Do our favorite felines see color? Although cats don’t enjoy rainbows like we do, their vision is a little different than you might expect.

By Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT
November 18, 2020
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Laser pointers, bright fluffy toys, and shiny crinkle balls. All of these toys include intense colors, but they might not be taking advantage of what a cat actually sees. If you live with a furry kitty you know that cats adore chasing, pouncing, and catching all sorts of things. Their ability to catch that annoying fly or grab your ankles just as you are getting out of bed is instinctual. But selecting a favorite toy because it's red is not something a cat was born to do.

While cats do not see as many colors as we humans do, they do have an amazing ability to notice small, fast movements with a much wider view. They also are uniquely equipped to see in the dark, making them excellent nighttime hunters. 

What Is Color Blindness?

Color blindness has nothing to with the ability to see, but instead refers to the ability (or lack thereof) to distinguish colors. It’s not uncommon for a person to be unable to distinguish the color red from the color green. Other people find it difficult—after an injury or illness in the eye—to notice shades of colors or to compare colors. This is due to color blindness. Cats do not have a deficiency of the eye itself.

Humans and cats both have two types of color receptors in their eyes: cones and rods. The cones handle vision during the day and color perception. Rods tackle what can be seen at night and the ability to see from side to side and all around (peripheral vision). Each cone detects the wavelengths of light. Humans have three cones and so can generally detect the whole spectrum of light. Cats have just two cones, which limits the spectrum of light they can see.

Can Cats See Color?

Our feline friends can see some colors, but are there particular colors that can cats see best? Cats’ two color-detecting cones let them see blue-violet and yellow-green wavelengths of light, but not red-orange. So, similar to dogs, cats mainly see things in shades of yellow, gray, and blue tinges, but some researchers think that cats may also notice some shades of green.

So that laser pointer you relentlessly tease your cat with (pick another toy, please!) is not a great option for playtime. Your cat likely does not pick up on how bright that red is, and instead sees just the fast, bouncing movement of the light. Not to mention it's frustrating for them to endlessly chase an uncatchable target.

Credit: nico_blue / Getty

How Do We Know Cats Aren’t Color Blind?

We can’t just ask a cat what colors inspire them, but we do know cat are unique creatures with amazing eyes! Recent research shows interesting discoveries of all the incredible things a cat’s eyes can do and see. Some studies have included simulations of cat vision, giving us a glimpse of what a cat's sight is actually like. There have also been tests involving the use of food and color panels to test if animals, like cats, can detect colors. The animal can pick one color over another to get a food reward.

If you want to see like a cat does, check out these cat perspective images.

What Does This Mean for Your Cat?

Beyond the fact the toys like laser pointers create an unfair, unwinnable game for your cat (seriously, stop it!), toys that are rich in bright colors won’t stimulate your cat in the same way that toys that move will. The best toy for a cat is one that engages their natural predator instincts, but if you want to select a great enrichment item that looks pretty, too, your best bet are ones in shades of yellow, blue, and maybe green.

Even though your cat doesn’t notice all the shades of beautiful rainbows, she is a talented nighttime huntress. Cats are crepuscular, meaning they are really active at dawn and dusk. Be advised that if you let your cat outside (it’s safest to keep Meowmers inside) they will definitely pick up on anything that moves. 

Cats have a “tapetum lucidum—or a thin reflective layer along the back of their eye that 'bounces' and magnifies light in dark places,” says Alicen Tracey, DVM at Den Herder Veterinary Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa. Tracey says this reflective layer is the reason why dogs’ and cats’ eyes tend to 'shine' in the dark.

This innate ability to see in the dark means a kitty can create havoc outdoors, killing all sorts of little creatures including native bird species. So you need to be watchful of your tiny panther, since their eyes can keep such a close watch on other animals, too.