Question: Can my cat, Fluffy, see color?
Answer: Tests show cats can tell the difference between certain colors. Humans have three kinds of photoreceptor cells on the retina of the eye, which respond to red, green and blue. Cats have only two kinds.
“Cat vision is similar to how color-blind people see,” said Dr. Michelle Lugones, veterinarian. “They can’t tell the difference between reds, greens and yellows. They see muted colors with blues, yellow-greens and grays. They don’t see the reds and oranges.”
Research indicates cats can distinguish more shades of gray than humans. They see less saturation in colors, so they don’t see colors as vibrantly or intensely as we humans.
Cats don’t pay much attention to color. In their history and ancestry, color was not important to their survival; motion was everything. Cats see even the slightest twitch. Their vision is blurred at the edges and they see best between 6 and 20 feet. Their depth perception is remarkable, which aids their ability to hunt and track prey.
Cats can’t see in total darkness but they can see things in the dark that are invisible to humans. They see much better than humans in very-dim light or semi-darkness. Cats are nocturnal hunters and are able to use even the smallest glimmer of light. Cats need one-sixth as much light as humans.
Cats, like many night hunters, have a membrane called a tapetum lucidum that lies behind the retina and reflects light. The layer of specialized cells reflects light back through the retina, thus increasing the light available to the photoreceptors. That improves vision in reduced-light conditions. Reflection of light from the tapetum lucidum explains the characteristic green or gold glow from the pupil.
The cat has excellent peripheral vision, much wider than humans. Their eyes are set a bit on the sides of the head; they see their environment with a span that is more than 200 degrees.
We had a cat down on our Seneca farm in Crawford County, Wisconsin, that was particularly adept at hunting gophers. That calico barnyard cat would crouch motionless for hours just a few feet from a gopher hole. He would then pounce on the hapless striped rodent, shake it to death and then bring it around the farm buildings – where we would spot that cat with a gopher in his mouth.
We Scheckel kids loved that gopher-killing machine. There was a bounty on gophers, moles and rattlesnakes. The cat would drop the gopher at our feet. We would cut the tail off the gopher and preserve it by putting it in a canning jar generously sprinkled with salt; the jar of gopher tails was stored in the garage. Once the tail was removed we would return the gopher to our money-making cat. We figured if the cat didn’t get the gopher back it would simply stay away from the farm buildings and eat the gopher out in the pastures.
Gopher tails fetched a nickel and moles feet – just the front feet but you needed to have both – brought a quarter. The town clerk was authorized to pay the bounty. Unlike the other farm cats that guzzled milk, bread and leftovers, that cat earned its keep. He was no welfare cat.
Larry Scheckel is the author of “Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers.” He grew up on a family farm in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin, one of nine children. His teaching career stretched to more than 38 years teaching physics and aerospace science to more than 4,000 high school students at Tomah, Wisconsin.