For cats, laser pointers are like Superman’s kryptonite. Most friendly felines can’t help but chase the beam of red or green light around the floor, no matter their age or typical inclination to play. Why do cats seem obsessed with laser pointers? Why do these small dots of light that they can’t even touch seem better than any toy mouse or feathered wand?
This article looks at the science behind a cat’s need to chase a beam of light.
A Cat on the Hunt
Why are cats instantly inclined to follow a laser pointer?
Cats are predatory animals, and they are made to be top-notch hunters. Their instinct is to chase anything that moves quickly around them, since something in their brains tells them that this is prey.
Some researchers believe that most domesticated cats don’t really understand what prey means. That is why they find themselves chasing a light instead of something that they can eat.
Other scientists believe that cats are smarter than that, and they know that the laser isn’t a mouse or something similar. Instead, their predatory instincts are just so in tune, they get triggered even by a zipping floor light.
A cat’s predatory instinct is to chase anything that moves quickly. It is ingrained into their very anatomy. House cats are not far away from their wild descendants, the African and European Wild Cats, and the hunting instinct is still strong.
This predatory drive is also the reason that your outdoor cat will sometimes leave you “presents” of small, half-eaten rodents on the sidewalk. They are like offerings to the head of their pack.
Cats’ Eyes: Laser Sharp
An eye has several functioning parts, including the retina. The retina is at the back of the eye and works to convert light energy into nerve impulses that get sent to the brain. The brain translates these to images of the world around us.
The retina is made up of two types of retinal cells: the rods and the cones. Both cats and humans have these cells. However, humans have more cones and cats have more rods.
The function of each of these cells is what makes cat and human eyes function so differently. A broad definition of what cones do in the eye includes seeing color and detail. Rods allow you to see in near-dark conditions and spot movement.
Since cats have more rods, they are especially good at seeing movements that happen quickly. It isn’t just the reflexes of a tiger that help them excel at catching fast-moving objects. These extra rods also make it easier for the cat to see in low-light conditions.
That difference is also why we have trouble seeing in the dark, but we can see so many more colors and details than animals, like cats.
Whatever the case, you should never point a laser directly into an eye. Whether that eye belongs to an animal or a human, no amount of cones or rods can protect the retina from the possibly irreversible damage that lasers can wreak on them.
If you have never tried using a laser pointer to play with your kitty before, give it a try. To get them accustomed to it, start moving it around slowly and in obvious places. You can even try training them to play the game, tossing out treats where the laser pointer is at so they have something to “catch” as they play.
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Featured Image Credit: Laurav1984, Shutterstock