A black and white cat playing with a cat laser pointer toy.
A black and white cat playing with a cat laser pointer toy. Photography ©borzywoj | Thinkstock.

Are Cat Laser Pointers Actually Good Toys?

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My husband, Ed, bought a cat 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

A mostly white cat playing with a cat laser pointer toy.
Cat laser pointer toys can be good — when used properly. Photography ©JosephJacobs | Thinkstock.

Good observation about cat loser pointers! Cats seem to go crazy pointlessly chasing the elusive beam of light. Cat laser pointers and cat laser toys can frustrate kitties, 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 playing with cats

In addition to being a recreational activity for cats and their people, playing with cats 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.

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 toys and cats

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 lasers pointers aimed at helicopters and airplanes. Yet the problems with laser pointers are not limited to eyes and aircraft.

People typically play with laser pointers for cats 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.

The best play techniques for cats

Ideal play techniques 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.

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.

Using a cat laser toy 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.

Thumbnail: Photography ©borzywoj | Thinkstock.

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 cat behavior on Catster.com:

14 thoughts on “Are Cat Laser Pointers Actually Good Toys?”

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  5. I think every cat is different from another, like humans! So i guess how they react is up to your cat:). Of course be aware with shining in their eyes. My cat just love the game and because we still live in an apartment it is nice that she can run around again and gets those muscles to work.

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  8. Thank you very much for this information. I recently came across a laser pointer while cleaning out my desk. Not really considering any negatives, I began to play with our new young adult cat. She just loved it…. too much. She has become obsessed with laser pointer now and somehow I got the feeling that this was not a healthy thing. I felt that she was never satisfied after our play sessions. So I finally Googled it and found your article. I will start playing the game as you suggest or maybe try to just wean her off of the laser pointer all together. So far she still likes to play with her 3 pole toys if I rotate them, but she is very smart and quickly loses interest in the pole toys and leads me to where she knows the laser pointer is kept. Thanks again. God bless, Barry

  9. SO many experts will disagree that they get frustrated. Also…the normal $8 laser pointer is not going to blind anyone unless you point it directly in their eyes for a LONG time.

  10. Hi I really liked the story here about a wheelchair user and her use of a laser light to address her and her cats need to interact with each other. I’m writing this reply only to point out that Mary best is a “wheelchair user”, and she’s not bound to it. It just a little disability awareness.
    Thanks
    Mlyn

  11. Hi, I have a bit of a problem with my 1 year old domestic shorthair. He redirects aggression on me ALOT ! He even draws blood and has left my hand with many scars.
    What’s frustrating to me is not only the attacking, it’s that I can’t move my hand out because I am bedbound and I can’t move my limbs. I have nurses but they are afraid of him, he’s attacked them also. Some of them don’t even have the sense to move my hand out the way!
    So, he bites me pretty hard, and I don’t want to get rid of him.
    How to stop this redirected behavior when I can’t even move my hands or legs away from him to defend myself ? Any advice or tips?

    1. Maybe you want the vet to have a look at the cat. Aggression can result from physical discomfort from injuries or disease.
      Other than that, maybe a behavior expert can advise how to redirect the cat’s aggression. It sounds like he’s made a habit of attacking. If you or your nurses could distract him with toys he can chase and rough house with, he could burn off excess energy.
      Good luck!!

  12. Tee ‘n’ the Wildlife

    I read the greatest answer to laser toys on Quora.com: but a bunch of little red dots with stickum on the back at a stationery store. At the end of the Red Laser Dot Game place a red dot on the wall. Kitty can then stalk THAT, fiddle with it, pull it off the wall, and, bingo! Gotcha, you red dot, you!

  13. I have a new rescue cat…have had her for almost a month. The only toy she will play with is the laser beam. Pays no attention to catnap filled toys or the “pole” toys. She’s supposed to be about 5 years old. Any suggestions. Want her to get exercise to keep healthy.

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