What do cats see?

The question in the title could be extended to include what the cat hears and smells. We know that cats have superior senses of smell and hearing.  As for their eyesight, it is both better and worse than ours. It is designed for night vision because cats are crepuscular predators. They hunt at dawn and dusk but also daytime and nighttime. It is not strictly demarcated.

People believe that cats are long-sighted (poor close-up vision, so they rely on smell) and red color blind or perhaps red-green color blind and have very sensitive nighttime vision but in black and white because the cells in the retina that see at night are not color sensitive.

A cat’s “minimal light threshold for vision is seven times less than that for most humans”¹

How might this translate to what a cat actually sees? I am interested in that but it is difficult to translate to actual example images. I have made a modest attempt nonetheless in the collage below.

What does a cat see?
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What does a cat see? Original photo by IvanWalsh.com

A cat’s eyesight is all about catching prey. Cat prey is active at dusk and dawn. The retina of the cat’s eye has a reflective layer behind it that boosts vision. I am sure you know this. A cat’s eyes are also very large relative to their head. It is said that if a person had a eye “of comparable size” it would be almost 8 inches in diameter (20 centimeters) ². The diameter is the distance across the eye. Although I am not sure what that means exactly but it does mean cat’s eyes are large. Also, the pupil shape (a slit that expands) allows more light in when full expanded.

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The cat’s eye is recessed deep into the head. This restricts eye movement and results in increased head movement. The eyes, though are located at the front of the head which provides excellent peripheral vision.

A cat’s poor close-up vision prompts me to ask whether this is the reason why cats often leave food in the bowl. Cats locate food in the food bowl through smell. All the cats I have lived with have tended to leave food in bowl. Yet if you take the bowl off them and rearrange the food in the center of the bowl and return it to them, they eat it.

Associated: Cat Eyes.


  1. Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook 3rd ed page 169.
  2. As above page 168.


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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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6 Responses

  1. Rose says:

    Yes good pics but I agree with Ruth we can never see what cats see.I just hope scientists don’t ever do some horrible experiments in their quest for knowing more.

  2. Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

    This is one of the wonderful mysteries of cats because a person can never see what a cat sees, only a cat can do that.
    Yes we have scientific evidence from the study of cats eyes and brains but no human can ever actually look out through the eyes of a real live cat.

  3. Marc says:

    I dont find cats to have poor short vision and good long. I find both to be pretty average. I used to make signs at Red when he was 20 meters away and he could see about as clearly as I could from that distance. Night time or dark is a totally different thing. Perhaps at a short distance they can see insects etc more clearly than we but Ithink its more about the eye being able to track things better.

    With regard to night time – it’s like a manual camera with the iris/aperture setting wider. It lets in more light but has less depth of field. In that respect I think they can see rather alot at night and alot of those night time hunting eye skills are based on tracking movement since they can see alot but dont have much depth of field – less than they do in the day. Their iris is huge when fully dilated, much bigger than mine I would have thought, so obviously they are able to pick up more light at night.

    With regard to colour that’s a whole different thing which may well have little to do with anything practical other than it further diminishes depth of field by virtue of have a field of vision divided by less colours. This may however simplify the field of vision and make movement easier to track with in a field of less colour. Just a thought!

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