When I was growing up, my mom taught our red-and-white tabby cat, Baggins, to walk on a leash. I can still picture my mom walking along the sidewalks in our quiet neighborhood, while Baggins sniffed at flowerbeds and stretched out on our front lawn.
Baggins was already an adult cat (about 3 years old) when my mom started leash training him. He was a friendly, outgoing cat — characteristics that made him a good candidate for exploring outside on a leash and harness.
“There are certain traits that indicate a cat may enjoy leash training,” says Jacqueline Munera, a certified cat behavior consultant and owner of Positive Cattitudes. Munera notes that while kittens usually take to leash training more readily than older cats, cats who are confident and curious — as well as resilient — can be good leash-training candidates.
“Resilience is very important!” Munera says. “It is OK if something is startling, but a resilient cat will bounce back quickly. Cats that are anxious, nervous, fearful or really shy will probably not enjoy going out for a walk.”
Does your cat fall into the resilient category? If so, follow these tips to help her learn to walk on a leash and harness so she can enjoy a bit of the outdoors with you.
1. Buy a harness specifically designed for cats. Make sure the ring for attaching the leash is located on the back of the harness, not at the neck. The harness should have adjustable straps so you can make sure it fits snugly (not tightly) on your cat.
2. Make sure you are in the right frame of mind to train your cat. My cats pick up on all of my emotions — if I am stressed or irritated, they become agitated. If I am calm and peaceful, they are friendly and open to experiences such as nail trimming. By approaching leash training with a calm, peaceful attitude, you can encourage your cat to be open to the experience.
3. Choose a training area. Munera recommends selecting a safe place inside to start training, and to make it as welcoming to your cat as possible.
“Make the presence of the harness equal good things for Kitty,” she says. “This might mean you simply bring out the harness, set it on the floor, let Kitty investigate it, and give her treats.”
Gradually encourage your cat to stick her head through the straps, Munera says, and reward her with praise and a treat.
4. Acclimate your cat to a harness. Over a period of time, in small daily sessions lasting 10 to 15 minutes, move through the stages of placing the harness on your cat. Such steps include:
- Placing the harness around your cat’s body.
- Gently buckling the harness in place.
- Adjusting the straps so the harness fits snugly around your cat’s body. The optimum fit allows you to fit no more than two fingers between the harness and her body.
- “It is very important to fit the harness correctly, because cats can wiggle out of some,” Munera says. “Often, the walking jacket styles are safer for cats.”
5. Keep rewards flowing! Be sure to reward your cat with praise and a small treat at each progressive step while you introduce the harness.
“Make wearing the harness fun,” Munera emphasizes.
6. Introduce the leash. When your cat is comfortable wearing the harness — and you are comfortable putting it on her properly — move on to attaching the leash. This step takes place indoors, too; try to find an area that is clear of obstacles that could catch the leash. Put the harness on your cat and praise her, then attach the leash. Let her walk around with the leash dragging behind her, and reward her with praise and a treat. Repeat this process several days in a row, and be sure to stay in the room with her so you can untangle the leash if it gets hung up on something.
7. Walking on leash indoors. The next step is to hold the leash while your cat walks around the house. Let her go where she wants, and simply hold the leash loosely without pulling or tugging on it. Again, reward her efforts with praise and treats, and repeat the process for several days.
8. Heading outside. You may be content to let your cat direct all your walks outdoors. If so, when your cat is comfortable walking about the house with you holding the leash, consider taking your next short walk outdoors, in a quiet spot such as your backyard.
If you hope to gently guide your cat during your outdoor excursions, employ these next few steps suggested by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals before heading outdoors:
- While your cat is wearing the leash, walk a few feet away from her. Gently ask her to follow you in a calm voice.
- Drop a treat on the ground at your feet. When she comes over to eat it, walk away to the end of the leash.
- Call her again, and when she comes over to you, praise her and give her another treat. Repeat this process many times.
- If your cat tries to go in a different direction, apply gentle, persistent pressure on the leash and wait patiently. When she takes a few steps toward you and the leash goes a bit slack, praise her and give her a treat.
9. Stay safe outside. With your cat accustomed to your gentle guidance, begin taking short walks outside.
“Gradually work up to small, safe outdoor areas,” Munera suggests. “I don’t necessarily advocate that people take their cats out walking everywhere. There are very real dangers, including dogs roaming off leash.”