Walk down any cat toy or cat bed aisle in any pet supply store and you will see that cat toys and beds come in all sorts of colors. Not only that, cat toys, bedding, and blankets can come in a variety of hues and shades, ranging from pastels to neons. This begs the question: Can cats see colors? Or are cats color blind?
What Is Color Blindness in Cats?
Color blindness is the lack of ability to discern certain colors from one another. It doesn’t mean you don’t see any color at all. In people, red green color blindness is most common, effecting about 8% of men and 0.5% of women. Yellow blue color blindness is another type of color blindness in people and there’s a third, more rare type of color blindness called monochromaticsm, which means the person can only see black and white.
In cats, color blindness is harder to understand, namely because they can’t undergo a color blind test that people can take. In the eye are two types of specialized cells. One type, termed rods, aid in light vision. The other type, termed cones, aid in color vision. People are known to have trichromatic vision, meaning they have three types of cones: one sensitive to red, one sensitive to blue, and one sensitive to green. Having these three types of cones allow us to see all the colors of the rainbow.
Cats were traditionally thought to have two types of cones in their eyes, giving them dichromatic vision. One is sensitive to shades of blue-violet while the other is sensitive to shades of yellow-green. This leaves blue-greens, and reds as colors that cats might not be able to discern as easily as you or I could. Dichromatism in cats is thought to be most analogous to red green color blindness in people where shades of blue-greens and reds appear more like gray.
There have been studies to determine if cats are actually trichromatic since 3 different types of cones have been observed in cats. One study showed that this third type of cone may be sensitive to shades of cyan (a fancy way of describing blue-greens). Furthermore, another study showed that cats might actually have something called photopic trichromatic vision. This basically means that cats may see a similar color spectrum to humans in daylight, but maybe not quite as vibrantly. So their world may appear more pastel-like than day-glo. There’s even studies into whether or not cats can see ultraviolet light! Since urine trails can be seen by animals with UV vision, this may be a reason cats house soil in the same spot over and over again.
While we may have cats beat on color vision, it’s not all bad for them. Cats are known to have many more rods in their eyes than people. Recall that the rods aid in night vision and light sensitivity. This is why cats can see so much better than we can in low or no light. Cats are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. Being able to discern color at these times isn’t as important as being able to see well in the poor lighting. Cats also have a wider field of vision than we do, spanning 200 degrees whereas people only have a field of vision spanning 180 degrees. Cats may have a wider field of vision to make up for the fact that their vision isn’t believed to be quite as sharp as ours is. In fact, they would be best described as nearsighted. While most people can see things in sharp detail up to 200 feet away, cats really can only see things sharply up to 20 feet.
Cats, like us, have front-facing eyes, giving them a larger portion of binocular vision as opposed to uniocular vision. Binocular vision is what allows for depth perception, which is an important adaptation for being able to catch prey.
Effects of Color Blindness on Cats
Since we don’t fully understand what kind of vision cats actually have - dichromatic versus photopic trichromatic - it’s hard to discern the extent of their color vision and what limitations may exist. While some purport that cats don’t react to toys if they are a color they can't see, such as red or yellow, not being able to discern a specific color is far different than not being able to see at all. A red toy may not appear red to your cat but they will still be able to see it and they may still play with it.
Variation in Color Blindness in Cats
Whether cats have dichromatic vision or photopic trichromatic, they likely don’t see the visible light spectrum the same way that we do. The inability to discern these certain colors, however, is normal for cats. That being said, it is possible that some cats may have an even more limited color vision. Red green color blindness, yellow blue color blindness, and monochromatism are all inheritable traits in humans. Cats may have a similar, inheritable trait that further limits their color vision but this has not been documented at this time.
Testing Color Vision in Cats
As previously mentioned, cats can’t take color blindness tests like people. That being said, cats certainly can have favorite toys and favorite beds and this may lead owners to suspect their preference is based on what colors they can (or cannot) see. However, they could love that toy or blanket for any number of reasons. There is no straightforward way to test a cat's color vision at this time, and that is a large part of why there still remain so many unknowns about what they actually see when it comes to colors.
Treatment For Color Blindness in Cats
Because color blindness in cats is normal for them, there’s no need for concern and nothing to treat. Any cat owner will tell you that their cat is not impeded by its limited color vision. In fact, cats have so many other special vision features that they often see things we don't.
Color Considerations for Cats
Cats may not see the visible light spectrum like humans, but for most cats, that certainly doesn’t impede their vision whatsoever. Most cats live a happy, healthy life, regardless of their ability, or inability, to see specific colors.
Are cats really color blind? Compared to the color spectrum we can see, yes. But that doesn’t mean they can’t see any colors at all. Should you only offer them toys and beds in the colors they can see? You might gravitate towards a specific cat toy in the store because of the color scheme it has, and even if your cat doesn’t see the toy's colors as you do, they can still enjoy their new toy just the same.
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