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Are Laser Pointers Actually Good Cat Toys?

Only under certain circumstances -- and you must use them in ways that are good for your cat.

 |  May 9th 2013  |   75 Contributions


My husband, Ed, bought a laser pointer for the sole purpose of using it to play with our four cats. Although my cats go crazy-lunatic when chasing the light around, I’m not so sure they are enjoying the game. Ed, bless his soul, bought the laser pointer only so that I can play with the cats. I am wheelchair bound and can’t run around the house with cats in tow. Any play I do with my cats has to be from the confines of my wheelchair or couch.

I remember hearing a talk you gave where you mentioned that you are against using laser pointers as cat toys and that it is best not to bring them into the house.

I want the best for my cats. At the same time, I want to be able to play with them. Please shed light on the subject.

-- Mary Beth and her cats

Toby will never catch the red dot. Photo byJeffreyW

Good observation! Cats seem to go crazy pointlessly chasing the elusive beam of light. Laser pointers and laser toys can frustrate cats, overstimulate them, and, in some cases, cause them to act aggressively toward playmates. In the majority of cases, lasers pointers should be left at the office where they fulfill their raison d'être -- pointing out specifics in presentations.

Most often, I discourage people from using laser pointers to play with cats. There are so many other exciting toys to use. Nevertheless, there are situations when laser pointers are the only way cats can be played with. It is either laser play or no play.

The importance of play

In addition to being a recreational activity for cats and their people, play is serious business. Kittens learn important hunting and problem-solving skills, and adult cats fine-tune their predatory prowess. Play teaches cats bite inhibition and helps them develop coordination. Cats and kittens learn boundaries and social skills while building relationships. Play also helps develop muscles and keeps cats fit and at the top of their game. It is also mentally stimulating.

My cat Asia stalks a toy.

Neurotransmitters, including dopamine, play a very important role as well. During different phases of play, dopamine, associated with award-driven behaviors, is released in the brain. Although the acts of stalking, ambushing and chasing are intrinsically rewarding, cats need to have the satisfaction of catching prey and feeling their hard-earned prizes beneath their paws.

The problems with laser play

It's not news that lasers are hazardous. Shining laser beams into eyes -- human as well as feline can cause permanent eye damage. Recent news reports highlight the dangers of laser pointers aimed at helicopters and airplanes. Yet the problems with laser pointers are not limited to eyes and aircraft.

People typically play with cats using laser pointers in a way that frustrates and teases cats. Laser players usually point and dance the beams randomly on the floors and walls for their cats to chase. Certain of a successful catch, they pounce only to find there is nothing under their paws. The bright red dot disappears, or it lingers on the wall or settles for an instant on a paw. Cats are left frustrated, without the opportunity to feel the tactile sensation of their hard-earned prey. Felines need to have the satisfaction of the hunt -- to catch and feel their prey beneath their paws.

My cat Sudan chases the red light but will always come up empty-pawed.

The best play techniques

Ideal play technique mimics hunting -- but without casualties. These "best play practices" encourage cats to stalk, chase, pounce, and finally catch their prize. In nature, felines do not catch their dinner at every attempt, but they ultimately do succeed.

The best toys to use for this type of play are pole-type toys. Pulling the toy away from the cat using quick starts, stops, and stutters imitates the movements of prey. Mimicking prey, the toy does not move toward the cat. In real life, prey, unless it is impaired, does not run back toward the predator. Pole-type toys should be available to cats only when there is someone around to supervise the activity.

Good play techniques involve encouraging kitties to catch the toy so that they do not become discouraged and frustrated. Immediately after the last catch of the session, their favorite people should feed their little hunters sumptuous meals.

My cat Olivia catches her toy with a satisfying chomp.

Not everyone can drag toys around for cats to chase or to play fetch with them. Like Mary Beth, many people are unable to run around their homes pulling a pole toy or retrieving thrown toys. Sometimes there are only two choices -- using the laser pointer or not playing at all. In this case I prefer play, but play that uses the laser pointer in a way that minimizes frustration.

Laser play the right way

Before getting into action, set up the environment for the game. In addition to the laser pointer, soft cat toys and highly prized cat food are needed for the job. Before playing, place the toys strategically throughout the play zone. Have food and treats at the ready.

Begin the laser game by aiming the beam in front of the cat and zigzagging it away from her. Periodically, encourage the cat to “catch” the elusive beam by pausing the light on one of the stuffed toys that is now doubling as prey. Before moving the beam off the toy, the cat needs to feel the toy solidly under her paws.

The intensity and length of the sessions will vary and depend on the individual cat’s age, physical conditioning, and level of interest. The play session endings are as important as their beginnings. Instead of ending abruptly, gradually slow down the beam until it finally comes to rest on a soft toy. After the cat makes her final catch of the session, feed a good meal. She will eat, groom, and then take a well-earned nap.

Top photo by Catchpenny by Shutterstock.

Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Read more about cats and behavior:

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