By Janiss Garza
Many people mistakenly believe that cats can’t be trained to walk on a leash. Are you one of them? You may be cheating your cat out of a fun and enriching experience. By learning to wear a harness and walk on a leash, a cat can experience the outdoors safely, accompany you on trips, and you and your cat will also build a stronger bond. So why not give it a try?
Before you get started, I want you to lose two things: your assumptions and your expectations. Cats are sensitive creatures, and will respond – often negatively – to any fears or doubts you may have about what you want them to do. They also may resist doing something you want them to do. Unlike dogs, cats are not people pleasers, and any sort of training must be done using the cat’s perspective, not your own.
Here are your steps to feline harness and leash training success:
- Choose the right harness. Because of a cat’s anatomy, you can’t just attach a leash to a collar – that could choke the cat. A harness is a must, and the “D” ring (where the leash attaches) should be just behind the shoulder blades. Measure your cat around the neck and chest and buy the correct size adjustable harness. It needs to be adjustable because chances are it won’t fit perfectly right off the rack, and also your cat’s weight may fluctuate over seasons or years. A harness should fit snugly, but not constrict – you should be able to just slip a finger or two under the straps. If it’s too loose, your cat could bolt right out of it at the first sound of a car backfiring or a dog barking, and you don’t want that to happen.
A walking vest is one of the more secure options, but it is also the most confining. Some strap harness actually work well. Some small dog harnesses, but not all, may work for cats too. Keep in mind cats are more flexible than dogs, and it’s easier for them to slip out of a harness.
- Choose the right leash. It should be lightweight and long enough to give your cat room to explore. Six feet in length is good. Never, ever get a retractable leash. You or your cat could become tangled in it and get injured.
- Introduce your cat to the harness gradually. Don’t put it on her at first. Just let her sniff it, set it at her feet, and if she is food motivated, give her a treat. If she is more of a playful type, combine the harness introduction with a play session. The key is to let the cat know that harness time means something good is going to happen. Once the cat is familiar with the harness, try draping it over her back without fastening it. Then once she accepts that, fasten it on her. How long will all this take? It will depend on your cat. It could take days or weeks. Some cats adapt to a harness immediately, but it’s better to be patient rather than risk turning the cat off.
What if your cat flops over and refuses to move the first time you put a harness on him? That’s fine. Let him… but offer him some of his favorite treats, or a fun toy – from a distance, so he has to come get whatever you are offering. Cats are opportunists, and will tolerate something they may not be thrilled with if it means they get something they love. Repeat this process until the cat moves comfortably and willingly in the harness. These sessions should be fun for both of you and never a chore.
- Once your cat adapts to the harness, attach the leash. Don’t try to lead the cat with the leash. In fact, don’t even hold the leash at all at first. If your cat balks at the extra weight of the leash, offer treats or toys, once again, from a distance so that he has to move to get them. When he is comfortable with the leash dragging behind him, pick up your end of the leash and gently hold it, allowing the cat to move wherever he wants.
- You’ve got your cat wearing the harness, and you’ve got hold of the leash – now it’s time to practice inside the house. Let your cat take the lead on this. Unlike dogs, most cats won’t heel or go where you want them to (although some do). The more your cat feels she is in control, the more willing she will be to walk on the leash. If she stops moving and you want to encourage her to walk, tempt her with treats or toys, like you did before. This is the point where, if she is so inclined, she will start walking with you, similar to a dog.
- Once you and your cat feel comfortable with your leash skills, and you are convinced the harness is secure and he won’t wiggle out of it, it’s time to take your practice outside. Just take your cat out around your home, preferably in an enclosed area, like a patio. Do this during the day, and make sure he is safe from other animals and any plants that may be dangerous for him (lilies, oleander, and sago palms, for example). Then just hold onto the leash and let him explore. Don’t expect him to walk with you, even if he was doing it inside. This is brand new terrain, and to feel safe, he must be given the ability to check things out undisturbed. Step in if he is about to do something like jump over a wall or eat a plant that’s not good for him, but otherwise the best thing you can do is give him his freedom to roam. Once he gets over any initial hesitation, he will probably be thrilled to explore.
- If exploring outside your house on the leash is as far as you get with your cat, great! But if you want, you can take it further. Try taking your cat to the local pet store. Wait until you are in the store’s parking lot before reaching in the carrier and putting on her leash. You don’t want to do it earlier because she might get tangled in the leash in the carrier. But you want to put the leash on inside the car, where she is confined. Bring her into the store in her carrier, take her to the cat section, hold onto the leash and let her out. Go through the same precautions as you did before – make sure there are no dogs nearby to scare her, and that she is in a safe area. It is likely she will be nervous in this very open and unfamiliar setting, so be reassuring, and make sure she knows you are there to protect her. Let her explore as much or as little as she wants before returning her to the carrier and taking her home. Praise her and reward her as soon as you are back in the car. It may take several tries for her to be comfortable going out with you. Unless she utterly panics the first time (in which case, go back to just taking her out around the house), give her the chance to decide if it’s something she would like to do.
- You’ve mastered harness and leash training your cat outside and at the store – the rest is up to you and your cat. Only the two of you can gauge how much farther you want to take it. Maybe you can take your cat on walks around the neighborhood, or perhaps he can join you on vacation. Do push your cat’s limits a bit. Walking low to the ground at first is okay, and so is some meowing. If you cat is vocalizing loudly, trying to escape, or panting, he’s way too stressed out, and should be returned to familiar terrain as quickly as you can do it.
- Here is one last tip: if you have more than one cat, considering allowing the second cat to watch your harness and leash sessions with the first one. Cats really can copy each other. When I was harness and leash training my therapy cat-to-be, Summer, our senior cat, Binga watched jealously for months. She began storming the door when I was taking out Summer. So one day I said to Binga, “Okay, if that’s how you feel, then let’s see how you like it,” and snapped a harness and leash on her – and she immediately began walking outside. It was like she had been doing it forever. And she was 15 years old at the time. Which brings me to my last point – never think your cat is too old to learn this. You can teach an old cat new tricks.
Visit Janiss’ blog: https://fitcatinc.com/
Janiss Garza has been a writer and editor for over 25 years, and is the author of four books, including White Line Fever, the autobiography of heavy metal rock icon Lemmy Kilmister. She founded her publishing company, FitCat Publishing, to focus on niche writers who are often overlooked by the larger houses. FitCat has an award-winning cat rescue anthology series, Rescued, and Volume 2 will be coming out early in 2017. For more information on FitCat, visit the website www.fitcatinc.com. In her spare time, Janiss goes on therapy pet visits with her cat, Summer, who has her own blog, www.sparklecat.com.