Like all things cat, the answer to this question is both simple and complex. Strictly speaking, no, your cat cannot see in total dark. In fact, no living being can, including those creepiest of creatures dwelling at the bottom of the ocean. Every animal needs light in order to see, but many need a lot less than you, and that’s why your cat (and those spine-tingly sea monsters) seem to be seeing in the dark. It’s only dark to you.
How much less light do cats need?
Once again, there’s a short answer and a long answer here (why are cats so dang mysterious?). The official answer to this is that cats need one-sixth the amount of light you need in order to see well enough to function normally and safely. Assuming you, like most people, are not innately aware of what one-sixth of a light level looks like, let’s put it this way: Not only is the light from your coffee maker’s clock enough for your cat to play in the kitchen, but the single red light from the power strip underneath your comfy chair is sufficient for your little night stalker to skillfully scale her cat tree and stalk the room below for any critters that may be scrambling about in the “dark.” And speaking of those unwelcome guests your kitty hunts at night, the reason she sees them so well isn’t just because she needs less light than you. She has other visual advantages.
Your cat’s primary visual advantage over your own, other than needing less light to see well, is a much greater perception of movement (hence, the superb hunting-in-the-dark, or even light). For this, the full explanation becomes a bit technical, but suffice it to say that cats have more rods in their eyes than humans, and one of the advantages of this is better motion detection. But when Mother Nature giveth with one hand, she taketh with the other, and more rods mean fewer cones for kitties, resulting in some pretty serious disadvantages in bright settings. While your ferocious feline can run circles around you at night, your eyesight is actually much better than his by day. While cats don’t suffer the same lame color spectrum as dogs (who don’t actually see only in black and white, but do have a seriously restricted range), they do see a much duller world than we do thanks, in great part, to their reduced stash of cones. Since cones function best in bright light, sacrificing vivid color is a necessary tradeoff for better night vision. Unfortunately for our four-legged friends, cones are also responsible for higher acuity, which means our little predators actually have pretty poor vision in the day and would all be wearing glasses if they were human. They’re all near-sighted but, interestingly, can’t focus on objects less than a foot away, either, because their eyes are so large.
Speaking of their striking eyes . . .
Cat eyes have always been hypnotizing features that have drawn plenty of attention. By day, they add spectacular splashes of color to an already elegant form, and by night they seem to glow with alarming hilarity. We’ve already acknowledged that cats’ eyes are quite large proportionally, but they have additional features that contribute to our fascination with them. In addition to the large lens and curved cornea that assist with night vision and a greater range of sight, their incredible scale of dilation is the most immediately apparent feature to our humble human eye. Because considerable light diminishes their vision, they’re able to almost fully constrict their pupils by day, leaving behind stunning saucers of color, and can almost fully dilate them at night, sporting eerily black eyes. Amusingly, this can also occur when they’re startled or confused (largely because they’re trying to get more environmental info to their brains), contributing to adorable and pitiful expressions. But most intriguing of all is that glow-in-the-dark feature most often seen in basements and photographs, and this comes from a little piece of anatomy you don’t have, the tapetum. This little layer sits behind the retina and reflects as much as 50% of its absorbed light back outward, giving the retina another crack at processing what’s in front of the eye. In the most simplistic terms, consider them like little built-in flashlights that many nocturnally active animals have, but humans do not. And now you know why glowing cat eyes seem to be shooting light beams at you in the dark: They essentially are.
Cool, but my cat is making huge messes at night. I think he’s having trouble seeing in the dark.
He’s not. It’s understandable that you might think your cat’s night vision is deteriorating or damaged because you’re starting to find nighttime disaster scenes that your little guy didn’t create in the past. This leads plenty of cat “owners” to believe their pets are crashing into things or misplacing objects because of poor vision, but that’s not the case. Even if your cat went completely blind (which would be just as true in the daytime as night), he has plenty of other remarkable faculties that would allow him to navigate his environment rather cleanly even without his vision. Though the exact science and use of whiskers is still a bit of a mystery, it’s certain they’re sensory devices that help cats detect details of their surroundings and give a distinct navigational advantage even to cats that are born blind. In addition, their stellar hearing makes them keenly aware of movement in their space, and their heightened sense of smell helps them locate food, a litter box, and even you (or each other) without requiring much from sight. If your cat is creating messes or having accidents at night, the culprit is not his vision, but is almost guaranteed to be emotional. If you’re actively spotting failed jumps or any form of physical clumsiness, it’s most likely happening just as frequently during the day, whether you see it or not, and the cause can be anything from joint pain to more serious biological changes, so please take your klutz to the vet ASAP.
Wow, I wish I could see what my cat sees!
Good news! You can. Kinda. In 2013, artist Nickolay Lamm created a series of side-by-side comparisons showing the same scenes as both the average human and average cat would see them, according to the input of scientists and veterinarians. Check them out!