Cows have excellent vision. They can see at night, and they have a huge field of view (they can see everywhere at once, except directly behind them), however, cows’ eyesight is lacking in a few areas compared to humans, including in the range of colors they can see.
Cows do not see in full color. Cows are red/green color blind, which means they can not perceive the difference between greens and reds, and instead see them as shades of brown. Cows also lack some depth and contrast perception.
In this article, we’re going to take a close look at cow eyesight and find out what the world looks like through a cow’s eyes. We’ll see how they perceive light and colors differently from humans, see some examples of the world in “cow vision”, and learn why cows are obsessed with shadows!
Can Cows See in Color?
Cows can see in color, but they don’t see the same range of colors as humans do. Cows are red/green colorblind, which means they lack a “red” color receptor in their retinas, instead only having green and blue receptors.
Effectively, this means cows see everything red as a shade of green or brown, and that cows have a reduced range of colors compared to humans.
Can Cows See Ultraviolet?
Cows can not see ultraviolet light. They can see some blue light, similar to humans, but struggle with purples or violets even in the visible light spectrum due to their lack of red light receptors.
Can Cows See Infrared?
Cows can not see infrared. Like all mammals, cows are warm-blooded, which would make detecting infrared light impossible since the heat from their bodies gives off infrared all the time.
The only animals who can see infrared are some cold-blooded reptiles, whose cold body temperature allows them to detect the infrared heat signatures of their warm-blooded prey.
Luckily, cows are prey animals and mostly eat grass.
Are Cows Color Blind?
Cows are red-green colorblind, which means they have difficulty perceiving the difference between reds and greens. This type of color-blindness is known as deuteranopia.
What Colors Can a Cow See?
Cows perceive green and red as different shades of the same brown color, and can not see all the same shades of blue and purple that humans can.
Here’s an example of the visible light spectrum in both “human” vision and “cow” vision, showing what colors a cow can see:
How Humans Perceive Visible Light
How Cows Perceive Visible Light
What Colors Can a Cow Not See
Cows can not see reds or greens, instead seeing both as shades of yellow/brown. In addition, since cows have no red color receptors, purple objects look blue to cows.
Do Cows See in Black and White?
Although cows are color blind, they are not completely color blind. Cows can see different shades of yellow/brown, and vivid blues as well as black, white, and shades of grey, which means they can pick out the colors of other cows, who are mostly black and white, or brown.
Do Cows Have Depth Perception?
Cows have two eyes, so they do have some ability to calculate depth, however, due to the positioning of their eyes on either side of their head, cows’ depth perception is not great unless they are looking directly forward.
Cows make up for this lack of depth perception by using their whiskers to help them forage without bumping their chin into the ground.
Examples of Cow Vision
Below are some photos of some typical bovine scenes, and an example of what the same scene would look like through a cow’s eyes.
These examples above show how a cow perceives color, however, they are not a fully accurate representation of a cow’s vision. This is because cows have a huge field of view (much wider than humans) and also are lacking in-depth perception.
Can Cows See Shadows?
Every farmer knows cows have a strange obsession with shadows. Some cows will refuse to enter a barn if there is a shadow “blocking” the entrance.
This is because cows can not perceive contrast as well as humans, meaning to a cow, a shadow might look identical to a deep hole in the ground.
So, cows can see shadows but they can’t always tell the difference between a dark shadow and a hole in the ground.
Can Cows See At Night?
Cows have a special reflective layer behind the backs of their eyes, which reflects light back through their retina a second time, allowing them to see in low light conditions.
Read more: Can Cows See in the Dark?
Why Do Cows Hate the Color Red?
Think of a Spanish bullfighter, and you probably think of him waving a red flag to enrage a bull. It’s common knowledge that cows and bulls hate the color red, right?
Actually, cows don’t hate the color red. In fact, cows can not even see the color red due to their lack of red color receptors in their retinas. Cows see all shades of red as a greenish-brown color.
In the case of bullfighting, the action of the waving flag is what angers the cow, and not specifically the color of the flag.
Can Cows See More Colors than Humans?
Cows can not see more colors than humans, since cows are partially colorblind. Cows can see vivid yellows and blues, but struggle to see reds and greens (both of which look brown to them) and violets/purples (which look blue).
To sum up, cows can see colors, but their range of colors is limited compared to that of humans.
Cows’ eyes are lacking a receptor for the color red, which means they can not perceive the difference between reds and greens, and that they can’t see any shades of any color which are partially composed of red light. (for example, purples appear as blue to cows)
In addition to their limited color vision, cows don’t have great depth perception and they can’t pick up on contrast differences as well as humans.
Both red and green appear as shades of brown to cows, although they can still see vivid yellows, blues, and black and white.
Even though cows can’t see the vivid green grass, being a cow isn’t all shades of brown. Take solace in the fact that cows can see the bright yellow dandelions that they love to eat so much, and quietly watch the white clouds float by in the blue sky while they eat them.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.