Many of us have watched someone, or even used a laser pointer ourselves, to play with a dog or cat. Sometimes it’s funny to watch a pet chase that little red dot of light, and most people think it’s a harmless way to burn off some of their pet’s energy.
Unfortunately, a game of laser pointer chase can be very frustrating for an animal and can lead to behavioral problems.
The worry most people have regarding safety is about the laser itself. Of course you shouldn’t shine the light into your pet’s eyes (or your own) on purpose, but you don’t have to worry if the beam hits an eye for a split-second in play.
The potential problem with these toys comes because the cat can never “win” the game. Even if a cat or dog catches the dot, nothing’s there. The animal gets all worked up with no resolution — every time. Even in the wild, a hunting animal will catch the prey now and then. But there’s no catching that alluring, fast-moving red dot!
The movement of a laser pointer triggers your dog or cat’s prey drive, which means they want to chase it. It’s an unending game with no closure for the animal since they can’t ever catch that beam of light, like they can when chasing a toy or food.
Many dogs and cats continue looking for the light beam after the laser pointer has been put away; this is confusing for your pet because the prey has simply disappeared. This can create obsessive compulsive behaviors like frantically looking around for the light, staring at the last location they saw the light, and becoming reactive to flashes of light (such as your watch face catching the sunlight and reflecting on the wall, or the glare of your tablet screen on the floor).
Many dogs or cats that exhibit behavioral issues are frustrated, confused, and anxious.
Though most cats and dogs will wind down from their hunting high with no harm done, some will redirect their frustration in ways that can hurt themselves or others. There’s an easy way out of the problem, however.
After you’ve used the laser pointer to exhaust your pet (up and down stairs can be fun — StairMaster for pets!), switch toys to something that can be caught and “killed,” such as a toy on the end of a fishing pole or a stuffed mouse. Your pet can then wind down with the satisfaction of having won the game, with “dead prey” to show for his hunting prowess.
Ideal play technique mimics hunting but without casualties. These “best play practices” encourage your pet to stalk, chase, pounce, and finally catch their prize. In nature, no animal catches their dinner at every attempt, but they ultimately do succeed. Avoid behavioral problems caused by the frustration that builds when an animal never gets to feel the satisfaction of catching their prey.
The best toys to use for this type of play with cats and dogs are pole-type toys. Pulling the toy away from the cat using quick starts, stops, and stutters imitates the movements of prey. Mimicking prey, the toy does not move toward the cat. In real life, prey, unless it is impaired, does not run back toward the predator. Pole-type toys should be available to cats only when there is someone around to supervise the activity.
The pole type toy will also work with dogs. If your dog loves to chase but you don’t always have the energy to run around with a toy, you can make your own pole toy or you can buy one from a pet store.
To make your own pole toy, you can tie a toy to the end of the rope and drag it around for your dog to chase and tug with once he’s caught it. The advantage of the rigid section is that you can fling the toy around without having to move much yourself. You can even sit in your recliner!