- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Do you ever spot a dog walking blissfully alongside his owner and think to yourself—I wish I could do that with my cat?
Psssttt…you can! It’s not a sight you see every day, but some cats can be leash trained successfully, and they can benefit from the activity just as dogs do.
Walking a cat is quite a different experience from walking a dog, so it’s important to educate yourself with the training process before diving in. Use this handy guide to learn the ins and outs of training a cat how to walk on a leash.
Benefits of leash walking your cat
Maybe you’re thinking—why would anyone go through the trouble of leash training a cat in the first place? We’ve found a few reasons why cat owners are jumping on this trend.
1. It’s good exercise. Regular physical exertion helps your cat maintain a healthy body weight. Most cats, however, aren’t overly concerned with getting in their daily cardio.
Indoor cats, in particular, are at a higher risk of obesity. So getting in some extra calorie-burning moments is time well spent. Help them get in shape with an activity you can both enjoy.
2. It provides mental stimulation. A daily walk combats boredom by breaking up the monotony of your cat’s routine. It’s easy to enrich their indoor environment with things like cat trees, window perches, and interactive toys. But adding an outdoor experience to their day will keep your kitty extra stimulated, engaged, and content.
Mary Molloy, animal behavior counselor and founder of Nirvana Tails in NYC, agrees. “Going for walks outside can be incredible mental and physical enrichment for indoor-only cats,” she says. “Indoor-only cats tend to be easily bored because they aren’t having to hunt for food multiple times each day; plus, the outdoors have constant sources of interest.”
3. It strengthens the human/pet bond. Taking your cat for a walk is an excellent way to promote a healthy and happy relationship between the two of you. Spending interactive time together is important to your cat’s overall well-being.
Types of cats best suited for leash training
Walking is not universally enjoyed among cats. Some cats will like it. Some will never warm to the idea.
“Outside walks aren’t for every cat. Some cats will find the great outdoors far more terrifying than stimulating, and making them go out is closer to torture than pleasure,” Molloy shares. “Make sure your cat actually WANTS to go out before embarking on a walk or hike. Cats with particularly ‘skittish,’ introverted personalities will probably find outside too frightening to be enjoyable.”
You know your cat better than anyone. Ask yourself: how does my cat react in new, foreign environments? Does she get spooked easily? Or is she a confident and out-going feline? Does she even exhibit interest in the outdoors? Cats with a bold, adventurous side are usually good candidates for leash training.
According to Preventative Vet, cats who demonstrate signs of boredom or stress can also benefit from an outdoor stroll. Look for things like aggression, destructive behavior, or overgrooming—these could indicate a bored kitty. One who could use a stimulating outlet.
Health concerns to address before you get started
If you’d like to train your cat how to walk on a leash, make sure you consider the following health and safety precautions.
- Vaccines—Vaccination is imperative to keeping your cat safe from diseases other animals may be carrying. According to PetMD, once your cat has reached the age where she has all of her vaccinations, it’s safe to take her outside for a stroll.
- Flea and tick prevention—Taking your indoor cat outside exposes her to a host of unwelcome parasites, including fleas, ticks, and even heartworm. Talk to your vet about parasite preventatives beforehand.
- Spayed or neutered is best—PetMD warns pet owners against leash walking cats who aren’t spayed or neutered. If your female cat is unspayed, she’s at risk of attack by feral males cats. An unneutered male will have a stronger drive to attempt an escape.
- Watch for toxic substances—Did you know that some of the plants commonly found in your neighborhood are poisonous to cats? The ASPCA has compiled a thorough list of these dangerous plants, which is worth looking at.
Science advisor for the ASPCA, Stephen Zawistowski, informed The New York Times of additional toxins to avoid. “Substances that are common on streets, like ethylene glycol in radiator coolant, taste sweet to cats but are potentially lethal,” he states.
Your best bet? Keep your cat from licking or chewing on anything during your walk.
Tools of the trade
Here’s what you’ll need if you want to walk your cat.
1. A cat harness
A regular neck collar just won’t do. Unlike dogs, a cat’s neck can’t handle all that pulling. Plus, a cat can easily slip out of a collar. You need a harness or walking jacket designed specifically for cats. The leash will attach between the shoulder blades, keeping your kitty comfortable and secure.
Molloy recommends walking vests with strong velcro, like the Kitty Holster. “They can take longer for cats to get used to, but they’re much less likely to allow an escape,” she tells us. “If you choose another harness or vest, make sure all the fastenings are strong and can’t slip out, and that the fit doesn’t allow for elbows or chins to slip through.”
2. A leash
Some harnesses will come with a leash. Just don’t use a retractable one. They present significant safety hazards, and you want to keep your cat close in case you need to scoop them up quickly if a dangerous situation arises.
A word of advice from Molloy: “Check all walking equipment for damage and for fit before every walk.”
Since treats can be used as rewards for good behavior, a hungry cat is a trainable cat. Only give your cat small pieces during training, so she doesn’t get full too quickly.
How long does it take to leash train a cat?
According to Cats International, the training process can take several weeks.
Cats don’t warm to new experiences readily, as we all know. They need time to adjust and become familiar with new things. Don’t rush your cat, or the negative experience could turn her off from leash training for good.
Molloy makes one thing clear: start small. “As far as distance, start with something short and easy. Just like any other kind of exercise, you want to build duration gradually. Pay close attention to your cat at all times when out for a walk to make sure s/he’s not uncomfortable, tired, or scared. Be prepared to do some carrying, just in case.”
In the beginning, your cat will likely resist walking on a leash. She may lay down in protest the first few times you put on her harness. Expect her reluctance, and work with her at her own pace. Her confidence will steadily increase, and you’ll both reap the rewards.
How to leash train your cat: step-by-step
The experts at Adventure Cats have laid out detailed instructions on how to approach leash training a cat. Here’s what the process will look like if you decide to take your cat for a walk.
1. If possible, start young
You know what they say—you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And while that’s not a definitive law of nature, there’s something that rings true about it, for both dogs AND cats. You’ll have an easier time leash training an adaptable kitten than an adult cat who’s already developed a fear of the unknown. You can certainly still train an older cat. It just might take you more time and effort.
2. Start indoors
We know you’re gung-ho about exploring the great outdoors with your favorite feline, but it’s best to start indoors. Remember—cats take time to embrace the unknown. And walking outside tethered to a leash: that’s a lot of unknowns for a cat to deal with!
Step 1. Set your cat’s harness in her favorite space so she can familiarize herself with the sight and smell of it. You can use a calming pheromone spray, like Feliway, to help your kitty adjust to this new oddity.
Step 2. If she shows interest in the harness, reward her with a treat. Do this for a few days.
Step 3. Let your kitty wear the harness around the house. No walking yet, though. Just let her get used to wearing this new contraption. Reward cooperation with a treat.
Step 4. When your cat seems comfortable with the harness, attach the leash. Still no walking! Just let her drag the leash around the house, so she gets used to having it there. Always supervise these sessions to keep her from getting tangled. Give her more treats to signal that the leash is a positive accessory.
Step 5. Once your cat accepts wearing both the harness and the leash, it’s finally time to walk alongside her. Stay indoors, and let her take the lead. Never pull on the leash—you’re walking a cat, not a dog.
3. Proceed slowly
OK. Your cat is tolerating the harness/leash combo. Time to get outside! The key here is patience.
Make your first walk a short one. Stick to your own yard if you can, or try a quiet park during a less busy time of day, if possible.
If you plan to walk her in your neighborhood, familiarize yourself with the area first. Avoid areas that have free-roaming dogs.
If your cat begins to resist or struggle, it’s time to take a break. Don’t force things! Be patient and wait until your cat is ready and comfortable with taking the next baby step in the process.
4. Safety first
Make sure your kitty has an ID tag and a microchip, in case she gets loose during your walk.
Molloy addresses this concern, confirming the importance of an emergency exit plan. “What will you do if you’re suddenly approached by unsupervised dogs? By skunks or porcupines? Will your cat be okay with being picked up and carried? Or will you need to have some kind of backpack or carrier with you?”
A thick towel can also make scooping up a frantic cat easier and safer.
We’ve already made the distinction, but it bears repeating: you are walking a cat, not a dog. Cats cannot be tethered to a pole like a dog while you pop into a shop. The risk of getting spooked and becoming tangled is too great. A trapped cat also faces the danger of a dog attack. Just don’t do it.
Walking your cat on a leash can be a rewarding activity—one that you can both enjoy. Keep training sessions short and positive, and you will see progress. Just have realistic expectations and remember, leash-walking isn’t for every cat.
More about cats
- 18 Cat Leashes That Are Seriously Sleek
- True Story: How I Moved Across the Country With My Cat
- 8 Ways Cats Can Make You Healthier
Featured Image via Flickr/Kent Wang