Can Cats See Color?

Author: Emily Burt, Nursing Team

February 23, 2011

Cat with goggles

There are a lot of questions that we get frequently from clients. This is one we hear a lot. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer and even to this day there is professional debate on this topic.

The eye is a complex organ that functions by allowing light to enter and project onto the retina, which is made up of light-sensitive cells. The two types of cells are rods, for low-light contrast, and cones, which distinguish color. These cells convert light into visual signals that are then sent to the brain by the optic nerve.

Cats' eyes have both of these structures, as well as a layer behind the retina called the tapetum lucidum which reflects light back to the retina. The tapetum lucidum is what makes an animal's eyes appear to be glowing when you photograph them or shine a light on them. Evidence shows that cats may have three types of cones, just as people do, which means that biologically they may be capable of trichromatic color vision. Studies have shown that cats are able to differentiate between colors, but often this depends on the size of the stimulus and the surrounding contrast. It is believed that any color-vision cats have would be much less vibrant than that of people.

On the other hand, the concentration of rod cells, combined with the tapetum lucidum, provides cats with excellent low-light vision. And because those same factors contribute to the ability to see motion, cats are often able to spot movement that people might miss. It is likely that cats can distinguish between several different colors, but anything they have lost in color-vision, they more than make up for in low-light visual acuity.