The Cat Laser Pointer – The Science Behind the Fascination

black and white cat chasing a laser pointer

Before the laser pointer became a fun way to amuse our cats, it was a convenient and effective way to “point out” important information in educational and business presentations.

But what do we really know about this dot?  

In this article we are going to discover the science, not only behind the laser pointer itself, but also the effects it has on our feline friends.

cat playing with a red laser pointer

How It Works

Surprisingly there is only about 100 different types of atoms in the entire universe and how these atoms are arranged determines what they make up – this could be anything from a tree to a plastic cup.  The atom is made up of a nucleus (the center) which contains protons and neutrons;  it also has an electron cloud that allows the electrons themselves to circle around the nucleus. This movement is the basis of the pointer’s beam.

Every atom is constantly in motion, and this constant motion is referred to as “excitation.” The amount of excitation an atom has depends on the amount of energy we apply to it via heat, light or electricity. According to How Stuff Works, when we apply heat, light or electricity to an atom some of the electrons in the lower orbitals will move to the higher-energy orbitals (closer to the nucleus). When electrons move orbitals, energy is emitted in the form of light or, in science-speak, “photons”. So what does all this have to do with a cat laser?  

A video posted by Fat Betty (@fatbettysays) on

Lasers are simply a device that has control over the way atoms release their photons. In fact the word LASER is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation—which is also how it works:

  1. You hit the little button—forcing light into the ruby rod.
  2. The light then “excites” the atoms in the rod.
  3. Excited atoms will emit photons (or light).
  4. Mirrors inside your laser pointer cause the photons to bounce back and forth down the length of the pointer and excite other atoms, until…
  5. A single-phase beam of light leaves the ruby rod. Voila—a laser beam!

The scientific principle behind the laser pointer is fascinating, but not half as fascinating as the effect it has on cats (and dogs).

Play is Paramount

When a cat plays it’s doing more than just releasing energy (and amusing us, of course!). As a kitten play teaches a young feline boundaries and social skills among its littermates. It learns coordination, hunting skills and also builds muscles to keep it fit and trim.  Play allows the adult feline the ability to hone its prey instincts and provides it with mental stimulation.  This is all paramount to the development and wellbeing of our feline friends, so why not bring in the interactive fun of a laser pointer?

Laser pointers spark the cat’s natural hunting abilities and interest.  It also enables the person to control where the beam of light will be focused.  This can be on a wall just above the cat’s natural reach to encourage it to jump, ran along the floor so the cat will want to chase after it, or even inside a box or on top of a crinkly bag to add an extra amusement factor to the chase.

Although cats do love the thrill-of-the-hunt with the laser pointer dot, some critics are less than enthused when it comes to its merits.  

Too Much of a Good Thing?

According to VetStreet the use of a laser pointer may be to blame for the development of compulsive tendencies like excessive grooming, aggressiveness (clawing and biting) and frustration among its feline recipients.  This is largely due to the fact that cats need a reward after the hunt; the anticipation of the “kill” builds up dopamine levels (a brain chemical, something like a child’s anticipation of opening presents on Christmas morning) that needs to be satisfied by the feel of their catch underfoot or in their mouth. Unfortunately, the elusive dot of the laser pointer simply does not supply this satisfactory ending. Instead it disappears and reappears in another location.

I previously used the laser pointer and did see a change in one of my felines. After our play session was over he would sit and stare (sometimes for a couple of hours) at the spot where he last saw the red dot. In addition, the moment we picked up the pointer (or even accidentally moved it) he would jump up and look for the elusive dot. I also noticed he was more dominant with his “brother” and would often pick a fight with him for no apparent reason (other than his frustration). However, this behavior did subside and we now only use the laser pointer once-in-awhile—usually when he’s being particularly lazy.

cat playing with a green laser pointer

Proper Laser Play

This doesn’t mean we still can’t have fun with our cats using a laser pointer, we just have to play in the right way.  According to Catster this can be done by following a few simple steps:

  1. Before bringing out the laser pointer set up the play environment by placing soft cat toys around the “play zone.”
  2. Place the laser beam in front of the cat, then zigzag it towards the stuffed “prey toy,” leaving it on the target.  Allow your cat to pounce and feel the toy under her paws.
  3. Now move the beam (with your cat in tow) to the next toy. Repeat step two.
  4. After the play session is over (or all your prey toys have been “caught”) feed your kitty some snacks or a satisfying meal.  This enables your cat to feel like the hunt was worth it and creates a feeling of satisfaction and wellbeing in your pet.

Other Interactive Cat Toys

There are many other interactive toys on the market today to get our felines up and moving. Doctors Foster and Smith have a number of exciting toys just for cats, like feathers on the end of a string, treat balls, springs and toys that encourage movement (like the Tower of Tracks).

Want to make your own cat treat puzzle toys?  Take a plastic water bottle and cut holes into it.  Place size-appropriate treats inside and recap it – your cat will love the challenge of fishing the nibbles out.  This can also be done with a paper towel tube – cut treat-sized holes then fold over the ends to prevent the food from falling out.

Here’s another cool one to try…

Other inexpensive ways to amuse your feline are tightly scrunched up balls of aluminum foil, large crinkly bags or a simple cardboard box. My furry boys love the ring off of the milk jug and will chase it around and toss it up in the air for hours.  

Laser pointers are a marvel of science and make a fun cat toy when used following our simple steps. It will not only get the dopamine in your cat’s brain brewing, but it will also keep your cat fit and trim by running off those extra calories.

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