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Can cats see in the dark or is it just a myth?

Black cat with orange eyes advice

It's a myth cats can't see in the dark! But they can see in darker environment that us.

© Shutterstock

Cats seem to prefer being out at night than during the day. Their hunting prowess in darkness is renowned and their ability to get around in places that are, to our eyes, completely dark impresses us greatly. But can cats actually see in the dark, or are they able to see things in lower light than us?

By Nick Whittle

It is tempting to think that cats can see in the dark, especially given their nocturnal ways, but being active at night, and being able to cope with darkness does not necessarily mean that they have what we would call ‘night vision’.

Here we look at how good a cat’s vision really is, and how they cope with light levels that to us would seem like darkness.

Can cats see in total darkness?

If all light is blocked out from the room in which a cat sits can it still see? Surprisingly, the answer is no. If there is complete and utter darkness a cat will be no more able to move around than we can. That is because all higher animals need some element of light to see.

However, if the light in a room is reduced by around 80% we would not be able to move around but the cat would. A cat requires just a sixth of the light that we do in order to operate. It is for this reason that we have always thought cats could see in the dark, when to us such a room is dark.

Do cats prefer the dark?

Yes. Cats prefer to move around in darkness, although their favourite time is dawn and dusk. Proof of this can be found on pavements in cat-dense areas in the summer: during the hottest hours of the day most cats will be lying down and snoozing.

Due to the fact that they are, by design, semi-nocturnal, cats have developed acuity of vision in low light that far exceeds our own. A cat has more rods in the retina of its eye than we do, and it is rods that allow animals to see in moderate darkness.

Do cats have night vision?

When we talk of night vision most of us will recall the sort of equipment used by TV crews when filming wildlife and so on at night. But the night vision of cats is, of course, very different. A cat may be able to get around at night but it cannot see fine detail of colour. The retinal rods allow only sensitivity to movement and shape.

A cat’s eye is also shaped differently from ours. The cornea is more curved and the lens of the eye is proportionately bigger than that of the human eye. In low light the pupil of a cat’s eye can dilate fully, to admit as much light as possible.

The cat’s eye is also fitted with a nifty bit of kit called a ‘tapetum lucidum’. This is a layer of tissue that reflects additional light to the retina. The receptors of the retina thus receive more of the available light. You can see the tapetum layer if you take a flash photo of your cat; its eye will appear to glow.

Can I leave my cat in the dark?

You should never leave any animal in darkness, even a cat. Imagine how it would feel to spend even five minutes in a dark room. Animals feel fear and anxiety in much the same way as we humans do.

Leave a light on for a cat or make sure there is some natural light in the room, but do NOT leave your cat in darkness. With some light shining, your cat will be able to find its way around the place in which it has been left, and will be able to fend for itself and be as active as it needs to be.

Should I leave a night light on for my cat?

Night lights are a good idea. There are some lights that have movement sensors implanted, but a solid light is preferable. If there is no natural light, a night light is the next best thing.

Do cats get lonely at night?

Cats are generally solitary creatures. They are not as gregarious as dogs, and thus as a consequence they will not require your presence as much. However, they do still want to feel as though they are loved, wanted and – most of all – part of the clan.

Some cats will feel relaxed at night but some will want company. Only you know the type of cat you have, and you should act accordingly. Importantly, if you are worried about your cat’s night-time loneliness you should make allowances: provide it with a toy, or something to keep its mind active.

A cat that is lonely and ignored by its owner can quickly develop depression and behavioural problems.

Is it ok to leave cats alone overnight?

Yes, it is ok to leave a cat alone overnight although you will have to put in some effort to ensure that it is happy by itself. However, a kitten under the age of six months alone should not be left on its own.

Here are some ways to ensure that your cat will be happy by itself:

•    Prepare the house. Ensure the cat has a comfy bed, and enough food and water to last until your return
•    Ensure the cat’s litter tray is clean and ready for use
•    Leave toys out so that your cat has something to occupy itself
•    Leave a radio or TV playing quietly in the background; doing so is thought to minimise the cat’s stress

If you plan on being away from your home for longer than 24 hours you should ask someone to look after your cat.

Are you wondering how long you can leave your cat alone? Read on to find out

Should I leave the TV on for my cat?

As we have said, to leave a TV on quietly is a good idea, because it is meant to aid calmness. But do not have the TV on too loudly, and do not choose a channel that is prone to broadcasting loud movies.. A classical music channel with a blank screen would be ideal.

If you are a family of avid TV watchers, leaving the TV on will remind your cat of your presence, and thus make it feel calmer.

The differences between the vision of a cat and a human are not vast. But there are differences. A cat may see better in the dark than we do but it still cannot see colours or definition; the makeup of its eye also prevents it from seeing well in daylight. On the other hand, humans can see very well in daylight. These differences should be understood by owners of cats and dogs. Our understanding of how a cat sees and how it can move around in darkness can inform our choices when it comes to their care. A cat may not be able to ‘see in the dark’, but it can see in darker environments than we can.