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A Cat's Eyes: Windows To The Soul

Nov 1, 2011 · Updated Nov 1, 2015 · ·
  1. Anne
    Vision in Cats – An Extraordinary Sense!

    Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with a local veterinary ophthalmologist and ask several questions about cats, how they see and the mechanics of their eyes. It seems that cats can see everything we do and in some instances, much more than we are capable of seeing! The mechanisms in a cat's eye are precision-designed for detecting motion, which comes in handy when they are hunting small prey that may not be easily detectable in thick undergrowth or tall grass.

    When hunting, a cat first relies on its extremely sensitive hearing and directional ear movement to locate the general location of prey, then targets and captures the prey using its very sharp eyesight. Cat vision is fine-tuned to capture even the slightest movement which is often imperceptible to humans. This makes the cat one of the most successful hunters on land.

    How Do Cats See?

    We know that cats most likely possess binocular vision, (overlap in the images from each eye) and are capable of seeing in three dimensions, as do humans. Their visual field of view is estimated to be around 200°, versus 180° in humans, with a binocular field much narrower than that of humans.

    As with most predators, a cat’s eyes face forward, affording a larger degree of depth perception at the expense of field of view. Field of view is largely dependent upon the placement of the eyes, but may also be related to the eye's construction. Many of us have watched in awe as our cats have exercised the ability to jump from as much as 6 feet onto a narrow window ledge without touching the window. This truly amazing feat would require not only excellent balance, but also precise distance judgment, which is offered by the unique mechanics of their eyes.

    Can Cats Really See In The Dark?

    Cats appear to be slightly nearsighted, which would suggest that their vision is better suited for picking up minute detail in closer objects, such as prey. Objects farther than several hundred yards away don’t normally catch the interest of a cat due to their lack of ability to focus on it clearly. Cats have both rods and cones in the retina. Rods are the receptors that the eye uses for precise nighttime sight and picking up the most minute detail in sudden movement. Cones are used during the daytime to distinguish color. Cats have more rods than cones, as compared to humans, making cat night and motion vision superior to humans.

    Cats have an elliptical pupil that opens and closes much faster than round types. This allows for a much larger pupil size into which more light can pass. Cats also have a mirror like membrane on the back of their eyes called a Tapetum. This membrane’s job is to reflects the light passing through the rods and then send it back through the rods a second time in the opposite direction. The result is a double exposure of the light, which permits cats to see extremely well in near darkness.

    In low light or at night, cats do not see color differences. They see only black, white and shades of gray. Although a cat cannot see in total darkness, a partly cloudy night sky with some stars will provide enough light for cats to hunt and see movement, even in the cover of most brush. The yellowish glow you see when shining a light in a cat eyes is really that light reflecting off the Tapetum membrane.

    Do Cats See In Color?

    In cats, blue and green appear to be the strongest colors perceived and they also seem to respond to the colors within the purple, green and yellow range. Red, orange and brown colors appear to fall outside cats color range and are most likely seen as shades of gray or purple.

    What Is "The Third Eyelid?"

    Cats are unique in that they have a third eyelid, the nictitating membrane, which is a thin cover that closes from the side and appears when the cat's eyelid opens. The nicitating membrane has many functions; temperature adjustment, clearing the eye of foreign matter and particles, and sweeping moisture over the entire eye. This membrane partially closes if the cat is sick; although in a sleepy, content cat this membrane is often visible. If a cat chronically shows the third eyelid, it should be taken to a veterinarian for evaluation.

    Eye Color In Cats

    Cats have a wide variation in eye color, the most typical colors being golden, green and orange. Blue eyes are usually associated with the Siamese breed, but they are also found in white cats. If a white cat has two blue eyes, it is oftentimes deaf; however, orange eyes usually indicate the cat is free of hearing problems.

    White cats having one blue and one other-colored eye are called "odd-eyed" and may be deaf on the same side as the blue eye. This is the result of the yellow iris pigmentation rising to the surface of only one eye, as blue eyes are normal at birth before the adult pigmentation has had a chance to express itself in the eye(s).

    Cat Vision – Designed to Serve a Dual Purpose

    Having such a strong sense of vision, cats are truly one of nature’s greatest creatures, capable of seeing much more than our own human eyes are able to process. Their keen vision not only allows them to hunt prey with precision, it also enables them to escape being some other animal's prey. Of course, being able to see a treat as it approaches is a wonderful advantage to them in terms of their survival.

    Next time you gaze lovingly into the soul of your beloved cat through those limpid pools of color, you will know not only that they freely and generously return your loving affection but that they can also see deeply into your own soul as well.
    Written by Gaye Flagg

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  1. tarasgirl06
    Wonderful article! I have also read that cats have problems seeing something small that is right under their noses, such as a treat; it's better to put it a short distance from the cat.  Also, cats seem to see moving objects with great clarity, as their predator instincts are trained to see darting prey.
      Ember11681 purraised this.
  2. Margret
    I strongly recommend Homer's Odyssey, by Gwen Cooper, about a cat blind from birth. (Hint: Your local library probably has it. I used Overdrive and checked out the electronic version.)

    When a fly invades the apartment, the other cats watch it. Homer hears it, leaps into the air, catches it, and eats it! And it only takes him one try!

    Vision is lovely, for both cats and humans, but it's not necessary.

  3. sarah mn
    When we had it confirmed at the Vet's that our Siamese Nicco was going blind we looked at our open plan home - we rearranged the furniture "permanently" then we fitted cushions to any corners.   Once he got used to these, we removed them and as his blindness progressed he was able to maneover safely through the house.   Little sensor lights were placed at the foot of stairs, at the middle bend and at the top.   Now that he is almost completely blind, he can go anywhere without a problem.
    One word of warning though, we thought he would be scared and stay inside our hugh walled garden - WRONG - he disappeared for 3 days and came back having been run over and terribly injured.  Now he has a bionic (Rubber) bladder and is more than happy to stay indoors and beat up the dog.
    Just as well my husband, also a cat worshiper, also does not mind being woken up by a large paw to the nose during the night, as Nicco's new found freeedom means he sometimes comes up to bed, when he's bored with his toys.
    What else are cat slaves for though eh!
    Please do not be too alarmed when you cat goes blind, they can still enjoy life to the full, Nicco still manages any mice daft enough to come under the kitchen door.
      tarasgirl06 purraised this.
  4. raysmyheart
    Thanks for the great article!  I am always wondering how Speedy sees and perceives things.  Yes, I do notice that she can see things better if they are closer,when she is looking out the window.  It is amazing how all her senses work together when we go out for walks and she can leap after a moth like lightning!  However, she does not seem to respond at all to lightning bugs.
    The info about the 'third eye' in cats is very helpful for anyone caring for a cat.
    Best of all, my Speedy has gorgeous blue siamese eyes!
    Thanks again for this information.
  5. mazie
    Very interesting, thank you for this new knowledge and that last sentence is sooo true!!!!
  6. frankie the cat
    This was a great article ! 
  7. minxmcleod
    I love all four of my Adopted Shelter Kitties whose names are Scooter G, Ziggy Stardust, Eight Ball and Casper!  I would love to own a "Cat Sanctuary" for unwanted kitties but the financial cost would be astronomical.  I can't imagine life on this planet without my 2 children and my Cats.  I've had cats in my life since birth and I will have cats in my life until the day I die!  My only regret is that they don't have a long lifespan like humans and some other animal species do which to me is very sad and unfair.  It always breaks my heart when I have to say goodbye to a beloved Cat only to start all over again with a new one as when one kitty's lifecycle begins another one ends  The Circle of Life can be happy but sad at the same time..
  8. ntorres1031
    I have five cats: three domestic and two truly feral cats I rescued.  I LOVE my cats.  Their names are: Stormi, Sunni, Snowi, Raini and Ici.  The picture you see here is one of my feral cats (Snowi).  He's four.  I rescued him August of 2012.  He still does not let me touch him, but I they say that when a cat lies on his back that means he's happy and comfortable where he is.  Well, that's exactly what Snowi does when he wants me to play with him with the laser light.  My heart goes out to those cats that are homeless.  Will never understand how anyone can just discard a cat in that manner.  My other feral, Ici, is two years old.  I rescued her this past August.  She is still a bit on the unfriendly side, but, that doesn't matter to me.  As long as I know that when I leave my home to go to work - they are home with food, a roof over their heads and beds to sleep on.  No more streets for them.  No more rain, snow, ice, freezing weather.  No more sleeping under cars.  No more hurt. 
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