Laser pointers can cause behavior disorders in cats

December 11, 2019
Sarah Mouton Dowdy
Sarah Mouton Dowdy

Sarah Mouton Dowdy, a former associate content specialist for dvm360.com, is a freelance writer and editor in Kansas City, Missouri.

Firstline, Firstline July/August 2020, Volume 16, Issue 4

But you can educate your well-meaning veterinary clients on how to use them in the most rewarding way.

Cats and laser pointers. Name a more iconic duo. Unfortunately for our feline friends, many cat owners are using laser pointers in potentially harmful ways.

According to John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB, the problem with laser pointers is that they lack an endpoint. Nothing is ever physically caught. Even if the cat is “successful,” there's no reward. Such pointless play, says Dr. Ciribassi, can cause some cats to develop a compulsive disorder. Instead of engaging in normal activities like playing with their owners or even eating, these cats will spend a large portion of their day chasing things that are similar to the laser pointer light, such as shadows or reflections. “It's a quality of life issue,” he explains.

But that doesn't mean you need to instruct clients to surrender their laser pointers. Dr. Ciribassi still thinks they're great for getting cats the exercise and predatory stimulation they need. “We don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he says. “We've got a tool that works. Let's just use it in a way that's more effective.”

In Dr. Ciribassi's opinion, this can best be achieved by updating the iconic duo to a trio by adding a clicker. Here's how it works: The cat is trained to associate the sound of the clicker with pleasing its owner and with the promise of a tangible reward. Once it's clicker trained, the cat is periodically allowed to “catch” the laser light, at which point the owner delivers a click followed by a tasty treat. In this way, the cat knows that it's won and that something good is coming. “Now,” says Dr. Ciribassi, “there's a concrete, tangible result of catching the laser light.”

Editor's note: This article is based on a dvm360.com video featuring Sarah Wooten, DVM, and John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB. Watch it here!

Sarah Mouton Dowdy, a former associate content specialist for dvm360.com, is a freelance writer and editor in Kansas City, Missouri.

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