By Julia Williams
Seeing a leashed cat strolling the ‘hood used to be a rare event, but times have changed. Many cat owners are realizing that their indoor-only kitty needs more mental stimulation than a window perch can provide. Taking the cat outside on a leash can be a better – and much safer – alternative to allowing him to roam unsupervised.
Walking your cat is a great way to enrich his life and alleviate boredom related mischief. Your kitty can get some fresh air, sniff new things, scratch on a tree, watch birds, squirrels and bugs, and roll around in the dirt or the grass – all good things to a cat! The activity will also provide your cat with beneficial exercise, and can strengthen your bond.
Most cats can be trained to walk on a leash, but not every cat will enjoy it. Cats are unique beings, and some are just naturally more outgoing than others. Some will readily accept strange new things and unfamiliar surroundings, others won’t. Fearless felines will take to leash walking like a duck to water, and may even love other outdoor adventures such as hiking, camping, running and biking. Other cats may only be comfortable in their backyard or a secluded park. More timid kitties would rather stay home curled up in a comfy chair.
Here’s the thing: you’ll never know if your cat will like stepping out unless you try it. Every cat deserves the opportunity to decide where they are on the adventure spectrum. Like any training, teaching your cat to walk on a leash will take time and patience. Oh, and cat treats…lots and lots of cat treats. Read on for a few leash training tips.
You’ll need to buy a lightweight leash (approx. 6’ long) and a harness made specifically for cats. Some harnesses are constructed of simple nylon straps, but others are more like soft, fitted jackets. If you’re not sure which one to buy, ask a sales rep for some help. Don’t use a collar for leash training, as it can cause choking. A frightened cat can also slip out of a collar much easier than they can a harness.
Put the harness down on the floor or next your cat’s napping spot. Cats are nosy creatures, and they will want to sniff and investigate this new thing that has appeared in their domain.
Now that your cat is aware of the harness, it’s time to try it on them. Choose a time when they are relaxed, such as while napping. Offering some CANIDAE cat treats will serve as a distraction as well as help them associate the harness with a positive experience.
Slip the harness on your cat, staying as calm as possible. If you’re anxious, your cat will pick up on that. Fasten the harness and adjust the fit. The harness should be snug but not too tight, and not so loose that your cat can wriggle out of it. You should be able to fit two fingers between the harness and your cat’s body.
Leave the harness on for a few minutes and give your cat more treats. Observe how he reacts to the harness and adjust the time he wears it accordingly. As your cat becomes more comfortable, you can increase the time. You might try putting it on before mealtime to provide a distraction. Have your cat wear the harness once or twice a day to get used to the feel of it.
Don’t be alarmed if your cat plops down and refuses to get up, or walks awkwardly the first few times in the harness. The sensation of the harness on your cat’s body will naturally feel strange, and it will take time to acclimate. It may take a week or even longer to get your cat comfortable with the harness. When he seems used to it and walking normally, you’re ready to attach the leash.
Add the Leash
For safety’s sake, it’s important to begin your leash training indoors. After you’ve put your cat in the harness, clip on the leash. You can either let him walk around the house with you loosely holding the leash, or drop it and let it trail behind. If he seems spooked by the dragging leash, then just hold onto it.
For these in-house practice runs, it’s better to choose a clutter free room where your cat won’t get the leash tangled on something. Continue to provide treats and praise as your cat walks around the room on the leash. You could also try playing with your cat while he’s wearing the harness.
Indoor cats who have never been outdoors will naturally be curious as well as a bit frightened by this new world. Even if your cat has spent time outdoors, it’s still a good idea to begin the the leash training in your backyard; if it’s secluded, quiet and fenced, even better. (If you don’t have a yard, consider putting your cat in a carrier and going someplace where there won’t be a lot of overwhelming stimuli such as people, dogs and loud noises).
Instead of letting your leashed cat walk out the door, pick him up and carry him out. This will help to reduce the likelihood that he will try to dash out the door when the leash isn’t on. Put your cat down and just let him go at his own pace. Depending on his comfort level with being outdoors, he may just stand there, or he may take a few steps. Let the leash hang loose and follow behind, allowing your cat to decide which direction he wants to go. If what he really wants to do is scurry back inside, then let him. Never force your cat to stay outside if he doesn’t want to.
Until you can see that your cat is comfortable being outside, it’s a good idea bring a small blanket or a towel with you – something that can be used to quickly wrap up a panicky cat without getting bitten or scratched.
When you begin your outdoor explorations, limit them to around 5 minutes a day. If your cat seems comfortable outside in his harness and leash, you can gradually increase the time and/or go out more often.
Some cats will be at ease right from the start, while others take longer. Watch your cat’s body language for signs of stress, and call it quits if he becomes frightened. The goal is for this to be a pleasant experience, not something to be feared.
It’s important to respect your cat’s individuality. If he shows no interest in the great outdoors or lets you know that he doesn’t want to go beyond the backyard, his decision should be honored.
You may be pleased to learn that leash training your cat is easier than you thought it would be. If your feline friend’s personality is well suited for outdoor adventure on a leash, the two of you will no doubt have many fun excursions together. However, if your cat would just rather snuggle with you at home, that’s not so bad either!
Read more articles by Julia Williams