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This Popular Pet Toy Can Lead to Behavior Disorders

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat laser pointer

Story at-a-glance -

  • Now that laser pointer toys have been around a while, veterinary behaviorists are learning that like dogs, kitties can also develop behavior disorders as a result of chasing, but never catching, those little red dots
  • Some cats develop a compulsion to chase anything resembling a laser light; eventually, they spend most of their waking hours engaged in the behavior to the point that it becomes a quality of life issue
  • One way to use a laser pointer safely with your cat is to incorporate clicker training and treats into play sessions
  • There are also lots of great alternatives to laser toys to ensure your kitty gets daily exercise

Both cats and their humans love laser pointers. After a long day at the office, cat parents need to exert almost no effort to make that tiny beam of light move, and the movement seems to trigger predatory behavior in cats. So, in theory, laser pointers are an ideal interactive cat toy.

However, as veterinary behaviorist Dr. John Ciribassi points out in a recent interview with veterinary publication dvm360, the problem with the laser pointer is there's no endpoint — there's no point at which cats actually physically catch something.1 So, while they may be driven to pursue the laser light, even if they're successful, there's no tangible reward for their effort.

According to Ciribassi, this type of pointless play can lead to behavior problems in cats, for example, they can develop a tendency to compulsively chase shadows or reflections. He says you can wind up with a cat who spends most of the day looking for things that resemble a laser pointer.

Light Chasing Was First Identified as a Pathology in Dogs

When I first became aware of the potential to create problems with laser pointers, the primary concern was dogs, not cats. According to a 2013 article in LiveScience, "The lack of closure in laser-beam chasing could be messing with your dog's head."2

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, animal behavior expert and professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, explained in an interview with LiveScience that many dogs instinctively chase laser beams simply because they move.

To a dog, anything that moves like that is begging to be chased. Movement triggers a dog's innate prey drive, which is why smaller prey animals often freeze in their tracks. And while dogs don't see colors all that well, they have a keen ability to detect motion with their eyes.

The continuous movement of a laser dot stimulates dogs' predatory systems such that they cannot not chase it. "They can't help themselves. They are obliged to chase it," says Dodman. Similar to Ciribassi's concerns about cats, Dodman believes dogs can get so obsessed with chasing the light that they develop behavior problems.

"I've seen light chasing as a pathology where they will just constantly chase around a light or shadow and pounce upon it. They spend their whole lives wishing and waiting," says Dodman.3

Never getting to the point of actually catching their "prey" can drive a dog slightly nuts. The same principle applies with bomb or drug sniffing dogs, as well as search and rescue canines. Trainers of these dogs have learned there are psychological consequences when the animals don't find what they're looking for, so their handlers occasionally arrange for them to find a target as a way of keeping them emotionally balanced.

Now That Laser Pointers Are in Common Use, It's Clear They Can Also Be a Problem for Cats

Back in 2013, conventional wisdom held that cats would be less likely than dogs to develop an obsession and accompanying behavior problems as a result of chasing laser beams. After all, felines in the wild stalk prey for only a few minutes at a time and then move on. Kitties tend to have relatively short attention spans, so it was thought they'd be unlikely to engage in endless pursuit of a laser dot.

However, as Dr. Ciribassi makes clear, that's apparently not the case with all cats. In his experience, kitties with a compulsive disorder created by chasing a laser pointer spend most of their day engaged in repetitive behaviors.

Rather than displaying normal feline behaviors like interacting with their humans or even eating, they spend the bulk of their time chasing things they think look like the beam from a laser pointer. Sadly, this can become a quality of life issue for these kitties.

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Recommendation for Safe Laser Pointer Play With Cats

Since laser toys can be very beneficial in keeping cats physically active and their predatory drive stimulated, it's important not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater," says Ciribassi. He believes the best way to safely play with your kitty and a laser pointer is to first clicker train your cat. The click of the clicker, followed by a delicious treat, lets kitty know she has pleased you and been rewarded for it.

Once she's clicker trained, allow your cat to periodically "catch" the laser light and when she does, deliver a click followed by a treat. This lets her know she's "won" and something good is coming. You're providing her with a concrete, tangible result for catching the laser light.

10 Great Alternatives to Laser Pointers to Help Your Cat Exercise

1. Hunting for food and treats — Your cat, while domesticated, has maintained much of his natural drive to engage in the same behaviors as his counterparts in the wild, including hunting for food, which also happens to be great exercise. A great way to do that with an indoor cat is to have him "hunt" for his meals and treats.

Separate his daily portion of food into three to five small meals fed throughout the day in a variety of puzzle toys or indoor hunting feeder mice. You can also hide his food bowls or food puzzle toys in various spots around the house.

2. Cat trees and elevated vertical spaces — Climbing, scratching, and stretching are natural feline activities that help keep their bodies well-conditioned and their minds stimulated. Indoor cat trees should ideally reach from floor to ceiling, be very stable (not wobbly), and covered with a variety of cat-tractive materials to entice kitty to climb, stretch, and claw. If you can place your cat tree near a window, even better.

Cats also enjoy climbing to high perches to watch the world from a safe distance, so make sure the cat tree has at least one. You can also add wall shelves and window seats to give kitty a range of choices.

3. Outdoor enclosures — Providing your indoor cat the opportunity to experience the outdoors safely provides both physical and mental stimulation without the risks of free roaming. It also gives her an opportunity for beneficial grounding.

Many cat parents are creating safe outdoor enclosures or cat patios — catios — that allow their feline family members secure access to the outdoors. The enclosure should be open air, allowing kitty exposure to fresh air and sunlight, but shielded enough to prevent escape or a predator from gaining access.

4. Leash walks — Another way to get a willing cat outdoors in nice weather is to walk him on a harness and leash. This obviously won't be the answer for every cat, but if you feel yours might enjoy going for walks, here are 10 tips for training a cat to walk on a leash.

5. Motorized Interactive Toys — Battery operated cat toys that move in random patterns, similar to a cat's prey, are also irresistibly engaging. This year's top performer, the Pop n Play™, has proven to evoke responses from even the laziest cats.

6. Feather toys — Interactive feather toys, especially one called Da Bird, are irresistible to most cats.

"What I recommend is two play sessions a day, and work up to 10 or 15 minutes per play session," says feline behavior consultant Dr. Marci Koski. "You want to get your cat running, leaping and jumping.

You want to get him engaged in the prey sequence, which is staring, stalking and chasing, pouncing and grabbing, and then performing a kill bite. That will tap into his predatory instincts and let him feel like a cat."

7. Fake furry mice — These little mouse toys are also a hit with most cats. They're not the real thing, of course, and your kitty knows it, but they'll do in a pinch. Cats seem to like the size, texture, and "battability" of the mice. Try flicking one across the floor in front of your kitty and see how she reacts.

8. Soap bubbles — Many cats think it's great fun to chase and swat bubbles floating in the air!

9. Catnip — Some kitties go wild for catnip, so a catnip toy can be an ideal way to get your kitty in the mood for some interactive playtime. When a susceptible cat (not all cats are affected by catnip) absorbs the nepetalactone in the herb, her pleasure centers in the brain are activated and the next thing you know, she's rolling around in a state of goofy bliss.

And despite the fact that catnip appears to make kitties "high," it's an entirely harmless and non-addictive herb.

10. Hiding boxes — When cats in the wild feel threatened, they head for trees, dens, or caves to seek safety. Captive kitties don't have that option, so their obsession with hiding in boxes may be an adaptation. And studies show access to hiding boxes reduces feline stress, especially in shelter cats.

Many cats also use hiding boxes as cardboard jungle gyms and spend time playing in and around them.

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