You’ve seen a cat chase a laser pointer and everyone finds that amusing. Does the cat think so, too?
Some would answer, “I don’t think the cat thinks.”
Others would say in a matronly-pitched voice, “Oh, don’t be silly, honey, of course they like it or they wouldn’t have so much fun chasing it.”
Still others will say such play is flat out abusive.
Zoos and wildlife refuges come under criticism for having enclosures that are too small. Animals develop repetitive movements, incessantly pacing the perimeter, which is allegedly a sign of passive abuse or neglect.
They don’t pace all the time, though. When does lying around waiting for the next feeding become incessant anticipation?
Having worked in a county jail, trust me, the same activity patterns can develop with humans. They also often pace the perimeter of their small cage. Most of the rest of the time they lie around and wait for the next feeding.
Under federal law, research animals are required to have enrichment provided at certain times during their stay. A common one for horses is a Tug-N-Toss, a big red thing with a handle for shaking about while in the stall.
We humans like to make animal toys and we really like to buy them, too. One recently featured by People magazine was a round tray with a ball in a track around the perimeter. Cats bat at the ball and it shoots around in a circle but cannot be removed. The interior of the tray contains a cat scratching surface impregnated with catnip.
Called the Bergan Turboscratcher Cat Toy, it entices our furry pets to bat the ball, sharpen their claws, and get a little tipsy all at the same time. Reviews shout that cats will play with this for hours.
One can’t help but wonder. When do hours of the same “play” become repetitive movement? Also, how do we really know the cat batting at the little ball, or the horse whipping around the red rubber ball, or the dog chewing a Kong toy really wants to be doing that? Maybe they just do it because all their other toys are boring? Or maybe they just like watching us go ape as we watch them?
My experience has been that pets and kids seem to like toys and they also seem to tire of them over time. One has to ask, why wouldn’t they get bored? No animal, including people, likes to do the same things all the time. It suggests the neurologic wiring of our brains is such that we’ve evolved to explore then move on.
My behaviorist friends over the years have lots of answers with good justification behind them. We know from the work of the late Dr. Jaak Panksepp that rats can be tickled and they emit a very high-pitched laugh. That’s startling enough when one witnesses it.
Turn out the lights and sit there watching in dim light or with night vision equipment long enough, and one sees rats tickling each other and laughing a lot — but not all the time. After a while they quit and do what rats do otherwise.
So here’s the science fiction thought for this week. A person makes the perfect cat toy. She tests it on her cat and the cat will not stop playing with it. She finally has to take it away and put it in a closet. Arriving home from work, she sees the cat has chewed through the closet door and is in the there playing with the toy.
You can take it from there.
Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email firstname.lastname@example.org.