Feline stereotypes hold that cats are semi-nocturnal creatures, able to slink around with great agility even when it’s pitch dark all around them. Anyone who’s seen a cat’s eyes appearing to glow in a darkened room could be forgiven for imagining that they can see in the dark without even a glimmer of light. While cats can’t really see if there’s no light at all, cats need very little light to see by and excel at navigating without sight.
Do cats need light at night? In most cases, no. A cat can see in very low light levels and is unlikely to suffer if you turn the lights out after dark.
You’ve landed on this page because you have questions about your cat… Maybe you want to know if your cat needs a night-light after dark. Maybe you’re concerned that your cat is becoming anxious or may injure herself trying to run around the house when the lights are out.
- How much light do cats need?
- Is it safe for a cat to walk around in the dark?
Keep reading to learn more about the fascinating night-life of the cat.
Do cats need light at night?
The shortest and most general answer is “no”. Cats do need some light to see but they don’t need nearly as much as we do. A cat’s eyes are so sensitive that they need only one-sixth the amount of light as we do. Their eyes are amazingly adaptable and can see in light levels that would leave a human blundering around without any vision at all.
A cat’s vision is very different from a human’s. They have less acuity, with objects looking blurry unless they’re very close by. A cat’s color perception is also less acute than humans, meaning that cats see a washed-out and unsaturated version of the world with fewer red hues. The trade-off is that they have a much broader field of vision, able to see 200 degrees around them as opposed to our mere 180. They also have incredible sensitivity to movement, picking up even subtle movements very easily. This is part of what makes them such fearsome hunters.
A cat’s eyesight really comes into its own after dark. A cat’s night vision is incredible. In light levels where a human can barely pick out even the vaguest outlines, a cat can see clearly. She can easily avoid obstacles and hazards, as well as spotting her prey. The pupil (the black part of the eye) can narrow tightly in bright daylight, shutting out unnecessary light. In the darkness, a cat’s pupil opens very wide to make the most of every glimmer of light. A cat’s eyes are so sensitive and so responsive to light that in medieval Japan, the shape of cats’ pupils was sometimes used to tell the time.
As well as their highly adaptable pupils, a cat’s eyes also have a special layer behind the retina called the tapetum. This layer is highly reflective. It throws back part of the light hitting it so as to maximize the amount of light available to the cat. The tapetum is what gives cats’ eyes their familiar glow.
After dark, it’s fine if you turn the lights out when you go to bed. Unless you live in an unusually remote locale or block your windows with heavy curtains, there will be enough residual light from outside to allow your cat to navigate the in the darkness. If there really aren’t any other light sources, you might want to offer a small nightlight just to make life a little easier for her. Typically, though, most homes have several light sources: your cat can probably see reasonably well in the light from the clock on your microwave or the indicator on a power strip.
Even in situations where she’s plunged into utter darkness, a cat can still navigate very effectively. Her whiskers aren’t just for decoration — they’re a finely-tuned sensory organ that easily picks up the presence of objects in her way. Cats who are born or become completely blind easily adjust to finding their way around using their whiskers and their wonderfully acute hearing. A cat also has an excellent sense of smell, meaning that she’ll have no problem finding her water or food dishes or her litter-box after dark.
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My cat cries if I leave her in the dark when I go to bed. Why is that?
There are a number of reasons why a cat might fuss after you turn the lights out and go to bed. One is simply for attention. It’s not the dark that’s the problem, just the lack of companionship. If you don’t have any pressing reason to make her stay outside your room, you might consider simply letting her come and sleep with you; some cats are very bad at this, however, and if she’s apt to disrupt your sleep it’s fine to make her stay outside. Try to resist the temptation to get up and deal with her when she fusses — you’re just rewarding the behavior. If leaving the light on help, then do that; it’s not necessary for vision but some cats seem to find it reassuring. It may be that they associate the light with your presence and feel better while it’s on.
The best way to tackle a cat who gets anxious or over-active at night is to make sure she gets plenty of energetic and mentally stimulating play during the day. All cats need to burn off their nervous energy during the day if they are to settle down at night. Before bedtime, spend at least 15 minutes playing chase games with your cat. Use a teaser toy to get her attention and persuade her to run after it. If you’re not very mobile, you can opt for one of the fishing-pole teasers, the kind that has a bundle of feathers on a string at the end of a rod. This is the kind I like because it lets me sit on the sofa and make my cats run around without having to put much effort into myself. If your cat doesn’t take an interest in conventional teaser toys, try getting her to chase a long spoon with a dab of food on the end.
I like to schedule playtime just before my cats’ supper, and supper just before bed. That way, the cats can burn off any anxiety or high spirits and relax with a full belly when it’s time for lights out.
My cat really doesn’t like to be in the dark. What should I do?
While your cat shouldn’t need extra lighting, some do a little better with a comforting light source to remind them that their human is around and hasn’t left them alone. If you’ve tried scheduling playtime and doing everything else you can think of to make sure your cat is properly worn out before bed and yet still fusses, you could set up a nightlight for her. Leaving the main light burning isn’t necessary. A simple LED lamp won’t cost very much to run or produce a lot of intrusive bright light. You could also set up a wind-up lantern or a solar lamp; that way, you won’t waste money on electricity and the lamp will be useful in emergencies.
If your cat tends to become destructive after being left alone in the dark, this is a sign of anxiety. Make sure she has lots of attention before bed and provide things to distract her from her problem behavior. Make sure she has a good solid scratching post and plenty of toys, especially interactive toys.
If your cat seems to be having trouble seeing in the dark, she might have an eye disorder that’s affecting her night vision or something else that’s impairing her perception. A cat who is stumbling into obstacles probably has some medical issue that needs investigating, since her hearing and whiskers should prevent that from happening. If your cat is falling off things or tripping up, it might not be the darkness that’s the problem. Something could be affecting her balance or her vision. Trips, falls and collisions can also be due to issues such as muscle weakness, pain or some kind of injury.
You can give your cat a quick check-up yourself. Watch how she moves sheen she’s not in the dark; look for limping, staggering or falling down. When you pet or groom her, keep an eye open for blood, red or inflamed skin or swollen areas on her limbs or body. Check her eyes for signs of redness, cloudiness or swelling. Look in her ears for signs of over-grooming — bald patches and redness — as well as checking for blood or discharge. This can be a sign that she has an ear infection or an injury to her ear that is compromising her balance. This could be what is causing her to stumble into things or fall off the back of the chair rather than the light levels in the room. Take her to the vet for a check-up to make sure nothing’s wrong.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.