My cats love laser pointers, especially Ava. It’s our go-to game in the evenings and great exercise too. But, there’s something counterintuitive about shining a bright red laser light in front of my cats’ eyes. So, I started to wonder if laser pointers are truly safe, or if (like many other toys on the market) we really shouldn’t be using them.
After a few hours of research and a conversation with my vet — I thought I’d share the benefits of playing with laser toys and some safety tips so that you can ensure playing with a laser pointer is as safe as possible for you and your cat.
Why do cats like laser pointers?
Cats are natural hunters, so the answer here is pretty straightforward. The laser’s quick, unpredictable movements look a lot like the movements of a small prey animal that your cat might like to chase. Or, if your cat is anything like mine, chase but hilariously fail to catch before I rescue their poor victim and relocate them safely out the door.
What are the benefits of using a laser pointer?
Laser pointers offer both mental and physical stimulation for cats which is important for their overall health and wellbeing.
- Laser pointers offer a great workout for your cat. Most house cats are a little lazy, and getting some extra cardio in not only satisfies their prey drive but is great for their physical health. For younger cats or kittens, laser toys allow them to burn off excess energy.
- Playtime is a fun and effective bonding exercise for you and your cat. Plus, watching cats crouch down low, wiggle their butt and then stalk or chase the red dot makes for some pretty cute social media videos.
- Laser toys offer mental stimulation and are great for relieving boredom, they also provide cats with a sense of accomplishment when they catch the moving laser light.
- Laser pointers can also provide a fun, low-stress group play activity for your cats to do together (this is especially useful if you’re trying to settle a new cat into the household).
Can laser pointers be dangerous?
Yes. Laser pointers can be dangerous to your cat if they’re too strong or used incorrectly.
If you accidentally shine the laser beam into your cat’s eye (or they run in front of it while you’re waving it around), it can cause permanent vision damage. This is a big issue if your laser light is on the more powerful side, since it can burn your cat’s retina even if their eyes are closed. For this reason, laser pointers should not be used by children to engage in playtime with your cat.
Risk of injury
You’re in good company if you’ve had a bit of a chuckle at your cat’s antics when they run into a wall or skid across the floor chasing the laser toy. But if your cat isn’t paying attention to their surroundings during play, they can cause themselves some serious harm. There’s also a good chance they will destroy something in your house by knocking it over in their quest to catch the red dot.
Anger and behavioural issues
These issues are fairly easy to mitigate, but there’s one danger that you may not have thought about. To be honest, I didn’t think about it until my vet raised it. Because the pointer is, essentially, your cat’s prey, there’s a chance your cat will become seriously frustrated or angry when they can’t catch it. For most cats, this means they’ll simply walk away. But for some cats, the frustration can cause behavioural issues incuding excessive vocalisation or aggression.
Since there’s no reward at the end of play, some vets report that cats develop compulsive disorders after playing with laser light pointers. These cats spend a large portion of their day chasing similar things —like reflections and shadows — instead of engaging in normal play. It can even affect their health because they stop eating.
Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to make sure your laser toy playtime is safe and rewarding for your feline friend.
How to play with laser pointers safely
Our top safety tips, to ensure play with laser pointers is a safe and enjoyable activity for you and your cat.
Protect your cat’s vision
Make sure the laser pointer that you’re using is designed for pets and is less than 5 milliwatts. Low-powered lights have less chance of causing retina damage or other vision problems. When you’re playing, be careful to make sure the laser light is only hitting the floor and walls and not your cat. It’s also a good idea to limit the amount of time your cat spends playing with the laser toy to reduce the risk of eye damage over time.
Prevent injuries and damage
This one’s relatively easy. You just need to make sure that you’re playing in a safe spot away from potential hazards such as sharp or breakkable objects that your cat could possibly knock over. I like to direct the laser pointer in the hallway, since it’s relatively empty and there’s a very slim chance my cats could accidentally collide with something and hurt themselves. Plus, there’s a carpet in there to soften their fall if they unceremoniously try to climb the walls whilst chasing the red dot.
Add a reward to prevent frustration and behavioural issues
This one worried me, so I asked my vet how to get around it. She had a really simple answer: just make sure you’re throwing a small healthy food treat down for your cats when they ‘catch’ the light (personally, mine go wild for the homemade tuna & catnip treats).This gives them the sense of satisfaction of catching their ‘prey,’ so they’re not likely to have the urge to keep going after the game is over. Plus catnip is a really good way for them to wind down after a game with the laser pointer so they don’t keep you awake all night.
Swap the laser pointer for a different toy
Ultimately, the only way to truly avoid the dangers of using a laser pointer is to switch it out for an alternative toy. Rotating a variety of toys and activities is also key to keeping your cat mentally and physically stimulated and ensure they don’t become fixated on one activity.
How long should my cat play with a laser pointer?
There’s no real limit to how long your cat can play with their laser toys. Typically, they’ll have had enough after 10-15 minutes and leave the game. But if you need to end it and they’re still going, let your cat ‘catch’ the light and give them a quick treat to ‘end’ the game and signify that they’ve caught their prey.
Alternative cat toys to laser pointers that are just as fun
There are loads of different wand toys available, and they’re usually cheaper than a laser pointer. Wand toys come with different attachments — feathers, balls, ribbons ot bells to cater for your cat’s preferences. These are great for interactive play with your cat and work best when you model how prey would normally behave: moving it away from your cat with random, quick movements.
This type of toy is relatively new and can be a little more expensive but allows your cat to play independently. Motion-activated toys contain sensors and move in response when your cat starts to interact with them. Some of them make noises, from simple beeps to chirping noises to catch your cat’s attention. For example, electronic mice are designed to look and move like the real thing, and make squeaking noises as they scurry across the floor.
Fishing rod toys
These are similar to wand toys, but work just like a fishing rod where you ‘cast’ the toy out and can reel it back in. Because of this, they typically give your cat a bit more exercise than a wand toy. Like wand toys, it’s best to put fishing rod toys away safely once playtime is over to prevent your cat accidentally ingesting the string or any toy parts.
Although they sound a little weird, robot fish are a great replacement for a laser pointer because they let your cat play independently and are similar to prey. You just put these self-propelled fish toys in a shallow tub of water and they ‘swim’ around for hours. Robot fish often have different swimming patterns or speeds and some even change direction or light up to keep cats engaged as they paw at the water to catch the fishy.
While laser pointers come with some inherent dangers for your cat, they can still be used safely. If you are in any doubt about laser toys, you may prefer to opt for an alternative like a wand toy.