Combined with their other senses, cats have excellent nighttime vision making them the perfect little midnight hunters.

If you are a cat owner you may have had the wonderful experience of waking up in the middle of the night to hear your kitty destroying the throw rugs or hissing loudly at some mystical being outside the window (or at your home's friendly ghost). These adorable, albeit sometimes annoying, nighttime antics would suggest your cat can see incredibly well in the dark and might be nocturnal.

Cats do have an excellent ability to see in the dark but they are not nocturnal (no vampire kitties here). Cats are actually crepuscular which means they are more active during twilight. Their ability to see in the dark, combined with their other senses, makes them well-equipped for post-bedtime adventures.

white cat sitting in the dark with the Feline Fine logo
Credit: Oxana Abramova / Getty

Can Cats Really See Better in the Dark?

Although our kitty companions can see on the darkest of nights (Hello, every night in 2020!), cats don't necessarily see better in the dark than they can see in the daytime. Cat eyes have evolved to aid them in nighttime activities, but their eyes still function best in daylight. The reason we often assume cats see better in the dark is because cats are typically most active after twilight. But don't be fooled by your couch catatoe. They can execute search-and-destroy missions in any light … they just lack the motivation to show you.

How Does a Cat’s Night Vision Differ from Humans?

The differences in cat vision and human vision start in the retina of the eye. The retina is the area of the eye where cells called photoreceptors are found. There are two types of these cells, rods and cones. The cones help to see in the day and detect shades of colors. The rods help with night vision and also peripheral vision (seeing from side to side). Cats have lots and lots of rod receptors, but not as many cone receptors. This is why they can see well at night but are not great at detecting colors. Humans are the other way around—making us good at seeing colors but not so good at seeing things in the dark. 

"One thing I think about when considering feline (night) vision is their tapetum lucidum—or a thin, reflective layer along the back of their eye that 'bounces' and magnifies light in dark places. This is the reason why dogs' and cats' eyes tend to 'shine' in the dark," says Alicen Tracey, DVM, veterinarian at Den Herder Veterinary Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa.

How Do Cats See the World?

Cats cannot see the array of pretty colors we humans can, but they can see some colors. Cats mostly see things in gray, tinges of blue and yellow, and possibly a bit of green. This lack of color detecting doesn't stop them though. With their amazing eyesight, cats are especially good at detecting small movements and noticing fast details, even on moonless nights.

Ever wondered why your cat seems confused by your new haircut or that mustache your wife begged you not to grow (was it worth it?)? This could be due their inability to see things clearly up close. Interestingly, cats also see things that are far away more blurry than a human would, but they beat us humans when it comes to a wider field of vision.

Wanna see what a cat sees? Check out this series of images, dedicated to the skills of our favorite furry masters of darkness.

In What Other Ways Cats ‘See’ Better?

Beyond their incredible eyes, cats have evolved with some unique sensory abilities. Our paws-itively amazing felines have excellent senses, especially their capacity to hear and smell.  

Researchers have found that a cat's sense of smell may be more than 15 times stronger than a human's and it may even be more sensitive than a dog's. This strength doesn't just come from their cute, heart-shaped noises either. Cats have a specialized organ, found on the roof of their mouth, called the vomeronasal organ. This lets them taste and smell, deeply, at the same time. If you have ever noticed your cat curling up their lip, grimacing, or licking something while breathing in, they may be using that organ to get more information about the world around them.

Our feisty felines also have very sensitive hearing and can locate where a far-away sound is originating from. With their large ears, cats can pick up on quiet, high-pitched noises from great distances. Sounds like the screech of a mouse or the buzzing of a fly can be detected easily by your kitty, making them even more effective hunters.

Because your kitty cat is so especially equipped, it's best to keep them safe in your home at night. Even though your cat appears subdued in the sun all day doesn't mean he isn't an expert huntsman once he finally decides to move. If you want to avoid finding squishy dead things on your front porch, and protect local wildlife, keep him safe inside.