by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
There are conflicting views on the merits of using a laser pointer to play with cats. Is it harmful or can it be a good way to use up excess energy?
Playing is essentially an extension of a cat’s natural instinct to hunt. The best games involve hunting, stalking, chasing, catching and killing. Catching the toy is the satisfying reward after the hunt. The mental and physical exercise is important to keep the cat alert, fit and engaged. Play also improves co-ordination and develops problem-solving techniques. With laser pointer games the feel of catching the prey is not present.
Laser pointers can be an amazing game, as the light passes over obstacles, disappears from sight and re-appears in a different place. Cats have to be alert and agile to follow the light. It is also an easy way for those of us who are less mobile to entertain an active cat.
The negatives of using a laser pointer are the danger associated with the laser in their eyes, the lack of real connection with us, and the lack of sufficient reward after the hunt. There is a build-up of adrenaline that needs to be used in some way. Cats that are over stimulated may become aggressive after a game or develop other undesirable behaviours including overeating and resource-guarding.
If we can create a reward-based laser game, and keep it to a reasonable length for the cat, it is a very useful toy. Laser pointers should not be the only toy, cats need variety to keep them interested in playing.
Before settling down to play, set the scene. Depending on how long your cat will play, place one or two small treats in places around the area where the laser can reach. Then place a favourite larger toy where the game will end, this will be the final catch. Treats can also be placed next to a toy or in an easy puzzle-feeder. Not all real hunts result in a catch or kill, what this setup will do is allow the cat to have some successes during the game.
Now while you are playing, stop with the laser pointer on the treats at appropriate times, about half or thirds of the game time. Allow the cat a break to enjoy the treat then continue the game. The final chase ends on the larger toy, which can then be ‘killed’.
To conclude the game, a small meal or extra treat should be used to simulate eating the newly-killed ‘prey’. Playing this way allows for the release of energy, mental stimulation in hunting and chasing, as well as a reward for success.
Most cats feel that the best toys and games have a human at the other end, so always interact with your cat when playing.