There’s no doubt, cat laser pointers are effective in getting cats moving. The acrobatics performed and total obsession with that moving pinpoint of light is highly entertaining for us humans… but are they actually good for cats?
Most behaviourists will agree that laser pointers aren’t the best idea when it comes to cat toys.
The simple reason is this…
There just ain’t no satisfaction!
You see, for a cat, proper play follows a hunting sequence. And many natural hunting sequences result in a catch (reward).
For most cats who are entertained with laser pointers, there’s no catch at the end.
Whilst it’s fun and entertaining for the human, the poor cat is left wanting more (if not physically, then definitely mentally)! This can cause frustration and stress, manifesting in many different ways.
Personally, I’ve noted a (very rough) correlation between laser-pointer play and human-directed or inter-cat play aggression. It seems that without the satisfying catch at the end, the cat may redirect that mental frustration on to something (or someone) else to get that satisfying reward.
Recently, I stumbled across a study that had been posted in one of the main cat Facebook groups.
I love reading these studies because it means that cats are getting scientific attention (which is normally reserved for dogs)!
Published in Animals in 2021, the study is named ‘Laser Light Pointers for Use In Companion Cat Play: Association with Guardian-Reported Abnormal Repetitive Behaviours’
(I was especially chuffed to see that they referred to the cat owners as ‘guardians’!)
In the study they surveyed 618 cat guardians and (amongst other things) asked:
Nearly half of respondents reported using laser pointers (or other forms of light) to play with their cat (though not all the time).
Interestingly, over half of the respondents had heard that laser pointers can make a cat frustrated. Here’s a table from the study showing the different statements/opinions that cat guardians have heard around laser pointers:
Overall, the ‘abnormal repetitive behaviours’ reported by the respondents (not just the ones that used laser pointer play) looked like this:
Overall, some interesting (but not necessarily surprising) results were found:
“In this study, significant associations (emphasis mine) were found between the frequency of LLP play and the occurrence of all surveyed ARBs, with the exception of overgrooming, in owned companion cats. The strongest patterns were seen for behaviors which may be connected to LLP play: chasing lights or shadows, staring “obsessively” at lights or reflections, and fixating on a specific toy. As these results are correlational, we cannot state that LLP play causes ARBs in companion cats; given the intrinsically rewarding nature of play, it may be that individual cats who enjoy laser play are motivated to look for more of this activity in other light sources or reflections (or vice versa).”
As per usual, it’s important to remember that one study doesn’t make a truth. And that this is a correlational connection, which means it’s not necessarily causative.
In saying that, it does strengthen the oft-cited position that laser pointers aren’t the best for cat play!
Personally, I’m grateful for studies like this, but if I would have loved it if they expanded their ‘abnormal behaviour list’ to include other stress or frustration-related behaviours such as aggression. Apart from overgrooming, the behaviours used in this study are those that could simply be a result of normal conditioning from laser play (i.e. the cat ‘learns’ to seek out lights as this is how they normally play), rather than demonstrating frustration or stress from a lack of completing the hunt sequence.
Though, to be safe, if you do choose to use laser pointers as part of your play routine with your cat, I would suggest the following:
I hope that’s given you some food for thought.
Here’s to happy and healthy cats!