Can You Recognize an Animal at Night by Its Reflective Eye Color?

August 31, 2016

By Linda Cole

If you are in the habit of taking your dog for a late night walk, it’s always a good idea to carry a flashlight to look for other animals that might be wandering about. It’s important because you certainly don’t want to be surprised by a predator that could put you and your dog at risk. But can you really tell what animal is lurking in the darkness by the reflective color of their eyes? Read on to see.

I like to hide CANIDAE treats around my dogs’ pen to give them some stimulation hunting for them. Occasionally they miss one or two treats, which means some wild critter will find the tasty tidbit sooner or later. While checking the pen one night before putting the dogs outside, the beam from my flashlight caught a blue reflection from an animal on the other side of the fence. Then another pair of green eyes was staring into the light. It turned out to be a couple of raccoons. What’s interesting about the reflective eye color of animals is that the color can vary for different reasons. Raccoons can actually have green, yellow or blue reflective eyes.

The eyes of cats and dogs see best in the low light of twilight. They are classified as crepuscular rather than nocturnal, but both species are hunters who can see well enough to catch nocturnal prey. Animals of the night have eyes that are designed to help them see better in the dark, with a special surface just behind their retina called the tapetum lucidum that reflects light. It’s a mirror-like reflective membrane that sends light back through the retina a second time, giving the light an extra chance to hit rods which are sensitive to light. This enables nocturnal animals to use all available light to help them see, and the reflective light of their eyes we pick up in a flashlight beam can give us an idea of which critter is staring at us – but it’s not reliable. Observing how the animal behaves and how far off the ground the eyes are is a better way of knowing if it’s a deer, coyote or another animal.

It can be unnerving to see an animal watching you when a flashlight or other light source reflects off their eyes. You can get a general idea of which critter has you in their sight, but the color of a specific animal can vary depending on the angle and type of light source (LED or incandescent from a flashlight, car headlights, moonlight). Reflective eye color can also vary depending on the animal’s age, health, amount of zinc or riboflavin in the tapetum lucidum, amount of pigmentation inside the retina, eye color and distortions within the lens. The colors produced by the tapetum can be white, green, blue, yellow, orange or red. Alligators and crocodiles are famous for their red reflective eyes at night. It’s possible for two animals from the same species to have different reflective eye colors.

When you shine a light at whitetail deer, they generally stand and stare back with white, green or yellow reflective eyes trying to figure out if you’re friend or foe. The distance of the eyes from the ground depends on if they are lying down or standing. A wandering coyote will give your light a passing glance as he tries to get out of it. He will look back at the light, but doesn’t stare at it. Their eye color can be a yellowish-green. Cats will often give you a good look at the color of their eyes, which can be green, yellow or red, but they also give you glances as they try to get out of the light as soon as possible. Opossums can have a red, greenish or white reflective color and may look away, but they are more apt to keep staring, especially if looking down from a tree. If you see small white eyes staring at you from the grass or close to the ground, it’s probably a spider or mouse. Dogs can have a blue, yellow, green, orange, turquoise or red eye shine. Red is likely caused by the light reflecting off of blood vessels.

It’s prudent to be aware of your surroundings, especially at night, and know the nocturnal animals that live and hunt in your area. You might not be able to identify an animal by reflective eye color, but you can usually tell by their behavior. Knowing what to look for can help keep you and your dog from a confrontation with a nighttime predator.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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  1. NK says:

    My dogs started barking like crazy and I shined the light up the hillside. Near the top I noticed some faint blue eyes and then the quickly disappeared. I shined the light on the hillside several times and saw the faint blue again one more time. Any ideas on what this would have been? Thanks

  2. Rick says:

    I love in Harding Township which is located in Morris County,New Jersey. I also happen to live across the street from Jockey Hollow National Historical Park. This is where General Washington and the Continental Army stayed during 1779-1780 coldest winter on record. I have many species of wildlife in my yard at all times. I would say Deer are the most frequent guests followed by Flying Squirrel,
    Raccoon,Possum, Fox,Coyote,Bobcat,Black Bear. I like to add that the Deer,Raccoon and Coyote are very bold and will stand their ground. My roommate has a 4 pound Yorkie which I am very concerned about. She lets him loose and he frequently goes to the woodline which could harber a variety of preditors. My roommate will not listen to my concern about her dog or my advise on how to take care of her dogs safety. I’m a large breed lover and have had 140lb Akita” Japanese Bear Hunting Dogs and a 125lb Pressa Canario Mastiff. I know nobody has heard of them. They are originally from the Canary islands and look like a Pitbull on steroids but are more trustworthy and obedient especially around children. What I’m getting at,those breeds are extremely formidable when it comes to defending themselves and I would be nervous for them in my yard at night. What can I do to deter these wildlife animals to not visit my yard? Exterminating is not a answer please. Thanks,Rick

    1. Stacey says:

      The pressa Canario will attack most any threat and 9/10 they will win. I’d encourage your dogs to urinate on all your posts and fenceline of your property. It’s a decent deterrent for wild animals looking for an easy snack.

  3. bonnie says:

    Can you tell me if foxes hold their stare? Or possibly bobcats? There are foxes in our area but the one IHave seen looks about2 feet tall but was dark colored and grey. Eyes glow bright green and they will hold a stsre for several minutes before ducking down and then getting back up and stare again.

    1. Bren says:

      Probably a coyote then instead of a fox.

  4. Knut Hught says:

    This blue eyed thing followedme an my buddies for a while

  5. I incountered a large green eyed animal that i think had been watching me for some time.It did not look ir move away from my light. It made me think that it was someone playing a joke on me. I started to approch the eyes thinking they wrte a prop or something. The eyes then turned looked to its left then blinked. I eas taken back an stoped my approch. Still it did not weaver frim my very bright light nor did it move.i started to get a little unnerved an broke out my stunner. It was right in front of me maybe 20 yards but i still could jot make out a body. It wasent untill i zapped the air did it turn an leave. Very fast, so im guessing had to be a cat? , Right? It incircled my position but i had already flanked it when i caught its eyes again. What do you make of this odd behavior.??

    1. Ed says:

      Sounds like a cougar to me. They can be BERY bold at night, even if they think you are watching them.

    2. Bren says:

      Sounds like a cougar to me too.

    3. Lulu0329 says:

      Thats Deffinetly a cougar/mountain Lion/Puma. I would be more careful about going where ever you were at! They are territorial especially with babies!

    4. Stacey says:

      Cougar for sure. They will return your stare boldly. They are stealth stalkers and typically attack from behind. Fearless except for dogs, they hate and fear dogs.
      They can be tree’d by a few small dogs.
      Must be the old cat/dog feud.

  6. Mark says:

    Do you know what color a Fischer cats eyes are at night when a flashlight illuminates them?

    1. Erin says:

      Green. They have some property /compound that makes them always reflect green.