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Cat laser toys are entertaining (for you and your cat), easy to use, and affordable—a combination that makes them wildly popular. But in recent years, there has been discussion about the safety and ethics of laser toys.
The most frequently cited concerns are 1) safety, since some kinds of amplified light can be damaging to the eyes, and 2) the emotional ethics of giving your cat something to chase that they can never catch. Can something that seems so fun actually be bad for your cat? We asked the experts.
Why Do Cats Like Lasers So Much?
Cats have great eyesight and strong prey drives. Lasers stimulate both of these, which can make for intense play interactions, no matter the age, size, or disposition of your cat.
“Cats are highly motivated to chase small moving objects, so lasers do provide that opportunity,” says Janet Cutler, Ph.D., Certified Cat Behaviorist at Cat World. “Lasers tend to move around with slight vibration, causing them to move like a small animal, insect, or other prey they might chase would behave.”
Because these lights are basically irresistible to cats, they can’t help but chase them.
Since the 1990s, when cheap, low-powered handheld lasers became ubiquitous for presentations and cat entertainment alike, the pet market has exploded with options.
There are still traditional handheld laser pointers, though they’re typically now rechargeable via USB cord instead of battery-powered. They also often come with some modest bells and whistles, like color or pattern options, plus flashlights or even blacklights, like the popular Litterbox.com laser pen.
Then there are the programmable or automatic lasers, which will run a pre-programmed laser show to entertain a cat. Some have slow-to-fast settings, some create random patterns, and still others offer multiple lasers to play with at the same time. Most automatic laser toys have a timed shut-off to avoid overstimulating a cat.
Finally, there are wand and stick laser toys, which marry a laser pointer with a traditional wand teaser toy with attractive feathers, strips of leather, and ribbon. Some cat parents prefer these, since they give a cat both an elusive light to chase and a more rewarding object they can sink their claws into and catch.
Laser wands like the Ethical Pet Dolphin pack maximum distraction power, though they can be a little unwieldy for human operators.
For more cat laser toys, see The 12 Best Cat Laser Toys.
What the Experts Say About Cat Laser Toys
The vast majority of experts do not think laser pointers are bad for cats.
Melissa M. Brock, a board-certified veterinarian with Pango Pets in Madison, Wisconsin, explains. “Cats are predators, they need exercise, and they’re curious about their environment and looking for something to do. Laser toys help fulfill all three of these needs at once!”
Brock adds, “Using this tool allows owners to interact with their pets in new ways and helps them bond more quickly than they would otherwise.”
Are there ways that laser pointers could be bad for cats? The experts all agreed on three areas of concern: safety (for humans and cats), frustration, and potential for aggression.
Safely Playing With Cat Laser Toys
Safety issues that cat parents must keep in mind include proper handling of the laser itself and environmental awareness so that your cat doesn’t get hurt while, er, laser-focused, not to mention protecting any precious objects in your home.
“The most important thing is to always keep the laser toy pointed away from your eyes and other people’s eyes at all times, even when it’s off,” says Brock. “Never leave a child unattended with a laser toy or allow them to play with one without supervision because even low-powered lasers can cause eye damage if the beam enters into the pupil and focuses on the retina.”
These safety concerns are echoed by Cutler, who adds, “When cats are playing with laser pointers, they will typically do so until the person ends the game. A concern with the use of lasers for play is you could cause your cat to exercise more than they should with very few breaks.” If your cat is panting, it’s probably time to put the laser away.
To keep laser pointers safe for cats, humans, and household items, all of our experts recommend being aware of the environment in which you are playing. You can ensure your cat’s safety by only pointing the laser at safe spots in your home. “You want to ensure there isn’t anything your cat could accidentally run into or hurt themselves on when playing,” Cutler adds.
A final note regarding safety: Never use a cat laser toy outdoors or point it out a window, at people, or at cars or planes. Because cat lasers are indistinguishable from laser sights on guns or more powerful lasers that can cause eye damage, even from long distances, many places have banned the public use of lasers of any kind.
Cat Laser Toys and Frustration
“Laser toys are often used to provide mental stimulation and exercise to cats,” says Cutler. “While they do often cause cats to run around, allowing them to express chasing behavior and get exercise, they do not allow them to physically catch their moving ‘prey.’ This could quickly lead to frustration in your cat, as they never have the chance to be successful in their hunting efforts.”
To balance exercise and play with actual feelings of accomplishment, all of our experts stress the importance of giving your cat something to actually catch while playing with a laser toy. “This could be done by pointing the laser on a toy that could be moved, or removing the laser and tossing a small toy near them or moving around a feather wand or other interactive toy,” Cutler points out.
Cat Laser Toys and Aggression
“The frustration of chasing the laser repeatedly without being able to catch anything can lead to problems,” Cutler adds. “In some cats, if their arousal is really high when the game is ended, they could potentially chase after a person or other animal in the house, making them appear aggressive.”
This type of behavior is likely less actual aggression than it is overstimulation, and experts note it can be prevented by ensuring you have toys on hand for your cat to actually catch. This fulfills that prey drive instinct and also redirects cats toward an appropriate outlet for their considerable energy. It also gives them a break from the pursuit, which can quiet all those “chase” neurons that lasers fire up.
It seems laser pointers are, in fact, not bad for cats—the benefits, including physical and mental stimulation, far outweigh any drawbacks. But there are some good safety practices to keep in mind when using them.
When playing with cat laser toys, always:
- Make sure the area is safe for play
- Ensure children are supervised while handling lasers
- Keep an eye on how much play is too much
- Make sure there are toys on hand that your cat can actually catch when play is over
If you can’t commit to monitoring play or have a house full of precious breakables, cat laser toys might not be for you. Lasers are so stimulating and irresistible to cats that they can be unpredictable during play—even the least active cats might display bursts of speed or undiscovered acrobatic abilities. The great news is that cats love to play and there are many non-laser options out there to choose from.
How We Chose
The cat laser toys featured here were selected based on a combination of our own hands-on testing, a comprehensive look at customer reviews across a wide variety of retail platforms, and interviews with veterinary experts, including Rover’s Cat People Panel. We prioritized value, ease of use, and interactivity. We’re also guided by the experience of living and playing alongside our own much-loved and strongly opinionated cats, who are never stingy with their feedback.
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