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Can your dog see in color or does he only see in black and white?

By Jennifer Nelson
March 12, 2021
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That lush green lawn, the bright orange ball, you dressed in your purple sweats? Yeah, your dog doesn't see any of those brilliant colors. For many years, people thought dogs saw only in black and white, like an old movie, but that's not the case either.

"Dogs can see in color but not like people can," says Dr. Sara Ochoa, vet consultant for doglab.com and a small and exotic animal veterinarian in Texas. "The two main colors that dogs see are blue and yellow," she says.

Why Can't Dogs See More Colors?

Rods and cones that are found in both your dog's eyes, and, of course, your dog's eyes are what determine what he can see. Rods help with levels of light and motion where cones are responsible for color.

"Humans have trichromatic vision, meaning that we have three cone photopigments," explains Dr. Michelle Lugones, a veterinarian at Best Friends Animal Society. Dogs only have two cone photopigments so they can't tell red from green. "Their vision is similar to how people who are color-blind see," says Dr. Lugones.

"It's the lack of cones in their eyes that keeps them from having as colorful vision as humans do," says Dr. Ochoa.

What Do Dogs See Compared to People?

Humans are primates, and primates in the wild need good depth perception, sharp vision, and the ability to see a range of colors to safely climb trees and select the ripest berries. Dogs, on the other hand, evolved from wolves who are nocturnal hunters. Their eyes are designed to work best at night.

If it seems like your dog sees just fine, you're right. Humans can see more vivid colors and see them brighter than dogs do, but dogs can see much better in low light. They can even identify objects moving at higher speeds and from further away than we can.

"While compared to humans, dogs don't see as many colors and must be closer to an object to see it as well. However, they can see better in the dark, detect movement better, and have a larger visual field," says Dr. Lugones.

Want to help your dog see their stuff even better? Buy blue and yellow balls and toys!

Dogs Make Up For Their Lack of Color Vision

But don't feel sorry for your dog just yet. Dogs have senses that are almost incomprehensibly more powerful than our own, explains Dr. Georgina Ushi Phillips, medical director of a central Florida-based pet urgent care.

"When it comes to hearing, dogs can hear sounds up to 60,000 Hz while we can only hear up to 20,000 Hz. Dogs can also hear roughly four times the distance of humans."

What's more, dogs are famous for their powerful sense of smell. Humans have around 5 million scent receptors while dogs have up to 300 million. "That's 60 times more powerful than our sense of smell," says Dr. Phillips.

While we use color to interpret the world, dogs can use their powerful sense of smell and hearing to make up for any gaps caused by a lack of color vision.

Your dog probably won't pass a driver's vision test, but hey, that's what they have you for.