Can cats see color or are they color-blind?

Cats love t gaze at colorful fish tanks and paw at fish passing by. But do cats see color and are they able to appreciate the beauty? Common speculation is that cats, like most animals, are color-blind. This is only partially true, and you’ll see why.

Abyssinian cat watching colored fish in a tank
Does the cat see the color of this fish tank? Photo by Andrei Meshcheriakov.

In this article, you are going to learn that cats are quite capable of recognizing different colors. In one way, their color recognition is even superior to ours.

For those who seek a quick answer:

Yes, cats do see color. They are able to tell red, yellow, and blue as well as red and green lights apart. Cats might also be able to see ultra-violet light.

What colors can cats see

The myth that cats see only two colors-black and white-was busted long ago. We’re sure that most of our readers already know that.

The assumption that cats are color-blind arose from experiments in the early 20th century, in which cats were unable to guess in which of the colored bowls a fish was located. That experiment, however, did not take into account that it’s hard to train cats to do anything.

The physiology of eyes dictates that there must be a tradeoff between color vision and ability to see in low light conditions. Our eyes and the eyes of our cats contain photo-sensitive cells. They are called rods and cones.

Rods let animals see better in the dark, cones allow for better differentiation of cones. You can have as many of those cells as fit into your retina, so choose wisely. We know that cats have more rods and les cones than we do.

Later experiments revealed that, even though it takes a high number of trials, cats can be trained to distinguish between red and green lights as well as yellow, blue, and red lights.

Additionally, the researchers discovered that cats have different cones responding to the long, middle, and short wavelengths (that is, blue, green, and red, respectively) of visible light. The discovery raises the possibility that cats, like us, are photopic trichromats. That is, they are able to distinguish three colors. Though, likely not as good as we do.

Do we perceive colors differently?

At the same time, we still can’t (and likely won’t soon) draw a precise picture of how cats view the world. Many scientists and artists have done it, but you have to understand that those are only guesses, although some are more educated than others.

Color perception is subjective, and we can’t even tell if all humans see colors equally, for we can’t describe colors. We can’t tell how green color looks like—we can only show.

We know that cats see colors, but their ability to differentiate close shades is limited, especially for reddish colors.

You could say that, to a cat, orange and red appear more similar than blue and violet, even though their spectrum differences are similar. You can learn what spectrum is here.

The thing is, a cat’s ability to see light does not stop at violet wavelengths as it does for us.

Cats can detect light beyond blue, unlike humans.

A study, scientists examined the eyes of many mammals, including cats. They discovered that cats’ eyes detect ultraviolet light, which is invisible to us.

It’s ironic, but, given this information, cats could argue about us being color blind, unable to see all the colors they can see.

But what does it actually mean that cats have UV vision? Does it serve a specific purpose? We’d love to think so because Superman has the same ability, but physics says it shouldn’t.

Ultraviolet light isn’t much different from any other lights, besides the fact we can’t see it. At the same time, we can’t see plenty of other “lights” either.

electromagnetic waves and visible light spectrum of humans
Of the electromagnetic spectrum, only a tiny part constitutes what we call “visible spectrum”. For cats, the range of visible light might be slightly shifted to the left, into the UV. Figure by Philip Ronan, cc

UV vision is just an extension of the visible spectrum, allowing cats to see “more colors.” It might allow cats to notice things differently, such as detecting urine marks not only with their nose but visually as well. However, that is only a speculation.

Note that the research mentioned above does not use the term “UV vision.” It says “ultraviolet sensitivity,” because scientists can claim only things they know for sure. They know that cats’ eyes are sensitive to UV light, but that does not necessarily mean cats can see it.

Even if cats can see their prey’s paw print trail because of ultraviolet vision, we should not consider it a superpower of some sort. If that were the case, the ability to see red berries in a green bush would be a superpower, too.

Now we are stepping onto the thin ice of philosophy. Maybe seeing anything should be considered a superpower, because not all animals have eyes. Besides, we can continue to argue about who really is color-blind: cats who can see the UV part of the spectrum or humans who can see red more clearly.

Color vision does not serve many benefits to cats

The consensus is that cats do see color. Not as vividly as we do, but the assumption that cats are like color-blind people is incorrect. In the meantime, the ability to distinguish between colors is not of much use for cats’ lifestyles.

Evolution has tailored their eyes for a specific purpose, which is hunting mice, mostly at dusk and dawn, which aren’t the most colorful times of the day anyway. Under such conditions, perfect color vision was traded for something more useful: cats can detect movements and see in the dark much better than we can.