Can cats understand television?

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Feathered wands, stuffed mice and your unsuspecting ankles may be your cat’s usual pastime, but have you ever seen them glued to the TV? If not the TV, how about your laptop, tablet or cell phone screen? Cats aren’t as screen-obsessed as humans, but many cat owners say their cats enjoy watching programs and staring at screens. The question is, do cats understand TV?

Do they watch TV the same way we do? Do they realize that what they are watching doesn’t actually exist? These are difficult questions to answer without talking to a real cat, but science points us in a particular direction of understanding. Here’s what we know about cats and TV.


Cats and Color

One of the first things we wanted to know was whether cats can see a TV screen in the same way we do. Unless they are watching vintage movies or TV shows, their TV experience is accompanied by color. Whether cats see color in the same way as humans is debatable. What we do know is that cats have fewer cones in their eyes than humans. These cones allow us to see color.

The fact that cats have a smaller number of cones means that the cat’s eye is probably not able to see colors as clearly as the human eye. Most scientists believe that in the cat’s eye, the world is less saturated and darker than it really is. Cats also seem to be able to see certain colors better than other animals.

In other words, when you see bright colors on your TV screen, a cat may see things a little differently. We can assume that in a cat’s understanding, the colors of a television program are almost identical to the world around it, while vivid nature programs lack the inherent brilliant colors.

It has been scientifically proven that the human eye processes images at a frequency of about 45 HZ. This means that as long as the images are moving at least that fast, our brain can convert them into a smooth scene. Modern television shows images at about 60 HZ, so we can see our favorite actors moving as smoothly as they do in reality.

However, cats process images much faster than humans. Their eyes and brains work at about 70-80 HZ. Because their brains work much faster than the TV, most of the time they see a series of disjointed images flashing on the screen. This is very different from the way we view images on a screen, but that doesn’t mean cats don’t like it. Flickering images can be very engaging, which is probably why many cats at least act as if they can read television.

Cats are farsighted

Cats are good at picking up on the slightest movement, but their eyesight isn’t as good as one might think. In fact, cats are considered farsighted. They can’t focus well on objects or images directly in front of them, but their vision improves when they look at objects farther away. In other words, how well your cat watches TV depends on the distance between you and your cat. If they are directly above the TV, their vision will likely be blurred.

In addition, cats do not have what is called a retinal fossa. This small part of the retina allows humans to see the details of objects. Without this part of the retina, a cat’s vision is greatly diminished. Even with the best high-definition TVs, cats can’t see the screen clearly.


Even considering all we know about feline vision, we can’t be sure that cats watch TV the same way we do. Cats look at screens with different details and colors, but they still seem to pay attention. The ever-changing images, light, and especially sound are enough to pique a cat’s curiosity.

Whether cats think the images on the screen are two-dimensional or whether they think those people, animals and objects are actually in the living room, we don’t know. If you’ve ever seen a cat on TV swatting at a bird or chasing an off-screen animal and then looking around, the cat may think it’s real. However, it’s not clear if the cat thinks it’s real or if it thinks it’s some kind of video game.

If you’ve never noticed your cat staring at a TV or other screen, don’t worry. There is nothing wrong with their vision or cognitive function. There is evidence that cats that are particularly predatory or bored are more likely to pay attention to the TV than other cats.

Whether or not cats actually understand television, we should be careful about indulging their curiosity. Many screens have already been destroyed by overzealous cat claws.

Amber King.

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