Can A Dog See Infrared?

Can a dog see infrared light? ¹

Have you ever noticed your dog was acting weird and you couldn’t understand why? Maybe your pet was reacting to infrared light.

Some dogs are sensitive enough to react to you pressing the remote button. Does this mean that dogs can see infrared light?

Well, yes and no. They don’t actually see it, or at least that’s the current science on this, but they can at least sense it. 

In this article, we’ll explain how dogs can “see” infrared light and whether it’s dangerous for them. Also, we’ll have a look at animals that use infrared light to detect their prey, and you certainly won’t like it, as you’re the prey!

What is Infrared light?

Infrared radiation (IR), or infrared light, is a type of energy that’s invisible to the human eye but that we can feel as heat. Virtually all objects in the universe emit some level of IR radiation. The sun is the most obvious source of infrared radiation, but even ice emits IR. This means that any object that has a temperature, be that 0 degrees, radiates this type of energy.

Humans discovered the existence of infrared light in the 19th century, but it is only in the past few decades that we’ve begun to understand what this portion of the light spectrum means. 

What is truly shocking is that animals have always known about infrared radiation. They may not know what it is or what it’s called, but they sure know how to use it. Many, many species use IR to navigate the world or to hunt for prey by detecting the heat source of a body even in the dark when they cannot see it.

Can dogs see infrared light?

The answer is No, dogs don’t actually see infrared. This is physically impossible for them. How do we know this?

To understand this we need to have a look at the science behind a dog’s vision. It is by studying the anatomy of a dog’s eye that scientists have come to the conclusion that our pets don’t really see IR. 

Just as with humans, dogs have a lot of rods and cones in the retina that perceive light. The cones are used to provide vision when there’s plenty of light, while the rods help with seeing in low light conditions. Dogs have many more rods than humans in their eyes, which explains why they are better than us at seeing in low light conditions.

Scientists believe the dogs adapted to low light conditions, so they could see prey (or enemies) at dusk or in the early hours of the day. But, this also means that their eyes cannot perceive infrared. 

How do dogs sense infrared light?

Dogs see infrared light with their nose. Right there, at the tips of his nose, a dog has a bundle of nerve endings that can pick up thermal heat, or infrared. These nerve endings send a message to the brain, which decodes the information pinpointing the source of that thermal energy. 

According to a recent study printed in Scientific Reports, Swedish and Hungarian scientists concluded that a dog’s nose is basically an infrared sensor.

Dogs are able to sense the thermal radiation coming from warm bodies or weak thermal radiation and they can also direct their behavior according to this signal,” said Anna Balint, lead author of the study.

The brain scans indicated increased brain activity when dogs were exposed to objects that were warmer than their surroundings.

It is possible that other carnivorans possess a similar infrared sense and that adds a new chapter to the story of prey-predator relationships,” said Ronald Kroger, a sensory scientist at Lund University.

Predator hunting strategies have to be re-evaluated and the biology of prey animals has to be revisited with body heat-sensing predators in mind,” he added.

The tests involved golden retrievers and border collies, but the discovery applies to all dogs, although some breeds may be more sensitive to infrared than others. Perhaps further studies will shed some light on that. 

Signs that your dog sees infrared light

A pet owner may determine if their dog sees or senses infrared by analyzing the animal’s behavior. Whenever a dog senses something of interest, he will react. You certainly know how your dog reacts when something makes him happy or when he finds something intriguing or frightening. Infrared is most intriguing, it will pique his curiosity. Some dogs might even react angrily as they don’t understand where the heat they feel comes from.

Here are a few signs your dog is reacting to infrared light:

  • Alertness / Raised ears – when your dog detects a heat source, he will become alert, as he needs to find out whether it’s a threat or not.
  • Sniffing – your dog will look quite funny sniffing at nothing apparently. It’s a sign of curiosity primarily. Maybe it’s food!
  • Whining – this indicates that the dog wants to get closer to the source of heat or get away from it. It’s very frustrating to them, either way.
  • Cowering – this indicates your dog is scared and is trying to make himself as small as possible  
  • Barking – that’s a sign your dog feels threatened by the mysterious energy he’s sensing.
  • Growling – should your dog not be able to get away from a perceived threat, they may also start growling and showing signs of aggression.   
  • Tail wagging – clearly, that’s a good sign. After careful analysis, your dog has come to the conclusion the unseen energy he’s sensing is not a threat. Maybe they could be friends. 

Obviously, not all dogs will react to infrared. They may sense it, but it probably doesn’t bother them in any way. Or they won’t react every time they detect IR. Life would be very difficult if your pet started barking every time you wanted to change the channel with your remote.

Is infrared light safe for dogs?

Infrared is considered to be safe for dogs. So is red light, which occupies the “long end” of the visible spectrum with wavelengths of 630 nm-700 nm. The difference is that you can see red light, and probably so do dogs. For comparison, infrared light occupies the 800 nm -1000 nm range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Is light therapy safe for dogs?

Both types of light, red and infrared, can be used for various types of treatment. 

Seeing that dogs are so popular as pets and their owners are very dedicated to keeping them healthy, there have been numerous studies concerning the safety of infrared and red light medical equipment on canines. 

Light therapy may be used to treat a variety of common dog skin issues, and it can be used for pain management.

Light therapy is recommended for dogs suffering from:

  • Joint pain
  • Sore muscles
  • Infections
  • Inflammation
  • Ligament and tendon injuries
  • Strains and sprains
  • Pain associated with chronic conditions or injuries

If your dog has any such problem, you should talk to a vet about light therapy. Some IR devices can be used at home, and maybe you could benefit from such a device as well. 

What other animals see infrared?

Dogs only get a feeling of infrared light, but many other species use it like pros to detect prey. According to research, cold-blooded species like snakes, amphibians, and insects are the best at using infrared as a guiding system.

This will probably explain how mosquitoes are able to find you no matter how hard you try to keep them away. Until recently, it was thought that those nasty creatures only use their smell to detect chemicals indicating a human is nearby. New studies have shown that they also use infrared light to locate their next meal. Oh, and when they get close enough they can see you as well.

Your goldfish is also very good at detecting infrared light. Goldfish can see all the way into the ultraviolet spectrum, not that it helps them much in the confines of their glass bowl.

The pit viper is also very good at detecting infrared light, although, much like dogs, they don’t actually see it, but rather sense it. This type of viper has so-called “pit sensors” located along their jaws and can register changes in the heat spectrum, sending a message to the brain. 

Closing thoughts

Your furry friend is not able to see infrared light in the traditional way. A dog uses the nervous endings on the tip of his nose to detect heat. And they have a very keen sense for that. You might be able to tell when a dog senses IR light judging by his reactions. Some dogs may find it annoying, some will start barking, while others appear totally indifferent.

On the other hand, infrared light can be used to your dog’s benefit, as there are various medical treatments using IR that can help an arthritic dog or cure a skin problem. 

Photo credits

¹ Photo by mliu92 on Flickr

Sarah Pulsen

Hello, I have been in love with dogs since I was a little girl. I became even more infatuated with them when I was told by my Mum that I couldn't own one. Since I left home there has rarely been a time in my life when I have lived without a dog. My current dog is a Collie Terrier cross, called Ian.