We’ve all done it … flashed a laser pointer across the floor (and up the wall and onto the ceiling) to see at what lengths our cats will go to catch that little dot of light. But why are cats so obsessed with laser pointers? Let’s look at the science involved to find out why cats love laser pointers and whether or not they’re actually an appropriate toy for our feline friends.
How Cats’ Eyes Differ from Ours
The retina is the structure at the back of the eye that converts light energy into nerve impulses that are sent to the brain to be turned into images of our world. Two types of retinal cells – cones and rods – are found in both human and feline retinas. Broadly speaking, cones are involved with color vision and the ability to focus on and appreciate fine detail while rods are responsible for vision under low light conditions and for the detection of movement.
The human eye has lots of cones and relatively fewer rods. The feline eye has lots of rods and relatively fewer cones. Therefore, cat eyes are great at picking up movement, even if it is quite dark, but they don’t see details or colors very well. The opposite is true for us (for a neat comparison, check out All Eyes on Paris). In other words, the feline retina (and other parts of the eye as well) is perfectly designed to maximize the chances of catching quickly moving prey at dusk and dawn when cats most like to hunt.
What does this mean with regards to cats and laser pointers? First of all, because of their relatively poor color vision, the color of the laser pointer shouldn’t matter to your cat. This is particularly true since the contrast of the bright laser against the comparatively dark background is so intense.
Stimulating a Predatory Response
Though the color of the laser pointer doesn’t matter, what is alluring to your cat is the way that you make that bright dot of light move. When it darts here, then pauses, and then dashes over there, you are mimicking the actions of prey animals, which cats find hard to ignore. This type of movement stimulates the predatory sequence – stalk, pounce, kill and eat – that is hardwired into our cats even though their survival no longer depends on a successful hunt.
Did you notice that laser pointers only satisfy the first two steps in the predatory sequence – stalk and pounce – while leaving the desire to kill and eat unfulfilled? For some cats, this isn’t a problem. They’ll happily chase that little dot of light around for a while and then walk away unperturbed, but other cats seem to get agitated after taking the laser pointer on for a round or two. The inability to ever truly be successful is probably why.
If you are worried that your cat is frustrated by chasing a laser pointer, try switching to a different type of game that allows your cat act out more of the predatory sequence. Kitty fishing poles that that let you flick a stuffed mouse or feathers across the floor, into the air and onto the couch will provide your cat with the opportunity to stalk, pounce and eventually kill (or at least bite and claw) their “prey.” Toss out a few treats at the end of the game or give your cat a food dispensing ball to chase around for a while, and playtime should end on a satisfying note for everyone.
Learn more about cat toy dangers.