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Laser Pointer Toys - Dangerous for Pets

Updated on January 20, 2013
Tangible toys satisfy a dog's prey drive in a way that laser pointers can not.
Tangible toys satisfy a dog's prey drive in a way that laser pointers can not.
Cats are less likely to be negatively affected by laser pointers than dogs.
Cats are less likely to be negatively affected by laser pointers than dogs.

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.

While laser pointers may be an easy way to exercise your pet, there are other options that better satisfy their natural instincts.
While laser pointers may be an easy way to exercise your pet, there are other options that better satisfy their natural instincts.

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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      Kenneth 3 years ago

      My parent's got a Doberman girl that the owners couldn't keep apparently they "didn't know" a Doberman got "that big". She seemed like a very nice dog.

      After a couple days she was playing in the garden, constantly snapping at the air and looking completely crazy. Turns out the daughter of the family used a laser pointer to play with her from when she was a puppy. She never recovered and would snap at light beams and shadows for the rest of her days, any bucket of water she would violently bark and snap into the water because of the water reflections. Don't use laser pointers to "play" with dogs.

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      catobsessed 4 years ago

      One of my cats was really obsessed with the laser pen. I played with him lots with it and thought it was great exercise if it was very cold outside and snowy.

      Then he started going nuts. I noticed he was dreaming chasing it, then to my horror, started chasing it even when it wasn't switched on. He has become a psychotic lunatic. Any repeating noise and i mean any! He thinks it's the laser. Mouse clicks i can understand but even if I say bang bang he chases this imaginary laser. In circles to infinity. Its really disturbing. Am going to call a vet and obviously no more laser. Lets hope he forgets after a couple weeks. Also he follows me everywhere staring at me like a lunatic waiting for the laser. I have stopped using last few days but now the flashing light on my router has attracted his attention. The 3 other cats like it but arent that bothered when its put away. Definitely I would be careful if your cat loves it too much to begin with, you need to watch out. The standby lights on tvs,dvd,sky box, you name it,it has lights on it that seem to get his interest now

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      JCW 4 years ago

      My son has an English Setter that is now about 8 months old. He used a laser for 2 or 3 months as an easy means for the dog to use up the excess energy until he realised that all she was interested in doing was chasing shadows and any light when the laser was switched off. My son doesn't use the laser now but the dog still searches out shadows all the time and although will play with a ball at home, isn't interested in doing so when we take her out - normally she tries to catch moths or butterflies instead or stands waiting to see if the laser comes out even though this hasn't happened for several months!! I definitely would't recommend lasers.

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      Allison 5 years ago

      Nancynurse, I think the ball is a far better option than the laser. Not only will they not become obsessive about a ball, it also allows you to be associated with playing. It builds your relationship with your dog far more than a laser pointer would.

    • nancynurse profile image

      Nancy McClintock 5 years ago from Southeast USA

      Interesting. I throw the ball quite a bit to by daughters dogs. Never thought of using a laser . I think the dog can't go after a reward and this can be frustrating to your dog. I like walking and ball throwing. We both get exercise. I think the laser can akin to teasing the animal. Interesting hub.

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      Allison 5 years ago

      I was completely unaware too, but it has caused huge problems for several of my friends and their pets. Luckily I stopped in time for my puppy to bounce back to normal almost immediately.

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      Allison 5 years ago

      Your cats may be too smart to be bothered with it. My foster cat is the same way (although she also knows that if she starts playing she is going to get tackled by a very enthusiastic puppy). Do they play with other toys? I have heard that sometimes if cats do not play a lot as kittens they won't understand the concept of toys as well.

      That is really funny about the floor installations. Maybe you could ask clients to keep their pets in another room while you work. Although it might be worth the challenge in exchange for a little extra entertainment.

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      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      I would never have thought of this happening. You give some good examples and make it sound perfectly logical that a dog could become obsessive about a laser point!

      Voted up and interesting.

    • flagostomos profile image

      flagostomos 5 years ago from Washington, United States

      Hmm.. this is very interesting. Why do you think my cats have no interest in laser pointers at all?

      On a side note, for work I measure living spaces for flooring installations, and one of my tools is a laser measure. It can be challenging to get readings at times when the cats/dogs want to play with the laser!