How Do Cats See the World? What To Know About Cat Vision

Janelle Leeson
By Janelle Leeson. Reviewed by Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Feb. 25, 2024
close-up of the side of a gray and white cat's face

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In This Article

Cat Eye Anatomy

By day, they may enjoy lounging in sunbeams. But come twilight, your cat transforms into a fierce hunter ready to stalk their prey. This may be a stretch for your happy house cat, but a closer look at how cats’ eyes work and why reveals a fascinating glimpse into their wild roots. 

We spoke to Dr. Paul Miller, a veterinary ophthalmologist and clinical professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. He explains how cat vision works—from the way they see the world to how it shapes their behavior.

By gaining insight into your cat's eyesight, you can select toys and playtime activities that safely bring out their inner hunter.

Cat Eye Anatomy

Here’s the general anatomy of a cat’s eye and how it all works:

  • Cornea: The clear dome on the outermost surface of the eye. It protects the eye, allows light to enter, and assists in focusing light onto the retina at the back of the eye.

  • Iris: The colored part of the eye. It controls the amount of light that enters the eye by constricting or expanding the pupil. 

  • Pupil: The black area in the center of the iris. Like in humans, a cat’s pupil gets larger (to let more light in) in dim lighting and gets smaller (to restrict the amount of light) in bright lighting. 

  • Lens: Located just behind the iris, the lens changes shape to help focus light on the retina. 

  • Retina: Located in the back of the eye, the retina is the intended destination for light entering through the pupil. It contains two types of photoreceptors (rods and cones), cells that convert light into visual signals. Rods improve vision in low-light settings, while cones are responsible for color vision. 

  • Tapetum lucidum: Unique to cats and other animals adapted to see in low-light conditions, the tapetum lucidum is why cats’ eyes glow at night. It’s a reflective membrane situated just behind the retina. When light misses the retina, it bounces off the tapetum lucidum, providing rods with a second chance at absorbing light and thereby improving (though not perfecting) vision in dim light.

Cat Vision vs. Human Vision

Miller says there are differences in feline and human eye anatomy that make humans a whopping 10 to 12 times better at detecting motion in daylight than cats. But once the sun goes down, it’s cats that have the upper hand. 

Cats’ eyes differ from humans in several ways:

  • Cats have a much larger cornea than humans, allowing more light to enter.

  • Cats have vertical pupils rather than round ones. According to Miller, there are several reasons for this: It allows for better constriction and likely protects the sensitive retina from light damage during the daytime, as well as improves depth perception for hunting.

  • Cats have a tapetum lucidum, while humans do not. This reflects light back to the retina a second time, increasing sensitivity to light.

  • Cats have more rod photoreceptors than humans, but fewer cones. 

  • A cat’s lens is located closer to the retina, creating a brighter image.

What Do Cats See?

So, what does a cat’s vision look like? The answer is tricky, even for experts like Miller, since we can’t ask cats to complete a vision test.

Kittens are born with their eyes closed and gradually open them between 8 and 12 days old. So, they have pretty poor vision for the first few weeks of life. Initially nearsighted, kittens develop adult eyesight within a few months. 

Visual Acuity

Visual acuity is the ability to distinguish shapes. Humans’ normal visual acuity is 20:20. In many studies, cat visual acuity has been found to range from 20:100 to 20:200. However, a recent study using behavioral testing methods revealed a visual acuity in cats of 20:30. This means a cat can see clearly from 20 feet away what the average human can see clearly from 30 feet away. 

“I think the 20:30 is closer to correct, just based on how intensely cats stare at small insects on a ceiling,” Miller says.

Visual Field 

The visual field refers to the total area within our sight during a fixed gaze. Humans typically have a visual field of 180 degrees, while Miller says cats have a visual field of 200 degrees, dogs have 240 degrees, and horses possess an impressive 350-degree visual field.

Can Cats See in the Dark?

Cats don’t have night vision per se, but they can see significantly better in lower light conditions than humans. Miller estimates that cats can see about 5.5 to 7 times better than humans in dim light (not complete darkness), with dogs trailing slightly behind cats in their “night vision” capabilities.

Can Cats See Color?

Cats have fewer cones than most humans. Because of this, they see fewer colors than we can. They also have two types of cones, enabling dichromatic color vision, which allows them to identify yellows and blues. In contrast, most humans (excluding those who are color blind) have three cones, facilitating trichromatic color vision, which recognizes red, blue, and green color combinations.

“Cats have a difficult time distinguishing red and green from each other, hence they are red-green color blind,” Miller says. Dogs are also red-green color blind.

There’s a possibility that your kitty may prefer blue and yellow cat toys because the colors are more attention-grabbing for them, while red and green toys appear as similar shades of gray. However, Miller notes that color is generally less important to cats because motion is what really grabs their attention.

Are Cats Nearsighted or Farsighted?

“Nearsighted” and “farsighted” are terms that refer to where the image focuses in relation to the retina. 

  • Nearsightedness (myopia): When the image focuses in front of the retina, making faraway objects appear blurry. 

  • Farsightedness (hyperopia): When the image focuses behind the retina, making close objects appear blurry. 

  • Emmetropia: When the image focuses correctly. 

“The vast majority of cats are emmetropic, with some being slightly farsighted and some slightly nearsighted,” Miller says. He says cats likely become more farsighted—or, as he puts it, “need reading glasses”—as they age.

Cats can clearly focus on items approximately 10 inches or more away; any closer, and the object becomes blurry. “This is similar to a 45-year-old human,” Miller says. Fortunately, cats have whiskers on their forelimbs, muzzle, and above their eyes to help detect nearby objects and prey. 

How To Check a Cat's Vision

Pet parents need to be on the lookout for any changes in their feline’s eyes. Signs of eye problems in cats include: 

In more severe cases, you may also see changes in your cat’s appetite or activity level, or your cat may seek out unusual places to spend time. If you notice any of these behaviors, talk to your veterinarian right away.

There are a few ways your veterinarian can test your cat’s vision, including:

  • Observing how the cat moves around the exam room or follows a cotton ball when tossed

  • Checking whether the cat blinks when a hand is moved toward their peripheral vision (without touching their face or eyes)

  • Shining a light into the cat’s eyes to test the retina’s light reflexes

  • Using a tonometry, a special instrument that tests pressure within the eye (pressure too high or too low is indicative of disease that can affect vision)

Janelle Leeson


Janelle Leeson

Freelance Writer

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