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Laser Pointer Toys - Dangerous for Pets
- List of Dog Breeds with High Prey Drive
Dogs with a high drive to chase, contact, and 'kill' when interacting with toys.
I purchased a small laser pointer specifically marketed for cats from Petco for $4.00 in an attempt to get my foster cat, Delilah, to play. Delilah looked moderately interested when she first saw the laser beam, and followed its movements lazily with her eyes. When she realized I was controlling the beam she lost interest.
I was delighted when my dog, Lily, saw the laser beam and began to animatedly chase it around the room. The longer we played the more frenzied and ridiculous she got. When we finished our game Lily was exhausted and ready for bed.
The laser pointer was such a success inside that I decided playing with it outside in the yard would be even more fun. I was a little startled when a passerby stopped to warn me that a laser pointer had made her dog 'go crazy'. I laughed it off, but started paying more attention to Lily's behavior.
I began to notice subtle oddities when Lily and I finished a game with the laser pointer. She would come inside and lay down on the bed, but instead of falling asleep or relaxing she would look around unblinking and alert. Her eyes looked crazed. Then she began to chase the cursor on my computer screen. At one point she lunged at the screen and tried to bite. When I corrected her she stopped, but kept watching the screen intently.
I stopped using the laser pointer except on occasion. When she had not played with the laser she acted normally, but when she had played with it she would act oddly again. Once day I clicked a pen open to do homework one day and she snapped to attention. The laser pointer clicks on in the same way. She was becoming obsessed. We stopped playing with the laser.
Since then I have heard multiple stories of laser pointers leading dogs to become obsessed with chasing reflections, shadows, or anything related to light that moves. The degree of each case can range from mild behavioral oddities to severe OCD.
It was puzzling to me that dogs are so susceptible to this problem. Lasers are usually specifically marketed for cats, and there are far fewer occurrences of cats becoming obsessive.
It turns out that a dog's prey drive is divided in to four chronological steps - finding the prey, following the prey, the initial contact with the prey, and then the final kill. This is important to keep in mind because a dog is genetically programed to come in contact with the prey and "kill" in order to have closure on their hunt. The same instincts guide a dog while it is playing, and in the case of a laser pointer the last two steps - contact and kill - can never be satisfied.
Some dogs are more prone to obsessive behavior than others. In the process of domestication, humans bred dogs to favor a certain aspect of their prey drive so that they would be more effective at their job. For instance, herding breeds have a very strong drive to follow, but very little drive to contact or kill prey. As a result that can work livestock without putting the livestock in danger. A herding dog may be perfectly satisfied just to chase a laser pointer, but dog breeds that have a strong contact/kill drive are likely to have a strong instinct to continue chasing the laser until contact is made. Their brains are still focused on achieving contact, even after the laser is gone.
Cat hunting behaviors are similar to dog behaviors, but the existence of the contact and kill steps are not necessarily instinctual. For a cat, catching and killing is a learned skill. Cats learn primarily from their mothers when they are young. For many domestic cats this skill is lost, explaining why for many cats the fun of hunting is in the chase, not the contact and kill. For these cats the laser pointer is fun to stalk and pounce on, but they will be perfectly happy to move on to other activities once the laser beam disappears. For cats who have been taught to contact and kill, the chances that they will become obsessive about the laser pointer is higher.
There are various ways to decrease an animals chances of becoming obsessive. Beginning play time with the laser pointer and moving on to play with a tangible toy may satisfy the animals need for contact and keep their brain moving in forward motion.
It may also be beneficial to teach the animal a command to leave the laser beam alone while it is still shining, thereby assuring that the animal can walk away and forget the game when the time comes. This also gives the animal psychological permission to leave the laser beam alone and do something else, despite instinct telling them to continue the hunt.
Preventative measures may keep an animal from becoming obsessive, but it is still important to watch for signs of abnormal behaviors. While the laser pointer can be fun and entertaining for some pets, it can have huge detriments on others. It is better to stop the problem early. Personally, I am retiring my laser pointer in favor of toys with less daunting repercussions.
Has a laser pointer had negative effects on your pet?
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