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Are cats color blind?

How cats and dogs see the world

Their other senses make up for the fact that they can’t see some colors.

By Stan Horaczek | Published Aug 28, 2020 8:15 PM EDT

Dog vision

What can dogs see?. Stan Horaczek

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Ever wish you could peer into your cat, dog, skink, or betta fish’s brain? It would give you a far better perspective of the world—or at least help you be a smarter pet parent. We’re here to demystify your animals (to some extent), while also shedding advice on how you can best thrive together. Welcome to Pet Psychic.

Take a quick flash picture of your dog or cat and their eyes will light up in a way that’s equal parts cool and unnerving. That eerie glow comes from a layer of their eyes called a tapetum and it reflects light to let our furry pals see small amounts of light much more efficiently than our human eyes. In fact, our pets sense the world we live in much differently than people do.

As children, many of us learned that cats and dogs are “colorblind” or see the world in “black and white”—but that’s not entirely true. “They [just] can’t see all the different colors that we can see,” says Katherine Houpt, a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine . “From what we can tell, they see the world in shades of blue and yellow.”

Cat vision example

From a physiology standpoint, the unique view comes down to types of light receptors in the eye itself. “Because dogs and cats are predators, they don’t have to be able to tell the difference between some similar shades,” Houpt explains. “As primates, we have to know whether that persimmon is ripe or not. We’re better at color discrimination in order to find the correct foods.” In other words, a grey rabbit is just as tasty as a brown one.

When it comes to clarity, humans also have an advantage over our domesticated pals. If a dog can make out an object from 20 feet away, a human can see it from 60 feet. The difference is even more pronounced for cats—what a cat can see from 20 feet, a human can see from 100 or even 200 feet out. Our pets aren’t built to process crystal clear images of the world around them.

The animals do have an advantage, however, when it comes to perceiving movement—a skill honed to help them catch their fast-moving food. While most cats and dogs have trouble spotting still objects very close to them, they can spot movement for up to a half-mile—even if it’s relatively subtle.

They can also see more at once than humans. While our field of view is approximately 180 degrees, feline and canine eyes bulge out a little to expand their peripheral vision past 200 degrees. That same motion detection extends to the edges of their vision, so even if they can’t tell what’s moving, they know something’s coming.

That field of view can differ depending on the breed of dog, though. A bulldog, for instance, doesn’t have to see around a giant snout like some other breeds, which comes in handy when observing objects up close and gives them a bigger overall field of unobstructed view.

One commonly held conception that’s true: When it comes to seeing in the dark, cat and dog eyes excel, in part because the tapetum reflects illumination to the light receptors. “They can’t see in absolute darkness any better than we can,” says Houpt. “But in dim light, they can see better.” That’s because their eyes contain more rods than ours—between six and eight times more for cats—which means they require less illumination to collect a usable picture for their brain.

But their uncanny perception doesn’t end there. Once you’ve considered all of the advantages and shortcomings of cat and dog vision, you still have to consider how it interplays with their other senses.

Cats can hear ultrasonic pitches typically emitted by their prey, which allows them to continue the chase, even if their scurrying snack gets out of eye shot. They also use smell as a primary method to identify people. “When you take a cat to the vet, your second cat may not recognize it because it smells like other people. And if you’ve been gone for a while and come back, the cat may not recognize you until it takes a good whiff,” Houpt says. “If you changed shampoos while you were gone, you might be in for a problem.”

Dogs obviously have a keen sense of smell as well. Like cats and other animals, they have a vomeronasal organ as part of the olfactory system specifically dedicated to their olfactory needs. It allows wilder things to communicate via scentand improves the overall sense of smell. Depending on the breed, a dog’s sense of smell ranges from 1,000 and 10,000 times more effective than a human’s.

With those extra tools at their disposal, dogs and cats don’t need to depend on their eyes to navigate the world. Their visual limitations, however, can provide some interesting problems for humans trying to teach animals new tricks. “Because of how they see color, dogs are not very good at traffic lights,” Houpt says. “That becomes a problem when you’re teaching a guide dog so they have to learn that the darker yellow is when they have to stop.” In an ideal world, traffic lights would have an olfactory component so helpful pooches could smell when it’s time to go.

How Animals See Color

Different animals have different kinds of color vision. Some have very poor color vision and others have very good color vision. In fact some birds and bees have super color vision and see colors that humans don’t see.

Poor Color Vision and Animals

Dogs, cats, mice, rats and rabbits have very poor color vision. In fact, they see mostly greys and some blues and yellows.

What about bulls?
Does a red cape make them angry?
Does a red cape make them want to attack it?

bull fighter and red cape

This is what humans see.

This is what a bull sees

This is what a bull sees.

Bulls are color-blind. They charge the red cape because it is moving, not because it is red.

Good Color Vision and Animals

Some animals do have good color vision. Monkeys, ground squirrels, birds, insects, and many fish can see a fairly good range of color. In some cases it’s not as good as what we humans see — but it’s much better than cats and dogs.

Color vision and animals

Scientists say that good color vision helps animals find food on the land or in the water. For land animals, good color vision helps to tell the difference between ripe red fruit and unripe green fruit. Colors can also make animals more attractive to each other when they mate. Finally, the ability to see colors helps animals identify predators (other animals who may attack them).

Who has super color vision?

bee and flower

Bees and butterflies can see colors that we can’t see. Their range of color vision extends into the ultraviolet. The leaves of the flowers they pollinate have special ultraviolet patterns which guide the insects deep into the flower.

Another example is how a diving bird can see under water without goggles . and you can’t.

Which animal doesn’t need eyes to see?

A pit viper sees by feeling the heat in an object.


Think about the last time you were really sick. Did you check your forehead to see if you were running a temperature? That «fever-heat» is what gives a pit viper a different kind of vision. This is called «thermal vision.» (For more information at Color Matters, click New Frontiers for Color)

When are humans color-blind?

One out of 12 males are color blind.
Reds and greens are the most common colors that are difficult to see.

Normal Color Vision
Color-blind Vision

Humans are color-blind in dim light (such as night time with very little moonlight).

night time scene

Who can see in the dark?

Owls and other nocturnal (night-time) animals can see at night when it is too dark for us. However, we do not know what animals actually see. We do know that they have very sharp vision.

owl and gecko - night vision

Scientists recently discovered the first animal that can see some colors under very dim lighting. It’s the gecko and it can tell blue from grey! It’s possible that frogs might also see some colors when it’s dark.

How do we know what colors an animal sees?

Although there’s no way to truly know what non-human animals actually perceive, scientists can examine the cones inside the eyes and estimate what colors an animal sees. One of the techniques used to determine the color vision of fish is “microspectrophotometry.” This process analyzes the visual pigments and photo-sensitivity of cells in order to determine how and what colors a fish sees.
For more information, see Look Inside the Eye

Scientists also test for color vision with behavioral tests.

In the picture above, a mouse has decided that the third colored panel looks different from the others and receives a drop of soy milk as a reward. For this set of three lights, only the soy milk dispenser over the red panel releases a drop of soy milk.

For more information about scientific studies see:

How do we know if a human is color-blind? See What is Color-Blindness at Color Matters.

Are you interested in color experiments ? See Science Projects

Does color affect your appetite?

You might also be interested in:

How does color affect your appetite? Can color help you lose weight?
See Color & Appetite Matters

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