One of the most popular questions cat vets hear is can my cat see color? Though for years it was widely believed that cats were color blind, recent research indicates cats have the ability to detect color. While our eyes are able to detect a broad range of different colors, cats view color on a much smaller spectrum.

Where does the ability to see colors come from?

The retina contains two types of cells that allow us or our feline friends to see: rods and cones. Rods signal to the brain when any light waves reach the retina, regardless of their color. Cones, on the other hand, fire when lights of specific wavelengths (i.e. different colors) hit the eye. Some cones signal when blue light comes in contact with the retina, others respond to red light and a third variety fires when green light is detected.

How do cat and human eyes perceive color differently?

Because space on the retina is limited, more rods necessarily mean less cones and vice versa. Because cats have evolved to hunt in darker environments, their eyes are packed with considerably more rods than cones. As a result, they can seemingly “see in the dark” and detect the slightest motion, but their perception of colors is relatively poor. One study indicated, for example, that felines can only see blues and grays, while another concluded that they are also able to detect yellows.

The relative lack of cones also makes cats less sensitive to changes in the brightness or vibrancy of a color. They may not be able to distinguish, for example, between light blue and dark blue.

Humans, on the other hand, have to be able to function in both low-light and bright environments, so our eyes have evolved to contain ten times as many cones as those of our furry friends. Our night vision is worse, but we can see a full rainbow’s worth of color during the day.

How else are cat and human eyes different?

Evolutionary forces have also changed how well felines and humans can focus on objects at different distances. Because cats are closer to the ground and have more acute senses of sound and smell, focusing sharply on objects at distances greater than 50 yards away has never been a priority. As a result, they are somewhat nearsighted compared to us. Felines can detect things in the distance, but those objects tend to appear blurry.

What does all of this mean?

Though your kitty’s ability to detect and perceive color is largely unimportant with regard to its health and well being, knowing about its sensory abilities can help you create a more enjoyable living space for your feline friend. For example, your cat may enjoy blue and yellow toys more than red.