Can Cats See TV?

How many times have you left the room during a commercial break only to return to find your cat staring intently at the show you were watching? It's no surprise that our cats love to watch things – they watch us as we go about the house and they watch out the window, but it's always surprising to find how intently they watch television.

We know that while their vision and perception don't work the same way, dogs also like to watch TV. Dogs see the moving images on the TV differently, and they don't quite see color in the same way we do, and yet some of them really like to stare at it. Are cats the same way? Do they actually see or understand what's on TV, or is it all just a blur to them? It turns out, the answer is somewhere in between – cats do see something on TV, but it's very different from what we see.

Cats see colors differently, both in real life and on TV

British shorthair Cat wearing a unicorn horn
credit: anniepaddington/RooM/GettyImages

When we're talking about vision and how eyes work, two important pieces of the puzzle we need to understand are the cones and the rods. Cones are the part of the eye the picks up and processes colors. Humans have more cones than cats do, so we see colors better than they do. While we're pretty sure that cats don't see in black and white that as some rumors suggest, but they don't see nearly as many colors as we do.

Scientists believe that a cat's vision would look like a desaturated photograph. The colors are still there, but many of them, particularly the reds, are desaturated. So when a cat watches the vibrant, carefully balanced colors on a movie or TV show, they're probably not appreciating all the colorful nuance. So it's a good thing that our cats aren't giving out any cinematography awards.

Cats see at a faster rate than humans do, so TV flickers in their eyes

Cat in front of game controller looking at TV
credit: Benjamin Torode/Moment/GettyImages

Our eyes process images at a certain rate, and humans process images at a rate of about 45 Hz. So when our TVs show images at 60 Hz, we see that as a continuous image. However, cats process images at a faster rate – about 70-80 Hz – so their brains are moving faster than the TV. Because of that, our cats see the TV flickering, where we see a solid picture.

However, while the thought of a cop show flickering for an hour might give a person a headache, it actually might intrigue our pets. Cats stare at the TV in part because the flickering images hold their attention.

Cats can see in the dark, so the glow of the TV may be blinding.

Scottish Fold
credit: Nico De Pasquale Photography/Photodisc/GettyImages

While cats don't have as many cones in their eyes as humans do, they have many more rods. The rods in the eyes are responsible for shades of gray, peripheral vision, brightness, and night vision. A wealth of rods in their eyes gives cats far superior vision in the dark, which makes sense because cats' ancestors hunted at night.

Because they see so much better at night, the TV screen would likely appear much brighter to a cat than to a human. Not only is the TV flickering, but it would also appear as if the brightness were through the roof.

Cats can also hear the TV, so it's not just the picture they find captivating

Cat Reaching for Bird on Television
credit: Rebecca-Arnott/iStock/GettyImages

Obviously, TV is a visual medium, but we can't discount the sound as a part of the overall experience. We don't talk as much about cats' hearing, but it's incredibly impressive. Cats can pinpoint sounds in a way that humans and even dogs can't, so when felines hear what's on TV, they are likely as captivated by the sound as they are by the images.

Your cat's captivation with whatever is on TV can be a problem. Cats are natural hunters, so they may get the idea that what's on TV needs to be hunted. So perhaps keep an eye on your cat when it's watching TV in case it decides to get a little too real with the screen.

So you can let them watch TV, but maybe keep an eye on them to make sure things don't get out of hand.