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When using a laser pointer to play with the cats, I've always been careful to end the session by giving them a physical toy to play with. I've assumed, without any actual basis, that putting them in a no-win situation where they could never actually catch the bait would lead to frustration or possibly aggression.

But I've noticed something: my cats are on to this trick, and they love it anyway. When it's time for play, one of them in particular will run to the table where I keep the laser pointer and look at me expectantly. He watches me pick it up and turn it on, and he switches between watching the dot and watching my hand. When the session ends he's become less and less interested in a physical toy to replace the red dot.

Is there anything wrong with pure laser-pointer play? If I skip the part where I try to transition to a physical toy, am I likely to have behavioral problems later?

The cats are middle-aged indoor-only neutered males. They also enjoy thing-on-a-string toys but lose interest more quickly than with the laser pointer. They run away from the battery-powered ball. All other toys are cat-powered (e.g. batting a toy around the floor).

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    I can't say that I get the psychology of it, but we had a 20 year old cat that chased a laser pointer, but wouldn't play with anything else. – John Cavan May 1 '15 at 23:31
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    This question needs an answer with solid evidence and/or scientific research not just anecdotal answers and opinions. – James Jenkins May 3 '15 at 12:54
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I wasn't able to find any solid research (at all, on playing with cats and laser pointers). What I can find is animal behaviorists who say that laser pointers (without transition to a solid toy/treat) are psychologically harmful.

Examples

Pam Johnson-Bennett (Certified Cat Behavior Consultant, on TV show Psycho Kitty) gives additional reasons why laser pointers are frustrating.

Cats are tactile creatures and when they pounce on their prey they rely on being able to feel their captured treasure underneath their paws. Cats have carpal whiskers on the underside of their paws (at the wrist) and they use those whiskers to detect movement of prey when they have their paw over it. Imagine doing a great job of stalking and pouncing and repeatedly NEVER feeling as if you’ve successfully captured your intended target. Putting a paw over a laser light is an exercise in frustration.

Most of the other certified cat behaviorists that I found online don't seem to have very instructive websites/articles on this particular issue, but Ingrid Johnson (Certified Cat Behavior Consultant) states

Our cats may seem like pampered indoor housecats, but on the inside they are still fierce predators! The greatest thrill for a cat is what is referred to as the “completion of the sequence of the kill.”

It is important when we are playing with our cats that we remember this sequence and try to mimic it the best we can. Whether playing with an individual toy or engaging in interactive play with you, it is important to allow them to capture their prey. Many people think it is funny to not let the cat catch the toy; this is actually very frustrating and quite frankly, not nice. If you play using a laser light toy, give your cat a tangible object to capture at the end of the play session, feed them a meal or offer treats, something that says you caught it!

Finally, Jackson Galaxy (on TV with My Cat From Hell, but who does not appear to have formal training/certification) gives two cases when laser pointers are useful (to get a cat motivated before transition to a physical toy and to distract during intercat aggression) but he gives the downside as

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: other cats in the house, or your ankles as you walk by. It’s like winding up a jack-in-the-box and expecting the top not to blow off. If used as the only toy in the cat’s play life, the laser pointer can actually help promote further play aggression, and undo the benefits of play therapy.

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Unlike humans, pets don't feel the need to be "winners". That's a purely human conceit, to expect that failure in and of itself is a Bad Thing. To them it's just play. And I doubt animals understand "failure" the way we do. If you catch the mouse you get to eat it. Or not. If you are hungry and you try to catch something and you fail, the bad thing is that you are still hungry, not that you "failed" in your endeavor. If you try to catch something and fail and somebody gives you something to eat, the important thing is not success of failure, that's just as good.

Both my cats and dogs have always chased laser pointers and I think they eventually "get" that this is something you are causing to happen, so they beg for it (well, the dogs do, anyway.) If it wasn't something they enjoy you'd be able to see it in their body language. For dogs, the joy is in the interaction with their people. For cats I think it is less that than that they are at the mercy of their instincts. My younger cat, who is known as "the young prince" for his extremely cat-some attitude, will chase it and then get embarrassed at having been caught in such excesses.

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I've seen no evidence that my girl is anything but delighted when she gets to chase the red dot. Her favorite surface is the sofa so she can hurl herself at it and land comfortably. She knows darned well that I'm controlling it, and is smart enough to indicate when she needs a breather and when she's ready to play again... or when she's not in the mood.

The boy was interested when he was younger, bur has decided that if he can't chew on it, it isn't worth trying to catch. He'll take a token swipe or two, then give me an "are you amused enough yet?" look and stalk off.

It hasn't affected their interest in physical toys.

Admittedly it's hard to be sure what goes on in that walnut-sized alien brain, but I haven't seen any cause for concern. They bring me their other toys; I suspect Hazel would bring me the pointer if she could figure out how to grab it effectively.

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Younger cats are more full of energy and willing to play with anything, including a laser they have no way of catching.

I had an older cat who had stopped playing very much, but I found that I could get her to chase a laser by tossing a food treat while she wasn't watching and then running the laser to the treat and circling it. Once she figured out that there was a reward for her in chasing the laser, doing this over and over acted as a positive reinforcement to her chasing the laser.

I don't think chasing a laser they can't catch is harmful to cats, but some cats may need some sort of incentive to do so.

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I want to add that there has been some research about laser pointers which puts light on the negativity in it. Cat prefer the feeling of some real hunt. Toys are perfect for this purpose. The cats, like they have sense receptor whiskers, on face, they have at the bottom back of their front paws. They like it when they get the feeling of prey. In case of laser pointer they can never physically feel it. This results in a frustration in them making their behavior somewhat odd.

REFERENCE:

Are Laser Pointers Bad for Cats: Pros vs Cons

Are Cat Laser Pointers Actually Good Toys?

what your cat's whiskers are trying to tell you

Why Laser Pointers Could be Bad for your Cat (it’s not what you think!)

  • If there has been research include it in your answer. – James Jenkins Dec 30 '18 at 10:48
  • @JamesJenkins edited – Sonevol Dec 30 '18 at 11:57
  • That is better, but just pointing out, none of the references are research. They are opinions sharing the same considerations that are in the question. – James Jenkins Dec 30 '18 at 16:45

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