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Can Cats Really See in the Dark?

Beautiful brown cat partially in the dark
Cats are mysterious beings, so it’s no surprise many myths continue to surround them. Putting aside myths related to black cats and Halloween, certain beliefs continue to persist connected to darkness and cats nighttime behavior – for example, that cats are nocturnal and, therefore, can see in the dark.

So, can cats see in the dark? Not entirely. At least not in the way most people imagine.

Cats are not nocturnal, so they don't need to see in the dark

Brown cat with beautiful eyes at dusk

Most people are under the impression cats are nocturnal creatures and that they're out hunting (or roaming the living room) while we're asleep. In fact, they're not. Cats are actually crepuscular. That means they're most active at dawn and dusk. Dawn and dusk are when cats' prey, such as small rodents and birds, are

cats hunt at dawn and dusk quotation

most active and when larger predators are largely absent. So if you want to put your furry friend's Purina Cat Chow out for them at dawn with only a nightlight, you should be good to go.

But cats do need at least some light to see and wouldn't be able to see if all light were blocked out. However, they require only about one-sixth the amount of light as humans, according to Catster magazine. And their eyes are uniquely shaped and configured for their dawn-dusk crepuscular lifestyle.

Cat pupils are a sight to behold

Cute ginger tabby cat with large pupils

Starting with the basic shape of their eyes, cats have an elliptical, almond-shaped eye as opposed to the rounder human eye. This, according to Science Alert, allows cats to open their pupils very wide to allow the most amount of light to enter their eye in low light and allows cats to constrict their eyes down to very small slits during the glare of the day. Cats are believe to be able to expand their pupils 135 to 300 fold, whereas humans experience only a 15-fold increase.

Cats cornea's also cover a larger percentage of their eyes than human corneas, which means cats have a larger amount of surface area through which light can enter the eye.

To get even more technical, cats have more of the type of photoreceptor responsible for night vision than humans. Eyes contain rods and cones photoreceptors. Both cones and rods are sensitive to light and send signals from the eyes to the brain. Cones help the eyes see color and details, whereas rods allow the eyes to process shapes, sizes and the brightness of what the eyes sees. They are also responsible for helping to pick up low light. It is believe cats have up to eight times as many rod cells as humans.

Glow in the dark eyes

Cat in a dark house with glowing eyes

The unique configuration of cats’ eyes is also responsible for that sometimes spooky phenomenon in which we sometimes can’t even see a cat in the dark and all we can see are two little eyes that appear to glow in the dark. That happens because light enters a cat’s eye and goes to the tapetum, a special reflective layer behind the retina. The tapetum acts like a mirror. If the light goes directly into the eye, the tapetum will reflect a part of that light back, which is why cat eyes sometimes seem glow in the dark. The tapetum also ensures that available light is magnified, helping cats see in dark places instead of stumbling around.

So while cats are excellent at seeing well in low light, they really can't see in the dark. Think of it this way: Cats eyes are great at allowing in and magnifying light, but no matter how much you magnify nothing, it’s still nothing. That’s why cats need some light to see. But with a tiny bit of light, they are going to see, while we’re going to strain our eyes and bump into things.

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