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Do Cats Understand Laser Pointers?

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove

Siamese cat playing with laser

Many cat owners know that cats love chasing laser pointers! Whether your cat knows that you are the one controlling it doesn’t seem to matter to them. Once that little moving dot appears, the chase is on.

The laser light triggers your cat’s instinct to hunt, stalk, and pounce. Some people feel that using a laser pointer with your cat is cruel. Since there’s no tangible reward, it’s viewed as teasing the cat. Others feel that laser pointers are beneficial to cats, even if they don’t understand that they will never “catch” the light.

Let’s find out more about why cats love laser pointers and if they’re good or bad for your frisky feline.

Why Do Cats Like Laser Pointers So Much?

Cats are natural hunters and have high prey drives. Even if your housecat spends their days lazily napping and eating food from a can, they haven’t lost the instinct to hunt and eat their prey. They view the laser pointer light as prey, watching it move unpredictably. This triggers them to chase it.

Since the dot changes direction and speed, cats think that it’s alive and is something that they should capture. The laser gives cats a moving target to hunt. It’s not just a light on the floor to them.

gray cat playing with laser
Image Credit: movetheuniverse, Shutterstock

Do Cats Know That The Laser Is Impossible to Catch?

Maybe. You may see some cats give up chasing the light after a while. Other cats keep going until you stop operating the laser.

If your cat is frustrated after not being able to capture the light, the signs are obvious: They become more aggressive. They seem agitated. Their fur could be fluffed up, and their tail may be forcefully thrashing from side to side.

Cats have an instinctive internal cycle of hunt, catch, kill, eat, and sleep. Wild cats hunt and eat more than 10 small meals a day while following this cycle. When cats are “hunting” by chasing and stalking a laser pointer, they don’t get the same reward that they do with tangible toys or cat wands. They never capture it, so the cycle never goes beyond “hunt.” This can be extremely upsetting to your cat.

How Cats See the Laser Pointer

Cats don’t see the laser light the same way that humans do. Cat retinas use rods and cones to enable sight. The rods detect motion and enable cats to see in the dark with their sensitivity to low light. Cats have six to eight times more rod cells than humans do. The cones are what enable color vision.

Humans have 10 times more cones than cats do. This enables us to see a wide range of colors. Some experts believe that cats see colors, but they are much less saturated than the ones that we see. Their vision is limited to dull blues and greys.

With this information, we know that cats don’t see the same bright red or white laser dot on the ground. They see quick movement from something small, immediately signaling prey.

a maine coon cat hunting a mouse outdoor
Image Credit: greg.visuals, Shutterstock

Do All Cats Like the Laser Pointer?

Some cats don’t like the laser pointer and never show interest in chasing it. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your cat. It just means they have an individual preference for other things. Try other toys, like cat wands, dancers, catnip-filled mice, and even electronic toys. There are so many options, your cat is bound to find something that they love.

Are Laser Pointers Bad for Cats?

If your cat enjoys chasing the laser, it’s not bad for your cat to do so. If your cat becomes frustrated and turns aggressive after laser pointer play, it should stop being included in your cat’s routine. Playtime should be fun for your cat, not upsetting. If it’s causing stress for your cat, it should no longer be used.

It’s important to never shine the laser directly in your cat’s eyes. The light can cause injury and permanent eye damage to the cells, resulting in vision problems for the rest of your cat’s life. It’s also just as important to never shine the laser pointer in your own eyes or the eyes of another person.

Benefits of Using a Laser Pointer With Your Cat

A laser pointer and a healthy diet can be great tools to use to keep your cat healthy. The laser pointer encourages movement. Sometimes, even the laziest cats can’t resist chasing that little dot.

In addition to keeping cats active, the laser pointer provides mental stimulation in ways that other toys don’t. Since the light moves so quickly and can be turned on and off, you can surprise your cat with it. They won’t be able to predict its next move, so you can keep your cat engaged. This prevents boredom and obesity in your cat.

young boy playing with cat
Image Credit: Ilona Ilyés, Pixabay

How to Safely Play With Your Cat Using a Laser Pointer

If you’re just starting out using a laser pointer with your cat, there are a few tips to keep the playtime happy, fun, and safe. When using a laser pointer with two cats, it’s best to use two lasers. Each cat should have their own light to chase. These lights should be moving in opposite directions. If two cats are chasing one light, it could lead to fighting.

Start slow if your cat is new to the laser pointer, and don't rush it if they don't seem interested at first.
  • Aim the laser pointer a few feet away from your cat, and move it around in small circles until your cat is interested. Use short, quick movements until your cat is preparing to chase it.
  • When your cat charges toward the light, move it a few feet away.
  • Let your cat catch the light occasionally. A game of keep-away isn’t fun for the person doing the chasing, and it isn’t fun for your cat either. Let them catch and inspect it. Slowly start moving it away again for the chase to continue.

Not every cat will chase the laser with the same amount of enthusiasm. Some cats will run until they’re out of breath, while others will lie there and watch the light go back and forth without making an effort to catch it.

Even if your cat understands that you’re the one operating the laser, they may still give it all that they have to catch it. Remember to reward your cat for a job well done!

To keep your cat from getting injured, don’t force them to run into walls or furniture trying to catch the light. Go at your cat’s pace without making them overexert themselves or trying to get them to jump higher than they can. Playtime is supposed to be fun for both you and your cat.

The Hunt, Catch, Kill, Eat, and Sleep Cycle

Remember that your cat is hard-wired to expect a reward after they hunt. If this isn’t in the form of a mouse that they caught to eat, it must be given to them by you.

You can use playtime to get your cat ready for their meals. After your cat is done playing, having a meal, even if it’s provided by you, will satisfy their need to complete this cycle.

Additionally, after playtime with the laser, be sure to give your cat food. If it isn’t time for a meal, they should be given a special treat to reward them for their hunt. Even if they aren’t eating what they “caught,” the cycle will be fulfilled. You’ll have a happy, satisfied cat that will likely be on their way to nap. This will make daily playtime much more enjoyable for your cat.

Conclusion

Even if cats understand that they’ll never tangibly catch the laser, they can still enjoy chasing it. Laser pointers can be beneficial to cats. They keep them mentally and physically engaged, promoting healthy body weights and fending off boredom.

To get the most out of playing with your cat, remember to never shine the laser in your cat’s (or anyone else’s) eyes. Let your cat occasionally catch the laser light to prevent them from becoming frustrated or bored with the game. After playtime, give your cat a small meal or treat to fulfill their instinctual hunting cycle.

When used correctly and safely, laser pointers can be a fun part of your cat’s routine.


Featured Image Credit: Lemalisa, Shutterstock

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