You may have noticed that your cat spends hours a day watching out the window, chattering at birds, and perhaps dreaming of climbing trees and laying in the lush grass. Cats came from the wild where they were free to roam, uninhibited out of doors. For most indoor cats, this outdoor dream will never become a reality due to unavailable safe outdoor confines. Don’t let your dog be the only one that enjoys the outdoors with you, teach your cat to walk on a leash and access the outdoor enrichment that most of them desire.
Assess Your Cat
Before doing anything remotely tied to training your cat to walk on a leash, assess your cat’s personality. Not every kitty will find leash walking enjoyable, and some might find it downright miserable and terrifying. Personality plays a huge role in determining the likeliness that both you and Fluffy will have an enjoyable leash training experience.
Personality traits that favor an outdoor adventurer include:
- Curiosity for the outdoors: the cat enjoys window watching, balcony sitting, etc.
- Outgoing and bold: a kitty that isn’t afraid to try new things and meet new critters without running and hiding under the bed.
- Easy going: this cat takes things in stride and doesn’t shy away from new objects.
- Active: most couch kitties could care less what lies beyond the front door.
Personality traits that don’t bode well for future owner/kitty walks:
- Shyness and apprehension: if your kitty is nowhere to be found when new people, animals, or objects are introduced.
- Aggression: your cat needs to keep his claws in when meeting new animals or people.
- Easily spooked: if a loud noise sends kitty into a fur tornado.
Also, assess your situation. Do you have a safe area to walk or are you willing to travel to a location that you can get away from roads, traffic and hopefully dogs? A quiet path or sidewalk, ideally with grassy areas where your cat can explore works great. Avoid dog parks and bicycle paths as well as playgrounds, especially for your first few ventures. Too much noise and excitement might extinguish your cat’s desire for the outdoors.
Outfitting Your Kitty Hiker
Before any venture outside, it is important to obtain the proper equipment to keep your cat safe and secure while walking. Always use a harness, not a collar. Since cats have well, cat-like agility, they can easily contort out of a collar if the need arises. Harnesses provide an extra level of security to make sure your critter can’t escape the leash.
There is a huge variety of harnesses available. Some are a simple figure eight of collar-like webbing that secure around the neck and behind the front legs of your kitty. Others have a more padded, vest-like appearance that offer more coverage around the neck and chest. A Kitty Holster is another option that has coverage more like a walking jacket and positions the ring further back on the shoulders rather than around the neck.
Whichever harness you choose, make sure to fit it properly to your cat well in advance. A proper fit is one that is one to two fingers tight. This means you can easily slip one to two fingers underneath the harness where it goes around the neck and where it goes around the chest. If available, you can also adjust the strap that connects the neck and chest pieces. Make sure this length is snug and doesn’t gap. It’s also a great idea to have identification on the harness in case your cat becomes separated from you during one of your outings.
Choose a leash that is long enough for your cat to venture a little ways from you, but is not so long that he can wrap himself around a tree or climb out of reach. It is also best to avoid retractable leashes because it seems that these are never in the locked position when they need to be. This allows kitty to become tangled in a hurry if trouble arises. Also, a shorter leash will allow you to quickly pick up your cat using the leash and harness if you need to quickly snatch him out of the way.
Preparation for the Maiden Voyage
Training your cat to walk on a leash starts well before that first day you venture outside. Your kitty needs to have time to acclimate to wearing a harness and leash. The best way to do this is to have him practice by wearing the harness inside the house. He can eat, drink, sleep and play in the harness until he is comfortable with it. Be aware that the first time you put it on, he may act like he is carrying the weight of the world and slink around. Just give him time and try to stifle your giggles while in his presence.
Once the harness has become like a second skin to him, it’s time to attach the leash. Let him drag the leash around a bit while you are with him. This will allow you to practice stopping him with a gentle tug and teaching him to go ahead with the release of pressure. Don’t leave your cat unattended while dragging the leash as he may get tangled in furniture, etc.
If your cat is treat oriented, you can provide positive reinforcement with food treats for when he allows you to put the harness on or when you successfully direct him with the leash.
Taking that First Step
Once you and your cat are comfortable with the new equipment, it’s time to take that first adventure. Again, choose a location that is quiet, out of the way, and secluded. As with most activities that you do with your cat, it is best to let them call the shots. Go where he wants to go, as long as it’s safe. If he wants to stop and sniff the grass, by all means stop, if he wants to serpentine through the ditch, then let him enjoy. The first several walks that you go on with your cat might not take you more than a few hundred feet from the initial spot, but as your kitty gets more comfortable, you can extend the length of the walks.
Gradually work on making your kitty stop and go while walking with gentle tugs on the leash. Never drag or pull hard on the leash unless it is necessary to get your cat out of danger. As time goes by, you can teach your cat to go more or less where you do, making turns and starting and stopping as needed.
With the proper training and preparation, walking with your cat can be an enjoyable and enriching experience for both of you. It will help satisfy your cat’s instinctual outdoor appetite and it provides a great bonding experience unlike any indoor activity.