What does a cat see?

08 October 2019

CAT FACE

Ginger cat face

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Question

We all know that cats can see better than us, but what do they actually see? Is it like a bright sunny day, or is it more like at dusk?

Answer

Physiologist Sam Virtue got his claws into this catty question from James in Australia...

Sam - OK, so first of all, cats can see better than us in some ways, but in other ways they're not so good at seeing as us. Because what has happened with cat vision is that it has evolved to let them do two really major things. The first is to hunt really effectively, and the second is to see in the dark because that's when they like to go out and hunt. So actually if you have a cat on a warm, sunny day they'll have a much more limited color palette than us, so they won't see as many hues and as many different types of color. They're better at seeing in the blue spectrum. They wouldn't be able to see red things quite so well so their vision will be quite different. They're also unable to see as well in the distance as us. So for example they would have what's classed as 20/100 or 20/200 vision, which means that a cat would have to be at 20 meters from something to see as well as we could see it from 200 meters away.

So in Australia, let’s say you are looking out at something like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the cat would not be able to see it from being stood on the shore of the bay. Cat vision isn't necessarily better than ours, and what they can see is more limited during the day, but at night they come alive. They have far better vision at night and they have a special membrane called the tapetum lucidum, which the reflective membrane that gives the cat's eyes that wonderful property of reflecting light when it’s shone on them. And this is all designed to make as much of the low light levels we have at night available to the cat so it can see better. And then that enables it to see its prey, and in the case of my cats, that's quite a lot of mice that get brought in in the morning.

Adam - And in my cat it tends to run more into running into the nearest wall.

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