Can Cats See in the Dark? Your Feline's Hidden Talents

Whether you've got a new kitten or you are an experienced cat owner, there's no denying our feline friends possess unique quirks—not least their nocturnal nature. But can they actually see what they're doing in the dark?

Just when their owners are heading to bed, cats often (inconveniently) spring into action. This trait is not designed to annoy us, though, but is a biological behaviour they have retained from their wild ancestors.

Cats are often said to have superior eyesight, as nighttime is the most opportune time to hunt—but how true is this?

Can cats see in the dark? Newsweek spoke to experts to determine more about your kitty's unknown abilities.

Can Cats See In the Dark?

The answer is yes and no.

"Contrary to popular belief, cats can't see in complete darkness," The International Cat Association (TICA) president Vicki Jo Harrison told Newsweek.

If you've ever wondered why your cat is just as startled as you when you bump into them at night, it's because although their vision is much better than humans', they still need a small amount of light to see.

Speaking to Newsweek, Pam Johnson-Bennett from Cat Behavior Associates explained: "Cats can't see in total darkness any better than we could, but they can see in conditions that we would probably consider too dark to see."

In fact, your feline will only need one sixth of the amount of light you would need for clear vision.

red maine coon cat with green eyes
Can cats see in the dark? The answer is more complicated than you may think. Shirlaine Forrest/Getty Images

Zazie Todd, Companion Animal Psychology and author of the forthcoming book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy told Newsweek: "If you look at your cat's eyes, you'll notice that they are very large, and that their pupils can vary a lot in size.

"Cats are able to open the pupils very wide in the dark and this lets more light in to the eye. In contrast, in bright light you'll notice that their pupils are often just tiny slits."

She continued: "As well, cats have a lot of a type of cell called rods in their retina. Rods are very sensitive and so they help cats to see more when there isn't much light."

Cats also possess "something called the tapetum lucidum behind the retina. This is made up of reflective cells."

The tapetum lucidum not only helps them see in the dark but explains why when you look at your cat at night you'll see their eyes shining back at you. These talents are especially helpful as cats are natural predators who, prior to being domesticated, would be hunting mice and dusk and dawn, when seeing well in low light is essential.

Cat's Meow Sounds

Cat's illusive personalities are just part of their charm. Unlike dogs they will only give humans attention on their own terms, however a recent study on cat behaviour took this further. Felines are not only aloof, but are actively trying to control our behaviour in order to get what they want!

Household cats can create an urgent-sounding, high-pitched meow that humans find impossible to ignore. This sound is actually a mix of a purr and a cry that cats evoke when they want to be fed or nurtured.

ginger kitten looks up
Studies show that some cats have special tactics they use to control their humans. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

"The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response," said Karen McComb of the University of Sussex.

"Solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing, which is likely to get cats ejected from the bedroom."

Previous research has also highlighted the similarity between the purr cry and a human infant's cry.

McComb suggested that cats take advantage of humans' ingrained sensitivity to cries associated with offspring.

Shapeshifting Pupils

If you've ever seen your cat take a flying leap around the corner, or pounce on an unsuspecting sock, you will be reminded of their natural urge to hunt.

Pam Johnson-Bennett said that a cat's pupil shape is actually related to how they stalk prey.

"Large wild cats like tigers and lions have round pupils. Smaller cats with vertical slit pupils are typically ambush predators," she said, "The vertical shaped pupils allow for quick changes in light and better accuracy in gauging distance before pouncing on prey."

Russian blue cat big eyes
Cat's vertical shaped pupils allow for quick changes in light and the ability to judge distances before pouncing on prey. Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images

Shock Absorbing Paws

The saying that cats always land on their feet may have some truth to it.

The outer layer of skin on the bottom of a cat's paw are much thicker than anywhere else. The pad of the back of the front paw helps your kitty break after leaping forward, while the other rounded pads act as shock absorbers to cushion landings from great heights.

Powerful Sense of Smell

Haven't seen the cat for hours and the minute you open a packet of food they appear as if by magic? This will be because of their super sensitive sense of smell.

Cats possess "40 times more odor-sensitive cells than a human nose," Harrison said.

"A cat's sense of smell is their most reliable tool for picking up vital information, even more than their sight when trying to assess their environment and is one of the best hunting tools."

Cat's Whiskers

Your cat doesn't need Google Maps as they have an inbuilt navigation system. Whiskers also serve as sensory tool and, contrary to popular belief, are not just around the nose.

Harrison said: "They're also above their eyes, ears, jaw and forelegs. Whiskers allow cats to sense vibrations used when hunting, sense approaching dangers, act as a built-in measuring tape, and help navigate."

"Whiskers are so sensitive that they do not have to touch an object for a cat to sense nearby movement. Whiskers are thicker than ordinary hairs, have deeper roots, and provide important sensory information."

Kitten with mouth open
Whiskers are not just above a cat's nose, they are also above their eyes, ears, jaw and forelegs. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Balancing Tail

Eyes may be the window to humans' souls but a cat's tail position can tell you a lot about your feline's mood. Tail wagging, for instance, is not a good sign.

Tails also serve a functional purpose. Harrison explained: "A feline's tail helps them balance themselves when climbing a tree or keeping lookout on the back of a sofa."

Cat Hearing Vs Human Hearing

Cats can hear 1.6 octaves above the range of a human and 1 octave above that of a dog. According to Harrison, their cone-shaped ears means they can pick up "sounds and movements up to five times farther than humans can."

This helps them "pinpoint the exact location of the source."

Bengal cat in the dark
Cats can't see in total darkness but they can see much better than humans. This is just one of your felines many talents which include superior hearing and a powerful sense of smell. Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images