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You've likely either seen it happen in videos, or have indulged in the game with your own feline at home: a cat chasing a laser pointer. It seems as though no cat can resist the allure of that little red dot moving across a surface, and some people think it's a great way to keep their cats stimulated and exercised. But, why are they so compelled to chase a tiny beam of light? And is it actually good to tease a cat with a laser pointer anyway?
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Cats and prey drive
Despite centuries of domestication, during which time unfavorable traits have been bred out and desirable traits have been isolated and reproduced, one thing remains in cats that links them to their ancient ancestors: prey drive. The predatory drive in cats is what allowed early cats, and cats who don't have caregivers, to eat food, ensuring the survival of that particular feline and the species as a whole. Predatory behavior in cats can usually be seen when prey animals, like rabbits, rodents, birds and even insects are within their sights, says the ASPCA. This deeply ingrained animal behavior is the reason why cats can often be seen peering and sometimes chirping at birds or squirrels through windows, or if they're outside, perched from an unassuming spot out of sight.
Cats and laser pointers
While you and I know that the red dot beaming from the laser pointer on your keychain isn't actual prey that anything could capture and, conceivably, eat, a cat's brain simply doesn't care. Because cats follow the movement of prey animals with their eyes, anything simulating a movement pattern, like a dangling piece of string, fingers tapping on a table, or a moving beam of red light can initiate this instinct. When people direct the laser across the room, the movement often closely resembles the unpredictable, scrambling pattern of a mouse or other small animal attempting to run away, which can be very enticing for a cat, even one who has never hunted a living thing in his life.
Not all laser lights are the same. Some are just a single beam of light in one color while others can come in different colors, like this set of three laser pointers in green, red, and purple on Amazon. Some manufacturers make automatic, interactive versions of laser pointers that rotate. With something like that, your cat could play with it even when you aren't home, or when you don't feel like waving the wand around for hours at a time. Laser pointers don't have to be found just in the pet supplies section either! An office presentation clicker that controls volume and screen selection also have laser pointers, and your cat won't know that the laser pointer could also work for a PowerPoint presentation!
The disappearing quality of a laser pointer may also entice cats, who are solitary hunters by nature, and use their small bodies to hunt prey quietly and undetected, Banfield explains. Much like a small animal in the real world, who may disappear for a moment under a parked car or behind a tree, the focus required probably feels awfully familiar. When a cat chases a laser, it's not exactly because merely following things around a room is fun for them — cats run and pounce on lasers because their primal predatory drive kicks in, the same one that hungry cats use to score meals for themselves and sometimes, their young ones.
Are laser pointers good for cats?
Although your cat appears to be enjoying herself as she hunts that unattainable red dot across the floor, over tables, and even up the drapes, the laser pointer game is likely not as satisfying for a cat as it is for us to watch. In fact, it's probably more frustrating for a feline that it is fun. While chasing and pouncing are part of a cat's predatory behavior, VCA Hospitals states that it's better to play games with a cat that will allow her to catch and "kill" the item in question. They go on to suggest playing with things that simulate moving prey like toy mice, cat dancer toys, or even a ball of paper tied to the end of a piece of string, which will hone an indoor cats' hunting skills.
Cats also enjoy carrying things in their mouths, which they do when they've successfully captured the target within their sights. This is another reason why small, tangible toys are often the best things to use when playing with your cat, as the entire predatory process (stalk, chase, pounce, eat,) gets to become realized. Allowing indoor cats the opportunity to enjoy this part of themselves and may even prevent or alleviate depression in cats, which can occur when a cat is understimulated mentally, among other things.