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Are dogs colorblind? Basics of canine vision

Dog Looking Outside

Your initial assumption when you hear that dogs are considered colorblind may be that they can only see the world around them in black and white. What a sad way to go through life! Recent research, however, has found that our canine companions can, in fact, see colors, but their world looks much different than ours. What does your pup see? How does their vision differ from ours?

Table of Contents

Do dogs see color?

The idea that our furry friends can’t see color was widely accepted for decades, notes the American Kennel Club. We now know that while dogs can’t see the same colors that humans can, pups can still see some colors. Research conducted at the Neitz Color Vision Lab at the University of Washington now shows that a dog’s color vision is similar to that of a person with red-green color blindness. This means that they can’t distinguish red from green light.  

While humans have three kinds of color-detecting photoreceptors called cones, dogs, like most other mammals, only have two kinds of cones in their retinas. As dogs’ eyes are structured in a similar way to those of humans with red-green color blindness, both red and green light has a neutral effect on the neuron in the retina. Experts at Live Science note that with no signal to interpret red and green colors, dogs’ brains do not perceive any color at all when looking at red and green objects.  

Where we see red and green, our pups likely see shades of gray. However, VCA Animal Hospitals points out that dogs are also less sensitive to variations in shades of gray than humans are. And it’s not just shades of gray—dogs are not as sensitive to changes in brightness, meaning that they do not have the ability to perceive color in the rich, vibrant tones that we do. On average, dogs are only about half as sensitive to changes in brightness as humans are.

What do dogs see?

We now know that dogs see the world in fewer hues than we do. So, what can they see? According to AKC, dogs can make out yellow and blue, as well as any combination of these colors. This is fairly limiting and means that a lot of the rest of the world appears grayish-brown to our furry friends. This may help explain why some dogs go crazy over yellow tennis balls but are indifferent about the same ball in red. 

It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around what the world may look like to our dogs. According to experts at VCA Animal Hospitals, the color red appears dark brownish-gray or black to dogs. While yellow, orange, and green all look some version of yellow, purple likely appears nearly indistinguishable from blue.  

Sharpness and distance

We know that the nose of a dog is incredibly more powerful than that of a human. But that doesn’t mean that all dog senses are superpowered. According to researchers at Linköping University in Sweden, dog vision lacks some of the sharpness that humans have. Canine vision is not as acute as human vision—dogs tend to be fairly nearsighted, and unable to see clearly at greater distances. The same Swedish study conducted in 2017 found that, in well-lit conditions, dogs have between approximately 20/50 and 20/75 vision. To put this into perspective, this means that your pup would have to stand 20 feet away from an object to see it as clearly as you could see it while standing 50 feet away from the object. 

Motion

Although our furry friends have limited abilities to see a full range of colors and see clearly at further distances, dogs have a keen ability to visually detect motion. Live Science notes that dogs can spot moving objects, even from significant distances, much more quickly and accurately than people can. In addition, dogs’ eyes are set more on the sides of their heads, enabling them to have more advanced peripheral vision than we do. 

Light

As we previously mentioned, dogs have fewer cone receptors in their retinas than humans do, making it difficult for them to differentiate certain colors. What they lack in cones, however, they make up for in rods. The second type of photoreceptor found in the retina in addition to cones, rods are responsible for detecting light and dark. Whereas cones (and human vision) work best in bright daylight, rods perform best in low-light conditions. Put simply, with more rods in their retinas, dogs have better night vision than humans do. 

According to a 2014 study published in The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, many dog breeds also have a special eye layer, known as the tapetum lucidum, that bounces light back toward their retinas. This effectively magnifies the light that reaches the rods, strengthening pups’ night vision abilities. The tapetum lucidum is thought to be what causes dogs’ eyes to glow or reflect a blue-green when light shines on them in the dark. 

All about evolution

Although their night vision, similar to their daylight vision, is fairly blurry, dogs’ acute light- and motion-detecting abilities are likely thanks to their crepuscular nature. Animals that are considered crepuscular are most active during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk. Compared to humans, dogs have an enhanced ability to see in low-light and night settings and are better at detecting motion. AKC points out that evolution and function have likely driven these differences—as twilight hunters, dogs have historically needed to see well in the dark and be able to catch even the slightest hint of movement. In the wild, these strengths help dogs both stay safe from predators and hunt their prey effectively. 

Dogs’ vision is very different from that of humans. In many ways, what they see is a much more boring, duller view of their environment. But there are evolutionary explanations for these differences, and your pup seems pretty happy at the sight of their favorite toy regardless of what color it is, right? 

Any health or medical information in ElleVet blogs is from a variety of public and reputable sources. This information is intended as an educational resource only is not a substitute for expert professional care. 

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