Cats leaping sky-high after spotting suspicious cucumbers? Yes, please. But cats going crazy chasing laser pointers? That’s still prime online viewing that gets all the laughs. In fact, cats versus laser pointers is such hilarious stuff that there’s an entire industry that revolves around the manufacture and sale of laser pointers for pets. There’s even a laser pointer simulator app for smartphones.
So why are so many cats obsessed with quickly moving red dots? And do big cats act the same way?
Despite being domesticated, many house cats still have a natural hunting instinct lurking deep within their DNA. Before domestication, a cat’s survival — and that of its offspring — hinged upon hunting ability. While most house cats don’t have much opportunity to sharpen their hunting behaviors by chasing and pouncing, the erratic movement of a laser pointer offers a way to hone these skills. When a laser pointer dot zigzags across a floor, or stops and darts away, it resembles the movements of feline prey (look out, mice!) and provides an outlet for cooped-up cats.
Along with this hunting instinct, cats possess some visual attributes activated by their elevated interest in a laser pointer. Cats, like many animals whose meals involve catching prey, have a wider field of vision than people. That’s because felines have more rod cells in their eyes and larger corneas, as well as a structure called the tapetum lucidum that reflects additional light to the retina. As a result, cat vision is more sensitive in the low-light conditions in which laser pointers are often used, and the movement of the brightly colored dot can trigger the feline instinct of hunting.
But, when the staff of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, decided to find out if their exotic big cats — cougars, lions, tigers and more — would enjoy laser pointers as much as house cats, the results were mixed, as documented in this video:
“Some of the smaller cats, like bobcats and African servals, did like chasing the laser dot,” says Susan Bass, the rescue’s director of public relations. “But most of our cats didn’t have any interest in them. That’s a cat for you.”