The Mysterious Slits in Cats’ Eyes. Finally Explained


A cat’s eyes are one of its most unique and distinctive features. Unlike the eyes of most mammals, which are round, cat eyes have an almond or slit-like shape. This shape is created by a structure called the third eyelid, sometimes referred to as a nictitating membrane, which sits inside the eye. When open, the nictitating membrane narrows the pupil into a vertical slit.

This distinct eye shape sets cats apart and gives them excellent vision for hunting prey. While unusual among mammals, slit-shaped eyes are common among other predator species like reptiles and birds.

Anatomy of Cat Eyes

Cats have a number of unique anatomical features in their eyes that contribute to their exceptional vision capabilities.

The most noticeable is their vertically elongated pupil which forms a narrow slit when constricted. This shape allows cats to open their pupils very wide to let in more light in dark conditions, while still being able to constrict them to a very small size to control the amount of light entering the eye in bright conditions (1).

Cats also have a reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum behind the retina that bounces light back through the retina, essentially giving light a second chance to be detected by photoreceptors. This boosts cats’ ability to see in low light conditions (1).

In addition, cats have a high density of rod photoreceptor cells compared to humans. Rods are more sensitive to low light. The area of highest rod density, known as the visual streak, corresponds with the area of sharpest vision for cats (1).

Cats also have muscles that allow the lens to change shape quickly, allowing them to switch focus between near and far objects rapidly. Their elliptical shaped pupils further assist their ability to focus on close objects (1).

Their eyes are positioned on the front of the face, providing excellent binocular vision and depth perception. A third eyelid, the nictitating membrane, helps protect the eyes and keep them moist (1).

With these specialized adaptations, cat eyes are optimized for hunting at night.


Evolutionary Origins

Cats are predators that evolved as efficient nocturnal hunters. Their eyes developed key adaptations over time to help them see and catch prey in low light conditions (cite url here). One of the most important adaptations was the development of vertical slit pupils, which allowed cats to open their pupils very wide at night to let in more light, while closing them down narrow during the day to control light intake.

This slit pupil shape likely evolved around 20-25 million years ago when early cats split off from other carnivorans and adapted to hunting small prey at night (cite url here). The vertical slit helps cats focus on and accurately judge distances to small, fast moving objects like mice or birds in dim environments. It gives them an important visual edge over their prey.

Over many generations, natural selection favored cats with pupil shapes, retinal tissues, and other traits that improved their ability to see, stalk, and ambush prey in darkness. This explains why present-day cats like lions, tigers, leopards, and domestic cats all share this distinctive feline eye anatomy.

Night Vision

Cats have excellent night vision due to adaptations in their eyes that allow them to see well in low light conditions (Purina, n.d.). Cats have a high concentration of rod cells in their retinas, which are more sensitive to light than cone cells. Rod cells allow cats to see shapes and movement in very low light. Cats also have a reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum behind their retinas that reflects light back through the retina, essentially giving light a second chance to stimulate rod and cone cells (Daily Paws, 2020). This boosts cats’ ability to see in darkness. Additionally, cats’ pupils can open very wide to allow more light into the eyes. All of these adaptations give cats excellent night vision and the ability to hunt and navigate effectively in low light conditions.

Depth Perception

Cats have excellent depth perception thanks to their slit-shaped pupils. The vertical slit pupils allow cats to accurately judge distance when pouncing on prey or leaping between surfaces (Meowtel). Having slit pupils gives cats a larger depth of field and panoramic vision to accurately determine how far away an object is.

The slit pupils constrict the incoming light into two streams, which allows each eye to receive a slightly different image. The cat’s brain then combines these two images to create a 3D perspective and precisely pinpoint locations in space (Eyevet). This enhanced depth perception gives cats an evolutionary advantage as predators.

In contrast, cats do not have good static depth perception like humans. Their depth perception works best when heads are moving. But when hunting and leaping, the slit pupils provide excellent dynamic depth perception and 3D vision.

Field of View

Cats have a much wider field of view compared to humans. While humans see about 180 degrees around them, cats can see up to 200 degrees ( This allows them to better detect motion and potential threats approaching from the sides or behind. Cats also have a greater range of peripheral vision than humans, which contributes to their wide field of view.

The wide field of view comes from the shape of a cat’s eyeball and cornea. Their eyes are more oval shaped than human eyes, allowing light to enter from wider angles. Their retina also contains a high concentration of rod cells, which are more sensitive to low light and motion. This gives cats excellent night vision and ability to detect movement across a wide field of view (

In summary, the wide field of view cats possess allows them to better spot potential threats and hunt prey across a large visual area, especially in low light conditions.

Seeing Motion

Cats are excellent at detecting fast and subtle movements due to the high number of rods in their eyes. Rod cells are primarily responsible for peripheral vision and motion detection in low light. While humans have about 120 million rods, cats have 200 million rods per eye, allowing them to pick up on the slightest motions, even in near darkness.

The structure of the cat eye also assists with spotting movement. Their pupils open wide to let in more light, and their slit-shaped pupils give cats exceptional peripheral vision for noticing motion coming from the sides or edges of their field of view. According to this source, cats have a field of view spanning 200 degrees compared to 180 degrees in humans.

Cats can detect movement at a distance of up to 200 feet, even if the object is moving as slowly as 1 inch per second. Their visual cortex has special neurons called “movement sensitive cells” that respond to changing light levels. As an object moves across the cat’s visual field, the image falls on different rods and cones, alerting the cat to movement.

This heightened motion sensitivity assists cats when hunting small, fast prey like rodents, birds, and insects. It also acts as an early warning system for nearby threats. Cats rely on detecting motion to stay aware of their surroundings and keep themselves safe.

Color Vision

Cats do not see color as vividly as humans do. Their color vision is limited compared to humans. Cats have only two types of color receptors (called cones) in their eyes, which allow them to see blue and green shades. Humans have three types of cones, which allows us to see the full spectrum of color including reds, greens, and blues.

This means cats can distinguish between blue, green, and yellow shades, but reds, oranges, purples, and browns all appear as shades of green to a cat. So their world consists mainly of blues, greens, grays, and shades in between. (Source 1, Source 2)

The limited color vision of cats is one reason they are especially attracted to objects that are moving since motion stands out more than color variations. Their inferior color vision also explains why cats have such excellent night vision – they rely more on shape and movement than colors to see. Overall, the reduced color spectrum cats perceive simplifies visual information and allows them to focus on subtler motions and shapes to spot prey.

Protecting Cat Eyes

A cat’s eyes are delicate and can easily get injured, so it’s important for cat owners to take steps to protect their cat’s vision and eye health. Some tips include:

Regular vet checkups – Cats should receive annual eye exams by a veterinarian to check for issues like cataracts, glaucoma, and retinal disease. Vets can prescribe medication or suggest surgery if needed.

Limit eye irritants – Keep litter boxes clean and avoid using heavily scented litters, which can irritate a cat’s eyes. Don’t let cats near toxic plants, chemicals, or smoke that could damage their eyes.

Watch for signs of eye injury – If a cat is squinting, rubbing its eyes excessively, or has discharge coming from the eyes, it could signal a problem requiring veterinary attention.

Limit UV exposure – Just like humans, cats’ eyes can be damaged by too much ultraviolet light. Keep cats indoors during peak sunlight hours. Optivizor eye shields can also protect cats when outside.

Wipe eyes gently – To clean eye discharge, use a soft, damp cloth and gently wipe from the inner corner outward. Don’t use harsh cleaners.

Inspect toys – Make sure cats don’t have access to toys with parts that could poke their eyes. Avoid laser pointers, which can cause eye damage if shone directly into cats’ eyes.

By monitoring cat eye health and minimizing exposure to irritants and injuries, owners can help keep their cats’ eyes healthy and vision sharp.


In summary, cats have uniquely shaped eyes with slit-like pupils and other special adaptations that allow them to see well in low light and detect motion very effectively. Their pupils can open wide to let in more light and their retinas have more rods than humans to enhance night vision. Cats can’t see color or details as well as humans, but their eyes are optimized for the hunting lifestyle of their ancestors. The vertical slit shape helps cats judge distances and see in 3D. Overall, the feline eye is an amazing example of evolution tailoring a specialized visual system for a carnivorous predator.

Key takeaways include:

  • Slit pupils and reflective tapetum help cats see in darkness.
  • More rods than cones allow excellent night vision but poorer color vision.
  • Vertical slit shape gives cats better depth perception.
  • Cats see motion very well to detect prey.
  • Wide field of view helps cats spot threats while remaining focused forward.
  • Cat eyes evolved for optimized hunting and survival.

In the end, the unique structure of feline eyes allows cats to thrive as effective nocturnal hunters.

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