By Jackson Galaxy

Every doting cat guardian, it seems, is always on the lookout for the latest, greatest toy – something that will capture their kitty companion’s attention and hone his or her hunting skills. One of the tried and true is the good old laser pointer. Dogs as well as cats generally seem very “turned on” by the spot on the wall that travels quickly across the floor, onto the table, couch, etc. Many pet folks have found that they have to literally show their cat or dog the pointer, and put in a drawer to end a session so that they stop obsessing over “the dot.”

So is there any controversy over the laser pointer? More like a few do’s and don’ts. Let’s start by putting everything in perspective. Anyone who’s seen My Cat From Hell, read my article on Play Therapy, or just run into me on the street, knows how nuts I am about the importance of play therapy in a cat’s life. For confidence building, a sense of bonding and routine, and expressing their core need to hunt, nothing works like a daily play session (not to mention the obvious cardiovascular and weight control benefits). So many cat guardians have related to me that they’ve had a rough time finding toys that their cats will focus intently on for the required 15 (at least) minutes. So finally, one day it’s discovered that the play-finicky cat goes bonkers over the laser pointer. What’s the harm?

It can be summed up in one word – frustration. Successful play therapy sessions provide satisfaction on all levels of predation, which means not just stalking, but catching and “killing” as well. When the pointer is used as the sole toy, the cat never actually catches anything. It may be amusing to us to watch them run around and around in circles, but remember, in the primitive cat mind, they live for the entire hunt, not just one aspect of it. My belief is that if they can’t catch “the dot,” and the dot is put away at your convenience, then there will be an “inappropriate victim” down the line, whether that be other cats in the house, or even your ankles as you walk by. It’s like winding up a jack-in-the-box and expecting the top not to blow off. So, as a means unto its own end, I feel the laser pointer can actually undo the benefits of play therapy and help promote further play aggression.

So, then, what is the pointer good for? I think it has two major functions.

First, if you have a cat, described above as being play-finicky, and just loved the laser, great! We’ll use that as a two-phase play therapy session. Start by playing with the pointer, get the cat nice and worked up, and then pull a switch to another toy, such as one of my favorites, Da Bird, a fishing pole toy with feathers on the end. You may think your cat isn’t interested in this toy because you started the session with it. But by getting them to the point where they are in pure hunter mode, they’ll probably be inclined to chase anything. Remember to keep the “tempo” of the second toy similar to the laser, and make the switch fluid, even overlapping the image of the dot onto the new toy. They’ll probably lunge for the dot on the feathers. Then, you’ve got them! Finish off the session with this second toy, one they can catch, gnaw on, and do the “all-four paw-wraparound” on. It will make for a fully exercised cat, not just aerobically, but in that hunter core.

The second application of laser toys is for momentary distractions when dealing with multi-cat problems. Because of my distaste for aversive reactions or punishment (see “Squirt Bottles, Punishment, and Cat Behavior”), I look for more proactive, positive approaches whenever possible. Take for example the bully cat, always stalking his victim. Of course we have to read the body language of stalking in the first place, but once we see that, we can act. Bully gets into a low crouch and begins to walk around the room, belly almost touching the floor, and hiding behind table legs and such (just one example). Because laser pointers these days come with a belt loop attachment, you can have it on you at all times. You see the behavior, and, “POW!” There’s a much more attractive “victim” suddenly, shining in the bully’s peripheral vision. With a little laser dancing, you can probably get him or her to pay enough attention to it to praise them for doing something right, as opposed to yelling and screaming when the impending cat fight breaks out. Done consistently, this will help teach the cat there is reward associated with the light, and no reward associated with attacking the four legged victim. Remember, however that this is a distraction. Following up with play therapy will help fully diffuse the situation.

Laser toys can be useful, but as opposed to many other toys it has much more limited uses. As a final word of caution, if you do use a laser, be careful not to shine it directly into the cat’s eyes; lasers can damage the sensitive retina and cause blindness. Be sure to supervise children when around the cat, and put the laser away in a safe place. Or just use a small flashlight that has a very focused beam, which is much safer.