I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard pet parents say, “Dogs and cats only see in black and white.” So what’s the scoop? Can dogs and cats see colors and, on a similar note, can they watch your favorite television shows with you?

What a colorful world

Humans have lots of specialized light receptors in the back of the eye called cones. Cones let us tell red from blue, green from yellow and the entire rainbow of colors as we know it. We have three types of cones while dogs have fewer, so they aren’t able to perceive as many pigments. Cats also have three cones, but for some reason they don’t see the same colors we do.

What dogs and cats lack in cones, they make up for in rods, special cells in the retina that allow for super amazing night and peripheral vision. So to sum it up, humans see more colors while dogs and cats see the world a bit wider and clearer in low-light conditions.

Taking hues

People see the rainbow as violet, blue, blue-green, green, yellow, orange and red. The long-held belief has been that our canine companions see it as dark blue, light blue, gray, light yellow, darker yellow (almost brown) and very dark gray. Basically, they see the colors of the world as yellow, blue and gray. This was documented in brilliantly conducted research by the clinical ophthalmologist Dr. Jay Neitz in 1989.

Cats seem to have poorer color vision, seeing shades of blue and green. Reds and pinks can blur greenish, and purples probably appear as a shade of blue. Despite decades of verified research, not all scientists were comfortable with this color scheme for cats and dogs.

To see or not to see

Many eye experts believed dogs and cats just detected changes in brightness, not color. Others said that dogs don’t rely on color for their daily activities, so why would they evolve to see colors in the first place? A team of scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences designed a clever canine color experiment to settle the debate of hue versus brightness once and for all. Their results weren’t all that illuminating.

Turns out, dogs can most certainly see in colors, at least blues and yellows as originally reported by Neitz. In the Russian study, scientists trained dogs to get a treat when shown four different colored pieces of paper – dark and light yellow, and dark and light blue. Next they introduced dark and light shades of new colors the dogs hadn’t been taught.

A significant majority of the dogs chose the colors they’d been shown before, not the new ones. This proves dogs use color to differentiate rather than brightness. But what about cats?

Research published in 2014 suggests felines, and perhaps dogs and other mammals, may be able to see the ultraviolet spectrum. In other words, while cats can’t appreciate the same colorful art as humans and canines, they may be tuning into another visual world altogether. Which brings us back to the question…

Can dogs and cats watch television?

Dogs and cats can probably curl up next to you and enjoy “The Secret Life of Pets,” especially if it’s in high definition (HD). The “HD” appears to make a big difference for our pets. Because dogs and cats are much more sensitive to spotting tiny movements, scientists have long suspected older TVs and computer monitors may appear jerky to our furry family members due to slow flicker rates (the time it takes to refresh the monitor or screen). New HDTVs have faster flicker rates and are probably more pleasing to your pet’s eyes.

What this means for you

The take-home message for pet parents is that dogs clearly see blues and yellows. Cats probably don’t see colors nearly as brightly as humans or canines, but they may be seeing things we can’t imagine. I’m always perplexed when I see bright, shiny red balls and toys made for dogs and cats. They must appear quite boring and tame next to a bright blue plaything.

Television programs and apps for pets should cater to a pet’s particular color spectrum, not favored human hues. Interesting sounds such as birds, wildlife and other dogs are more engaging for pets and should be a major part of the viewing experience. Keep the programs short, seconds not minutes, because pets are much more interested in the real world than a virtual one. In fact, my advice is to skip television and go for a walk or spend time playing together. Way more fun and healthy.

Nov 9, 2016
Pet Health

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