark?

Some cats prefer darkness, and some don't. Ultimately, all cats are different, and whether or not it's light or dark may make no difference to your cat. Because of their unique eye anatomy, your cat can see well during the day and at night, so there's no reason to make it dark in your home just for your cat. 

You may notice your cat is up around dawn and dusk but naps during the day and sleeps late at night. Cats are crepuscular, so they're most active during times when there's low light. Cats neither prefer light nor dark, so they might sleep during the day and at night and become active when there's their ideal amount of light.

Alt-text: Closeup of cat’s eye

Final Notes

You may know your cat's behavior well but have always wondered why they act the way they do. If you've ever noticed your cat sleeps all day but becomes more active when the sun goes down, you may have asked yourself, "Can cats see in the dark?" Now you know that cats can see better in low light than you can, which is why they become more active around dusk and dawn. However, cats cannot see in total darkness. So if your cat is awake and running around late at night, there is likely some form of light they can use to see that human eyes can't. Cats are special creatures, so they might not always build a routine around your schedule, leaving them up trying to hunt bugs in the middle of the night or becoming energetic in the early morning hours. 

Your cat's eyes are an important part of their everyday lives. If your cat can't see well, they'll be unable to enjoy their favorite activities like climbing cat trees and watching the birds outside from the window. Taking care of your cat's eye health is an important part of being a pet parent. Consult a vet if you notice any signs of infection or irritation in your cat's eyes. Dutch's telemedicine for pets can help you understand how to properly care for your cat's eyes and when they should seek treatment. Our licensed veterinarians are available to help you become a better cat parent while providing you with peace of mind knowing someone is always available to listen to your concerns and provide you with advice. 

References

  1. Gelatt, Kirk N. “Eye Structure and Function in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, 29 June 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/eye-disorders-of-cats/eye-structure-and-function-in-cats.

  2. Ghose, Tia. “Feline Vision: How Cats See the World.” LiveScience, 16 Oct. 2013, https://www.livescience.com/40459-what-do-cats-see.html.

  3. Sarah Yang, Media Relations| August 7, and Sarah Yang. “Pupil Shape Linked to Animals' Place in Ecological Web.” Berkeley News, 12 Aug. 2015, https://news.berkeley.edu/2015/08/07/pupil-shape-and-ecological-niche/.

  4. Care, International Cat. International Cat Care, 12 Mar. 2019, https://icatcare.org/advice/caring-for-your-cats-eyes/.