It takes place every evening in living rooms across the world: A cat guardian reaches for the laser pointer and with the special jingling sound it makes the cat’s ears perk up, pupils dilate, and whiskers pouf out, giving her full attention. With the press of a button, the red dot appears and flies across the room with the cat in hot pursuit. The cat may appear to execute nearly impossible stunts such as climbing the walls and mid-air flips. Or her head may move mere centimeters at a time, practically twitching, focusing on the red dot as it shakes imperceptibly to the guardian. As the cat runs out of energy, the guardian puts the laser away for another day but the cat can’t get the red dot out of her mind! She may paw at the laser to get it going again or search the walls for the sudden reappearance of the red dot. Her guardian chuckles, pats her on the head and tells her that’s all for today.
There are few things in this world as comical as watching your cat obsess over the red dot! But cat psychology tells us that this may not be the healthiest activity for our feline friends. A look at our cats’ ancestry can explain why this is.
Cats as we know them have only been domesticated for about 10,000 years as compared to dogs who were domesticated closer to 15,000 years ago. In order to satisfy cats physically and psychologically, the ideal play session would mimic the natural cycles of their closest ancestor, the African Wild Cat, of hunt, kill, eat, groom, sleep, repeat. Community and feral cats follow this routine up to 12 times a day!
Considering the need for cats to hunt and kill their prey daily, the ubiquitous laser pointer presents a serious concern: your cat can’t catch it. She sees a bright, shiny piece of prey, such as a lightning bug. When she can’t catch it, her inner African Wild Cat is frustrated. I guarantee you’ve seen this frustration before as her nearly frantic twitching and jumping as she searches the walls, floors, and ceilings for the lightening bug she was thisclose to catching. Her perseverance is adorably endearing and entertaining, but when you understand that her inner wild cat is dissatisfied and anxious it’s not so funny anymore. In severe cases, this frustration could lead to more serious issues and even litter box problems.
The good news is that the solution to this problem is simple, affordable, and probably already in your home! Most cats love fishing rod style toys which feature a wand and a three foot long string that has feathers attached to the end. They are available at any pet store or you can make them using materials you have at home. A simple shoelace or string will suffice, but make sure anything that can be swallowed is put up out of reach after playtime. This also makes playtime that much more special because only you can bring the toy out.
When you wave around a nice juicy wand toy with a feather or other nature replica on the end, you are awakening your cat’s hunting instincts. Let her stalk, chase, and eventually catch that rodent in her paws. Let her shake it, kick it, and kill it. If you are using a long string, that string is now a snake that slithers, turns corners, and flips around during its last few moments of life. If you are waving a feather wand, it is now a bird that jumps, lands, flies, and slowly loses height of range as she slaps it down to earth. Maybe your toy is scared and shivers under a table. Maybe your toy hides behind a door hoping the hunter won’t see it. Maybe your toy will play dead, let her sniff it, and then spring back to life when she’s not looking. Use your imagination and make sure the toy slowly dies while you play. Finally, it collapses and your cat may wish to drag it around the house in triumph, which is our end goal.
Try to save meal times for immediately after play time, as this makes the most sense to your cat’s biological clock. She just killed dinner, right? After eating, if you see her grooming you know you did your job well! In her mind, she’s cleaning off all the blood and guts from her kill. She should be ready to snooze next.
There may be an adjustment period for your cat when you switch from the red dot to a hunting toy. Be patient! During the transition, you may begin play with the laser to get your cat fired up, and then finish with her killing her wand toy in her paws. Don’t be discouraged if your cat mostly watches the wand toy. Cats observe their prey and learn their movements before going in for the kill. Remember, this is a very different style of play than the frantic red dot chasing.
This style of play will help to build your cat’s confidence and prevent all kinds of behavior issues while solidifying your love and bond with each other. There is not a single cat out there that can’t benefit from more interactive play with their guardian. I recommend this style of play to all of my clients to build cat confidence, sleep through the night, treat behavior issues, and prevent aggression. So let’s get playing!