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How Cats and Dogs See the World

Take a quick flash picture of your dog or cat and their eyes will light up in a way that’s equal parts cool and unnerving. That eerie glow comes from a layer of their eyes called a tapetum and it reflects light to let our furry pals see small amounts of light much more efficiently than our human eyes. In fact, our pets sense the world we live in much differently than people do.

As children, many of us learned that cats and dogs are “colorblind” or see the world in “black and white”—but that’s not entirely true. “They [just] can’t see all the different colors that we can see,” says Katherine Houpt, a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine . “From what we can tell, they see the world in shades of blue and yellow.”

 From a physiology standpoint, the unique view comes down to types of light receptors in the eye itself. “Because dogs and cats are predators, they don’t have to be able to tell the difference between some similar shades,” Houpt explains. “As primates, we have to know whether that persimmon is ripe or not. We’re better at color discrimination in order to find the correct foods.” In other words, a grey rabbit is just as tasty as a brown one.

When it comes to clarity, humans also have an advantage over our domesticated pals. If a dog can make out an object from 20 feet away, a human can see it from 60 feet. The difference is even more pronounced for cats—what a cat can see from 20 feet, a human can see from 100 or even 200 feet out. Our pets aren’t built to process crystal clear images of the world around them.

The animals do have an advantage, however, when it comes to perceiving movement—a skill honed to help them catch their fast-moving food. While most cats and dogs have trouble spotting still objects very close to them, they can spot movement for up to a half-mile—even if it’s relatively subtle.

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