Designing stress-reducing spaces for the care of animals means understanding how animals will respond to certain environments, and that means understanding how they perceive those environments through their different senses.
Scent, sound, touch, and vision are the main ways animals perceive their world. How does the vision of dogs and cats differ from our own, and how can we create spaces that are visually relaxing for them?
Here is what we know for sure, so far, about pet vision and color preference:
- Dogs are dichromatic which means they cannot see colors in the orange or red range due to eye anatomy. Red looks dark brown to them, and they have trouble distinguishing greens from yellows and blues.
- Cats are trichromatic but have the same issue as dogs; they really don’t see orange and red because they have traded color vision for superior night vision.
- Dogs and cats are “blue shifted” AA terminology, meaning that they see slightly into the UV spectrum. The widely cited paper about the ultraviolet range is below in the following link:
The spectral transmission of ocular media suggests ultraviolet sensitivity is widespread among mammals | Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (royalsocietypublishing.org)
Below is an image translated to show what dogs see. It is understood that cats also see into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum and also have trouble distinguishing colors close to red and yellow, so this image is likely somewhat similar for cats.
- Dogs and cats are unable to distinguish nearly as much in bright light as people can. This is called visual acuity. Our visual acuity is measured by reading the eye chart at the optometrist’s office.
- However, cats and dogs have many more rods in their retina than people, allowing much more light in at night which makes their vision superior in low light and in the dark.
- There was one study done by a UC Davis PhD student on color preference of dogs, showing they prefer the colors red and blue (as yellow and green aren’t easily distinguished) but mostly prefer blue, which makes some intuitive sense because red would seem like just a dark color, whereas blue is more visually interesting. Here is a link to that study 07–08 WONG.pdf (ucdavis.edu).
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of data (or maybe none) on whether certain colors reduce fear, anxiety, and stress for dogs and cats. We do have some theories; however, that lead to us to recommending certain colors for Fear Free® spaces:
- Color is powerful in human society and culture. This is because we see color better than animals do, and we respond to it intrinsically. Generally, colors such as blue and green, in western culture, are intended to be spa-like and calming. Whereas red and orange are activating and energizing (the opposite of calm). The reason fast food restaurants use red and yellow is that they want you to get your butt out of that seat and out the door to make room for the next customer. They want you to do a transaction with the food, not linger around and chat. This is the opposite of what we want in Fear Free spaces. We want staff members to move slowly and calmly and put their best effort into exuding calm energy. Therefore, we recommend spa-like colors to calm the HUMAN because the human has a huge influence on the pet.
- Because dogs and cats see their environments as blue shifted, we recommend blueish colors because it will allow the pet to visually understand the environment better. Imagine if the entire environment were red, for example, all the colors would blend together and be indistinguishable. And since pets don’t see well in bright light to begin with, they’re at a disadvantage in many spaces that humans inhabit. So, we often use blueish colors to create an environment that allows them to see and understand the space better.
- We also try to avoid bright whites in spaces because some white materials have phosphorous added to them, which makes them fluoresce to a cat’s or dog’s vision (because they can see into UV). This is why Fear Free doctors avoid white coats, so pets aren’t barraged with fluorescing objects.
- Finally, we are huge fans of dimmable lighting in Fear Free spaces, and we believe it’s far more important than color. When we dim the lights, we can calm the animal and allow them to see the space better, since they see better in dim lighting. For example, humans have better visual acuity than cats when seeing under bright light. So, a cat may be terrified by rapidly moving objects when under bright light as they can’t see them well. It’s really important to allow for dimmable lighting in animal wards and critical care areas in hospitals, for example, so animals can see better, to help create a calming, soothing environment, and to reinforce circadian rhythms. Also, one trick for emergency lighting in animal care spaces – we use orange lights for emergency lighting so that people can move around an animal space without disturbing the animals, since they will not be able to see that light well at all.
Creating spaces that help pets feel as relaxed and stress free as possible in both the veterinary and animal shelter environments is key to helping their overall well-being and welfare. Designing spaces that soothes their senses can play a tremendous role.