Can Cats See Ghosts? We Asked a Vet and a Behavior Expert
It's not uncommon for people to be curious about whether cats can see ghosts. This is one of many myths and legends involving fascinating felines throughout history. Oxford Languages defines the supernatural as "attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature," and this force and stories of cats are certainly intertwined. Consider:
- Ancient Egyptians didn't exactly worship cats, but instead considered them full of divine energy, especially that of Bastet (or Bast), a cat-headed goddess.
- Suspicious sailors the world over rarely left port without a few polydactyl (extra-toed) pussycats prowling the decks to ensure safe travels.
- And while an old English wives' tale states that black cats presented as wedding gifts bring good luck, Scottish and Irish folklore quivers with the ramblings of the cat sìth, a dark kitty that searches the countryside for souls to steal.
So here's a question: Do you believe in ghosts? According to a 2019 YouGov poll, approximately 45 percent of people surveyed do. And how might your fur ball be acting that makes you think cats see ghosts, too? After all, some people credit their heroic kitties for alerting them to cancer or meowing endlessly to help rescuers find their missing guardians.
But is there a mouse in the wall—or something else cats detect that we can't? We're so prone to humanize their actions to understand them better! We asked a veterinarian and cat behavior expert for more insight into cats' remarkable abilities.
How Cats' Senses Differ From Humans'
One possibility for why we think cats can see ghosts is due to their innate abilities. Bonnie Bragdon, DVM, is co-founder and president of the Independent Veterinary Practitioners Association and a former board member for the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. She says cats' senses are more heightened than those of humans. As both predators and prey animals, cats need sharp senses to help them catch prey and evade predators.
So how are their sensory abilities enhanced?
Although most of us think of cats as nocturnal creatures, they're actually crepuscular—low-light hunters most active at dawn and dusk. If they're meowing at night, that's an indication of something completely different. "Cats see six times better in dim light than humans," Bragdon says. This ability to see in great detail at low light enables them to detect and pursue prey, as well as judge distance and speed with great accuracy.
They also have two structures unique to non-humans that enhance their eyesight: the tapetum lucidum and the nictitating membrane. Bragdon explains:
- The tapetum lucidum is tissue at the back of the cat's eye which reflects light to the optic nerve, further improving the cat's ability to see in low light. This tissue is responsible for the green glow seen when light is reflected from a cat's eyes in the dark—the cat's eye is reflecting light to the optic nerve to improve nighttime vision.
- The third eyelid or nictitating membrane can be seen in the inside corner of the cat's eye and is raised to cover and protect the eye. "It's sort of like a built-in band-aid," she adds.
One reason why people might think cats can see ghosts, Bragdon says, is simply because they spot changes in light that we don't. "Cats can detect flickering which occurs with fluorescent light, while we humans are unlikely to detect any change." However, humans can focus on images better, which is required for reading.
Another difference in cats' vision is that while they're not colorblind, they also don't see colors with the same richness as humans. So, let's say there is a mousie scurrying about. Bragdon says your cat is likely to see it, identify it as a mouse, and leap to capture it without hesitation before you even know the mouse is in the room!
"However, once you see the mouse, it's more likely that you'll appreciate the colors and accents of its fur and whiskers in greater detail than your cat," Bragdon says. "Think about the competitive advantages of each species' strength. While the cat can catch the mouse for dinner, we can better see colors and details which, in theory, could help identify the best plants, berries, and nuts for us to eat."
Author Amy Shojai, CABC, is a certified animal behavior consultant and founder and president emeritus of the Cat Writers' Association. According to some studies, she says cats can also see on the ultraviolet light spectrum, which means they frequently perceive things we can't.
Hearing and Smell
Cats hear at frequencies above and below our ability—about 1.5 times greater. Bragdon adds that many of the devices we take for granted as a normal and silent part of life actually produce a sound that cats hear.
Although cats' sense of smell isn't nearly as powerful as dogs', it's still 9–16 times greater than humans'. They also have a secondary scent-collecting organ called the Jacobson's or vomeronasal organ, which allows them to smell things we can't. You'll notice them using it when their mouth is partially open with their upper lip curled, known as the flehmen's response.
While these wispy adornments look positively adorable framed by dust bunnies, they actually provide additional sensory advantages for kitties. Bragdon says cat whiskers detect small changes in air currents, determine the width of an enclosed space, and may help cats sense the location of prey when it's too close to see.
"Given these heightened senses, is it any wonder our cats react differently to environmental stimuli than we do?" she says. Reviewing all these abilities also reinforces just how amazing our feline friends truly are.
RELATED: Can Dogs See Ghosts?
Do Cats Really See Ghosts or Spirits?
Honestly? This is when anecdotal experience and empirical evidence collide. Here's a good example.
Many kitty owners theorize that animals have the ability to predict subtle vibrational precursors to such things as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. However, the United States Geological Survey indicates that "interpretations of anomalous animal behavior are weighted heavily by human interpretation. Since we cannot communicate directly with animals, we cannot know if the observed anomalous behavior of a particular animal is caused by an upcoming earthquake or by some other outside factor."
Shojai notes that cats detect changes in barometric pressure, which means they're sensitive to weather fluctuations. "Our cats pay attention to the details of the world around them, notice minute changes, and react accordingly," she says. Animals, unlike people, don't have an ulterior motive for what they're reacting to—it's simply a combination of instinct and abilities.
"We all know cats act in some ways that make little sense to humans. They stare into space for minutes at a time, or 'track' an invisible something across the room," Shojai says. "The cat that reacts with fear, or watches a 'ghost' move around the room, may instead actually track the sound, smell, or sight of bugs in the wall."
Just because we can't sense it doesn't mean a clever kitty isn't picking up on something. Does this behavior mean your puddy tat is preparing to paw off with a poltergeist? There's really no way of knowing.
And can they misread a situation? Absolutely, just as we do. "Think about the last time you were startled by something you saw out of the corner of your eye, or you couldn't quite place a smell or sound that you detected," Bragdon says. "Now imagine you're a cat with heightened senses and reaction times—you'd probably see ghosts, too! While we may look at our cats as a bit crazy or irrational, I wonder if our cats think the same of us: 'Crazy human, just sitting there, can't they see or hear?'"
When Should You Worry About a Cat's Reactions?
Taking all things into consideration, Bragdon adds that while it's completely normal for Fluffy to have mysterious reactions to stimuli you don't perceive, it's not normal for her to react in this manner repeatedly.
"This heightened reaction can be a sign of environmental stress, which should be investigated to remove or minimize the cause and reduce the negative impact on health," she says. "Just like you couldn't tolerate loud rock music all day and night, your cat may be experiencing stimulation that's uncomfortable or stressful. The occasional reaction is normal. Repeated and sustained reactionary state is not."
"We don't know if our pets can see ghosts. If their behavior causes additional problems like a fear reaction or property damage, seek a behavior professional for help," Shojai adds. "But as long as it doesn't negatively affect your family or pets, and it comforts you, there's nothing wrong with believing Great Aunt Ethel returns to visit her beloved Muffy."