by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats look with their eyes and see with all their senses, instincts and experiences. Scientifically they have the ability to see limited colour but may not be able to distinguish between red and green; basically using little more than a slightly enhanced greyscale. Their vision is up to 6 times more blurred than ours. Cats need to translate the image they see using other senses and their instinct and experiences.
Do you sometimes wonder at the way your cat reacts to objects that we may consider innocuous or familiar? Something new, something moving, something in a different place or perhaps seen in a different light or from a different angle? It could be the way they see – or don’t see – items. Contrast is important to identifying objects that are in the same line of vision.
A dark object on a dark surface has no contrast; the surface and object are seen as one item which is different to the two individual objects and therefore ‘new’ and potentially dangerous. Our homes are far more crowded with objects that the natural habitat of cats which leads to more incidences of mis-identification. This can be seen when one cat is sleeping on a similar-coloured (to the cat) bed and another cat comes into the area. The sleeping cat is ‘invisible’ until it moves, giving the second cat a fright and potentially leading to an ‘aggressive’ attack.
The main purpose of their eyes is to see movement to facilitate hunting and identify threats. With eyes more to the side of their heads cats have a wider range of vision than us. They are able to pinpoint the source, calculate the distance and work out the best plan to catch prey while keeping it in view as it moves. Their eyes are good at this but not at definition; cats use smell and sound more than vision for identifying friends, enemies and prey.
Have you noticed when one cat returns from a stay at the vet the others in the house seem not to recognise him and treat him as a stranger? He looks just the same but smells different. If you change your hairstyle or clothing radically, wear sunglasses or change your deodorant your cat may not recognise you immediately even though you look basically the same.
Cats need less light than we do in order to see, so they can see in the dark. Actually, even cats need a small amount of light in order to see. They have a reflective surface at the back of the eye that has the effect of giving them more light; it is this that makes their eyes glow in the dark. Some cats have a white stripe below the eyes that could also serve to increase the effectiveness of this reflective light and give them a small extra advantage. This is more visible in leopard and cheetah than in the domestic cat.
The colour and shape of the eyes is not material to vision. Some eyes are round and some more oval. The vertical orientation of the pupil makes it easier and quicker to change size in response to changing light conditions.
Because of the position of the eyes in the head it is not possible for cats to see right under their noses – here they use their whiskers to feel and identify objects. They do have good side vision and can detect movements at quite a distance.
This, and seeing less detail, can mean that cats do not see water in some bowls. Stainless steel or plain coloured bowls make it difficult for the cat to see the level of the water and, as it has no smell, they do not drink it. When cats ‘play’ with water in a bowl it is often to determine the level of the water so they don’t put their faces too far into the water as kittens often do.
A cat may turn aggressive towards a feline friend in the mistaken belief that she is the intruder who has invaded the property, if there is sufficient resemblance. A cat looking through a gauze or net screen will have his vision obscured to the point where he may not even recognise the intruder as a cat, seeing only a patch of colour moving around his property. If this colour patch looks at all like his companion he may make the assumption they are the same cat and attack.
As cats age their eyesight may deteriorate so keep an eye out for cats who walk into furniture or whose eyes turn milky – it’s time to visit the vet. Blind cats and those with limited vision can lead a good and happy life in a controlled environment.
The question of colour perception remains a mystery but some cats are attracted to certain colours more than others. Some will sleep in places that camouflage them while other seek out contrasting colours as if to show off their glorious coats with confidence. Some prefer red, blue or yellow toys and blankets to any other colour.
Look at these photos artist Nickolay Lamm modified to create the view a cat would see compared to ours. The cats’ photos should be more blurred to be a truer representation – Fascinating photographs show what felines see better – and worse – than us.
To contact Barbara, please email firstname.lastname@example.org