5 min.

Do cats see ghosts?

Your cat is sleeping peacefully next to the window when it suddenly wakes up and starts looking at the ceiling as though a bird has just come in through the window. But try as you might, you can’t see anything flying around in your living room.

Or, all of sudden, your kitty settles in and stares at a wall for minutes on end as though its favourite film (The Lion King!) is being projected there. Again, you look at the wall for some kind of sign, but in vain: you see nothing that explains its sudden interest.

A lot of people claim that a cat’s heightened senses enable them to see ghosts or spirits. But before coming to the conclusion that your feline is communing with Casper, let’s take a look at how a cat’s senses work to see what’s really going on.

How cats see

When a cat starts looking this way and that, we tend to think that they’re actively searching for something. In some cases, that’s true. Maybe they saw a reflection that was only there for a second or a fly that zipped past. But it’s worth noting that, though cats have excellent night vision, their day vision is far worse than ours.

In fact, they only see two colours—shades of blue and yellow—whereas we see three. And anything from five centimetres to eight metres in front of them will appear blurry. But, instead of a third colour, cats have night vision.

Cats are excellent predators. Their eyesight is very sharp in the centre of their field of vision—which enables them to focus on their targets—but blurry on the edges. So when they’re on the hunt, they never rely solely on their vision. They also make use of two other senses that are far sharper than ours: hearing and smell.

How cats hear

Our perception of the environment is very different from that of cats. Did you know that they can hear frequencies four to five times higher than we can? In fact, they have access to a range of ultrasounds that are inaudible to humans because of their high frequency.

So when your cat starts looking frantically in every direction for something that doesn’t appear to be there, it may not be looking for something but trying to identify where a sound is coming from. It could be a bat flying outside and emitting ultrasounds to guide it on its flight. If your cat often does this at the beginning of the summer, now you’ll know why!

Cats can hear a mouse walking in the grass more than 10 metres away. And we’re not talking about mice wearing tap shoes and scurrying across a hardwood floor. Imagine for a second the sound that a mouse would make in grass 10 metres from where you’re standing and you’ll get an idea of your cat’s ability to pick up on frequencies that are far beyond our auditory capabilities. This explains why cats sometimes stare at the living room wall. Maybe they hear a squirrel walking on the roof, another cat under the window, or a neighbour playing a musical instrument in a basement… with such sensitive hearing, just imagine what else they pick up on!

Not entirely convinced? Listen to this: in addition to cats having excellent auditory faculties, their ears are also specifically designed to detect where a sound is coming from. Humans can accurately identify the source of a sound within 20 degrees, whereas cats can identify it within 5 degrees, and determine the exact height of where it’s coming from—something that we just can’t do.

So, by moving their head and ears (as they do when they appear to see ghosts), cats are able to determine where a sound is coming from. This is made possible by the size and mobility of their ears, which act like those giant satellites used in spy films to overhear someone plotting a coup in the distance. Cats would make excellent secret agents if only they could speak. Imagine everything that they could tell you about your neighbours or your teenagers!