A common belief is that cats can see in the dark. It’s an easy rumor to believe, since many of us see our cats as magical creatures with extraordinary super powers. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely true and holding onto that belief can actually cause behavioral problems in your cat.
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I say it’s not “entirely” true because, while cats cannot see in complete darkness, they can still see much better than we can in semi-darkness. In fact, their ability to see at night is much better than most animals. Since cats are naturally nocturnal, their sharp eyes help them hunt and explore at night when the rest of the world is sleeping.
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There are several reasons why cats can see so well in dim light:
- Cats have disproportionately large eyes for the size of their heads.
- Cat can open the irises of their eyes very wide, allowing them to let in as much light as possible.
- Animals (including humans) have two major types of light-sensitive cells that make up their retinas (the backs of the eyes). These two types of cells are called rods and cones. Rods magnify light, which helps animals see at night. We all have rods, but cats have many more than we do. In human eyes, 4 out of 5 of the retina’s light sensitive cells are rods, but in a cat’s retinas a whopping 25 out of 26 are rods!
- Cats (along with some other animals like raccoons and deer) also have a mirrored layer in the backs of their eyes called the tapetum lucidum. This reflective area gives light a second chance to hit the retina’s light sensitive rods.
- Your cat’s whiskers, which are very sensitive, are able to pick up the slightest changes in the environment.
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While cats are incredible animals with a truly impressive ability to see in dim light, we can do a great injustice to them when we don’t respect their limitations. Because of the belief that cats can see in the dark, many well-meaning cat parents hide litter boxes away in dark closets. With no light source, the extra rods in your cat’s eyes have nothing to magnify and will keep her just as blind as you’d be in the closet. Just imagine the anxiety a cat must feel when she can’t find the litter box or doesn’t feel safe using it because she can’t see well enough to know if she’s about to be gobbled up by a predator that’s lurking in the dark. That anxiety and fear can cause a cat to create her own litter box in a location she deems safer or more accessible– perhaps under the kitchen table or in one of your new running shoes.
The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to relocate your litter box from the closet or basement, as long as your cat is using it just fine during the day. It can be good enough to add a night light nearby to give her a little help in the dark.