I wasn't able to find any solid research (at all, on playing with cats and laser pointers). What I can find is animal behaviorists who say that laser pointers (without transition to a solid toy/treat) are psychologically harmful.


Pam Johnson-Bennett (Certified Cat Behavior Consultant, on TV show Psycho Kitty) gives additional reasons why laser pointers are frustrating.

Cats are tactile creatures and when they pounce on their prey they rely on being able to feel their captured treasure underneath their paws. Cats have carpal whiskers on the underside of their paws (at the wrist) and they use those whiskers to detect movement of prey when they have their paw over it. Imagine doing a great job of stalking and pouncing and repeatedly NEVER feeling as if you’ve successfully captured your intended target. Putting a paw over a laser light is an exercise in frustration.

Most of the other certified cat behaviorists that I found online don't seem to have very instructive websites/articles on this particular issue, but Ingrid Johnson (Certified Cat Behavior Consultant) states

Our cats may seem like pampered indoor housecats, but on the inside they are still fierce predators! The greatest thrill for a cat is what is referred to as the “completion of the sequence of the kill.”

It is important when we are playing with our cats that we remember this sequence and try to mimic it the best we can. Whether playing with an individual toy or engaging in interactive play with you, it is important to allow them to capture their prey. Many people think it is funny to not let the cat catch the toy; this is actually very frustrating and quite frankly, not nice. If you play using a laser light toy, give your cat a tangible object to capture at the end of the play session, feed them a meal or offer treats, something that says you caught it!

Finally, Jackson Galaxy (on TV with My Cat From Hell, but who does not appear to have formal training/certification) gives two cases when laser pointers are useful (to get a cat motivated before transition to a physical toy and to distract during intercat aggression) but he gives the downside as

If they can’t catch “the dot,” and the dot is put away at your convenience, then there will be an “inappropriate victim” down the line: other cats in the house, or your ankles as you walk by. It’s like winding up a jack-in-the-box and expecting the top not to blow off. If used as the only toy in the cat’s play life, the laser pointer can actually help promote further play aggression, and undo the benefits of play therapy.