Cats have a reputation as natural homebodies. Between catnaps, couch lazing and early-morning cuddles, it’s no wonder many owners think of their cats as indoor-only companions.
But it’s possible your cat craves more adventure than your home can provide. “Cats certainly love to sleep, but to stay healthy, they need physical activity and mental stimulation just like we do,” says Laura Moss, co-founder of AdventureCats.org and author of the upcoming book Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest. Training cats to walk on a leash outside is a great way to let them stretch their boundaries, exercise their bodies and their minds, and maybe discover a part of their personalities that doesn’t always come out when they’re behind closed doors.
Many owners may think of cats as untrainable, says Moss. But cats can be trained to walk on a leash just like dogs. With a few steps and the right harness and leash, owners who are interested in training cats to walk outside can get going in no time.
Signs of Readiness for Leash Training a Cat
Some cats are more likely to do well with cat walking than others. If you’re not sure your pet is ready, Moss suggests looking for these signs.
• Bravery: In general, cats that are valiant and brave will take to walking outdoors more easily than others. They’re usually more at ease in unpredictable environments.
• Curiosity: Felines who show an interest in the outdoors may also be good candidates for cat walking. If your cat spends a long time looking out the window or constantly darts for the door, consider taking him outside.
• Boredom: Walking a cat on a leash can help when your pet has a lot of energy, shows signs or boredom, or needs more exercise to help with something like obesity.
• Youth: According to Moss, you can leash train almost any cat if you have patience and plenty of positive reinforcement. But kittens are often easiest since they’re more open to new adventures—so start training your cat to walk when he’s young, if possible.
In the end, you know your cat best. Even without some of these personality traits, your cat may be open to new outdoor adventures. Moss points to a friend’s cat as an example: “Snowflake is very skittish and hides whenever company comes over, but she loves to explore the backyard on her cat harness, and she loves to sit on the front porch with her owners and watch the neighborhood.”
How to Train Your Cat to Walk Outside
First and foremost, before training a cat to walk outside, make sure he’s up to date on all medications and shots. Ask your veterinarian if your cat is healthy enough for cat walking. It’s also a good idea to microchip your cat in case he wanders off without you.
Once your cat is ready, you may be tempted to start by putting a leash on his collar, just like you would a dog. But for cats, purchasing a special cat harness is necessary. Without one, owners risk choking or injuring their cats.
Consider a two-in-one harness and leash like the Red Dingo Classic Cat Harness and Lead Combo. It comfortably adjusts to whatever size your cat needs and features a safety release in case your cat gets caught in a tight spot, as well as a bell for outdoor protection. You may also try the PetSafe Come With Me Kitty Harness and Bungee Cat Leash. The gentle bungee leash and adjustable harness avoid putting pressure on your cat’s throat, and the harness stays on cats who otherwise may be little escape artists.
Once you have the green light from your vet and the right gear, follow these five tips from Moss for leash training a cat.
1. Acquaint your cat with the harness—but start slow. “Don’t simply put your cat in the harness and take him outside,” says Moss. “You run the risk of frightening your cat to the point he may never want to get near the harness or door again.”
2. Make good memories right away. It can take your cat a while to get used to the harness. But you may be able to move the process along by associating the harness with a positive experience such as food, says Moss. “Start by leaving the harness by your cat’s food dish, or by simply holding out the harness so he can sniff it and then feeding him treats afterward.”
3. Minimize the fear factor. Don’t forget that other aspects of the harness may also be frightening, such as new sounds and smells. “Practice snapping the harness together or undoing the Velcro to get your kitty accustomed to the new sounds,” suggests Moss.
4. Try it on. As your cat gets accustomed to seeing, hearing and smelling the harness, try putting it on him—but don’t fasten it yet, cautions Moss. Just let your cat get used to having something new on him as he goes about his normal routine. Again, don’t hesitate to use positive reinforcement. Treats can serve as both a reward and a distraction.
5. Fasten it up (and don’t give up!). If your cat is comfortable with the harness on him, try fastening it. Just don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t work the first time. Any signs of discomfort or anxiety mean you should take it off, offer some positive reinforcement, and wait a bit to try again later.
“Remember, it’s normal for cats to freeze up, refuse to walk, or walk strangely the first few times they’re wearing a harness,” says Moss. “Your cat has never experienced the sensation of something on his back before, so it’s going to take time to adjust to it.”
Common Mistakes to Avoid when Training a Cat to Walk
As with most pet training projects, cat walking may not go smoothly at first. Moss says these are the most common mistakes owners make when training cats:
• Never let your cat walk out the door on his own when it’s time for a walk, even if he’s leashed. “A cat that’s used to walking outside when he’s leashed will likely start walking out the door when he’s not leashed as well, and you don’t want to encourage door dashing,” warns Moss.
• Don’t risk letting your cat wander outdoors without a leash. The safest way to go outside with a cat is on a leash and harness.
• Nip any begging behavior in the bud. “If your kitty loves the sun on his fur and the wind in his whiskers, you may find yourself with a cat that’s always whining to go outside,” says Moss. But if you start giving in to these bad habits, it will only get worse.
What’s the most important piece of advice when walking a cat? Take it slow and don’t force your cat to do something he’s not ready to do. “As all cat owners know, felines do what they want,” Moss says. “Don’t force your cat to do anything he isn’t ready for, whether it’s putting on the harness or going for a hike. Forcing your cat outside of his comfort zone will likely backfire and will not only frighten your cat, but may also be harm your relationship.”