Everyone knows dogs have an incredible sense of smell. They can sniff out anything from food crumbs in the couch cushions to decreased glucose levels in their diabetic handlers. But when it comes to night vision, dogs have never been particularly well-known for their ability. Cats have always hogged the fanfare in that department.
Nonetheless, you’ve probably stared into those deep puppy pupils at one point and asked yourself: Can Dogs See in the Dark?
To put it simply: Yes. Dogs see very well in the dark! (But not as well as cats.)
It’s All In The Eyes
While dogs aren’t gifted with night vision superpowers, their eyes are equipped with light-sensitive rods in the retina that pick up more in dim light than our bumbling-in-the-dark human eyes.
Before dogs and humans became best friends, canines needed the ability to hunt prey in low-light situations. They largely lived a dawn-to-dusk crepuscular lifestyle, and these super-charged retina rods allowed that to happen.
Fast-forward to the present day, and dogs have still retained this evolutionary quirk. It explains why, while you might be feeling around for a light switch in the middle of the night, your dog can bolt out of the room and find their way just fine.
Big Pupils = More Light
They’re called puppy-dog eyes for a reason—those deep, expressive eyes have big pupils, which means that more light can enter the eye. More light entering the eye means better night vision, enabling dogs to make out shapes in the dark much more easily than humans.
No Cones, No Problem
Humans can see more colors than dogs because we have 3 types of cones1 (around six million in total) in our retinas. Dogs, on the other hand, only have two, and while they don’t just see in black and white, they’re limited to a few shades of blue, yellow, and gray. But what they lack in rainbow-spotting skills, they make up for with night vision.
No, it’s not a spell from Harry Potter. The tapetum licitum is a special tissue located behind the retina that humans don’t have, but dogs do2. It allows dogs to register more light, and works sort of the same way a camera does, reflecting light and amplifying it through the lens of the eye.
Because of this added vision bonus, dogs are able to zoom around in the dark and navigate much better than humans in low-light conditions.
So what have we learned? Dogs can see pretty well in the dark. Their eyes are stocked with light-sensitive rods and big pupils, which allow them to make out fuzzy images in darkness. While they can’t see as well as cats, they still have us beat when it comes to night vision.
Regardless, it might still be a good idea to keep a nightlight on for them instead of total darkness. No matter how advanced their light-sensing skills are, they still need some light in order to see.
1Coren, S. (2008, October 20). Can dogs see colors? Psychology Today. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/200810/can-dogs-see-colors
2University of Wisconsin – Madison. (2007, November 9). How Well Do Dogs See At Night?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 14, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071108140336.htm