No, laser pointers are not bad for cats. For the sake of clarity, I’m referring to domestic cats because there are questions about wild cats in captivity playing with laser pointers. However, there are pros and cons. The laser pointer is a popular cat toy because it’s easy to use and cats love to chase the dot of light. There are some caveats to think about.
People question whether a cat toy laser pointer might accidentally blind a domestic cat. You can find a definitive answer on the subject of whether a pocket laser can damage the eye on the Scientific American website. Having read the page my conclusion from the information provided is that it is highly unlikely that you could damage your cat’s eye. In fact I would say that it is almost impossible unless the person using the pocket laser deliberately sets out to harm a cat. Blinding by accident, won’t happen in normal use. The likelihood of it happening is probably enhanced if the toy is used under dark conditions as the cat’s pupil will be fully dilated leaving the retina more exposed.
There’s one little doubt I have and that is some cat toy laser pointers are imported from abroad into America and Europe and they may exceed safety limits. In America the FDA regulates the devices and how they are classified and labelled. In the UK laser pointers above 1 mW are illegal but how well is the law enforced? In the USA the class II laser pointer is safer than a class III and most laser pointers have a power range from 1 to 5 mW. This is from one thousandth of a watt to five thousandths of a watt. A standard bulb is 60 watts. You can see that the power output is very small for a laser pointer but it is directed very precisely compared to a lightbulb which provides scattered light.
Even in the knowledge that there may be some illegal or non-standard laser pointers in America, the UK or other European countries, I would still be confident that the risk of a cat toy laser pointer causing injury to be exceedingly small. As far as I can see, no cases are reported online, which is telling bearing in mind the numbers sold.
Laser pointer as a cat toy
Domestic cats are highly stimulated by the dot of light created by a laser pointer. This is because cats as predators inherently pick up sharp movement indicating a prey animal. They are therefore chasing a prey animal when they chase a laser pointer. That’s good and very effective. The downside, as I see it, is that once a cat successfully pounces onto the dot of light it does not behave like a prey animal. It does not stop, it does not become passive and it cannot be killed. It is therefore an unnatural substitute for a prey animal and it may, in time, become boring to a domestic cat. Perhaps the key is to use it for a short time and then put it away and bring it out perhaps the next day. The fact that a domestic cat can’t kill it is probably overridden quite conclusively by the fact that their predatory instinct drives them to chase it.
There seems to be a discussion on the Internet about whether laser pointers can make a cat anxious or even cause OCD. Some people might argue that as a pointer can’t be killed and therefore the cat can never catch the ‘prey’, it may cause anxiety. I’m not sure about this. Frustration, it might cause if you play for a long time. I would suspect that a cat would just stop if you played with it for too long a time.
When you criticise a laser pointer for causing frustration then you are justified in criticising many cat toys for causing frustration because most of them can’t be killed either. Perhaps this is why domestic cats often become bored with cat toys. They have a limited play time lifespan. Cat toys should be manufactured to disintegrate when attacked by a cat.
Ideal cat toy
I’m surprised that the pet product manufacturers do not make a cheap cat toy which can be destroyed by a domestic cat after one attack. In other words a cat toy which lasts for one game session only. They could manufacture a dozen of the same toys all of which are presented in the same box a bit like a box of chocolates. The cat plays with one and destroys it after a few minutes. The next day you bring out a fresh model which is identical to the previous one. Perhaps there might be some small differences in appearance. In order for the product to be saleable they would have to be made cheaply but cats do not differentiate between expensive toys and cheap toys. Some of the best toys are home-made such as scrunched up pieces of paper. I’d recommend that the manufacturers do as I suggest.
I have never had any problems with a cat toy laser pointer. My cat has enjoyed playing with it and I never felt that it could harm him although I am naturally careful and aware of the potential of harm to the eyes. I would recommend the toy.
To return to the question in the title which is whether cat toy laser pointers are bad for cats. They are not bad for cats in my view. They are good for cats in short bursts as a means to entertain and stimulate your cat for a while but like all toys they have limitations.