Why do cats chase lasers, and are laser pointers bad for cats?

Cats adore a good laser pointer chase, racing through our homes trying to grab the invisible creature that seems to have been set loose inside. What's behind a cat's love of lasers, and why do they chase laser pointers?

Most cats would chase a laser pointer all day if you let them.
Most cats would chase a laser pointer all day if you let them.  © IMAGO/Pond5 Images

There's no one on this planet beneath the age of seventy who has not seen at least one video of a cat racing around someone's lounge room, chasing a laser pointer that is usually being directed by the bloke behind the camera. It's a staple of online meme culture, a staple of cat videos, and something that never fails to make us laugh and fill our hearts with the "aw" we all crave.

In this cat guide, TAG24 will take a look at why cats chase lasers. What's behind a cat's obsession with lasers? Are laser pointers bad or dangerous for cats, and should you be thinking about potential cat anxiety when shining that little dot upon the floor?

Why do cats chase laser pointers?

According to Dr. Ira Hyman, writing in Psychology Today, cats love laser pointers because they simulate the movement of a small creature bolting across the floor. When a kitty sees this light, it jumps to attention, thinking that it might be in the hunt for a mouse or rat. It continues to pounce and attack the dot because the dot continues to move in sudden and unexpected ways.

The same explanation applies to why a moving laser dot will catch the eye and attention of a human as well; it's all about direction changes and speed. As Hyman explains, "The more the dot changes direction and speed, the more people attribute animacy to it."

"Cats chase the laser pointer's dot of light because it changes direction and speed. Cats see the moving dot as alive and worth catching. Maybe they think it would taste good if they could just catch it."

Laser pointers have a habit of making cats very excited.
Laser pointers have a habit of making cats very excited.  © IMAGO/Pond5 Images

Are laser pointers bad for cats?

As long as the beam of light does not get directed into a cat's eye, laser pointers are completely safe for cats. This is a good thing because they are profoundly popular toys among cat owners, who enjoy the excited and animated response that their cat exhibits when the laser pointer is out to play.

Still, seeing as your cat will be moving very quickly when on the hunt, using a laser pointer is not without its risks. It's very easy for a cat to accidentally look into the light if you don't respond quickly enough to its movements, and if the light goes directly into its eyes, then it can cause some pretty significant damage.

The US Food and Drug Administration explains that eyes "focus a laser beam to a very small, intense spot on the retina, which can result in a burn or blind spot." While that perhaps doesn't seem like such a big deal, it can cause serious and permanent sight damage.

As a result, it is best to make sure that you are constantly focused when using a laser pointer to play with your cat. It will likely focus on the dot instead of the source of the light, so it shouldn't be too hard, but if you aren't careful, you could cause some pretty serious damage!

To reduce the risk, make sure not to say your cat's name when using the laser pointer, try to keep it focused on other things, and make sure that your laser is easily switched off or moved if the cat looks at it.

Do laser pointers cause cat anxiety?

No cool cat would ever stop chasing a laser pointer.
No cool cat would ever stop chasing a laser pointer.  © IMAGO/Pond5 Images

It has been proven that while playing with lasers can be mentally stimulating and fun for some cats, it can be the cause of anxiety in others. In a journal article published in 2021, Lori R. Kogan and Emma K. Grigg dug deep into the psychological impacts of laser pointers on cats and revealed some startling truths.

One of the biggest problems with laser pointer play is that, while the game does allow your cat to practice hunting and chase artificial prey, it "does not allow cats to complete the hunting sequence" because cats "cannot 'catch' the prey."

Other than the initial disappointment, it has been proven that excessive laser games contribute to compulsive disorders and cat anxiety.

Laser games have the potential to "trigger frustration and stress, both of which can contribute to compulsive behavior," Kogan and Grigg wrote. "Laser light toys may be associated with the development of compulsive behaviors in cats, warranting further research into their use and potential risks."

There are a couple of notable takeaways from all of this. The first is that every cat owner should know and understand the two main risks associated with laser pointers and cats - eye damage and compulsive behavior. The second is that the literature is not complete, and more scientists need to do studies such as these before we can give you a truly definitive answer.

As a result, while it is okay to have your cat play with a laser pointer from time to time, it needs to be a rare occurrence, and you need to be extremely careful. Additionally, make sure that you follow the laser play with a game that'll allow them to "catch" something afterwards.

Not every cat will chase a laser

While many cats will chase lasers, especially kittens, not every feline friend will display interest in such an activity. Many kitties will prefer to just chill, lying around and paying no mind to the little red dot running rampant throughout their home. If your cat fits this description, you have nothing to fear.

It's completely normal for your cat to show interest and chase after laser pointers, and, in reverse, it is completely normal for your cat to be completely disinterested. Either behavior is healthy and safe, so don't worry about it.

Cover photo: IMAGO/Pond5 Images

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