If you’ve ever considered taking your cat for a walk, it can be a great way to introduce your inside cat to a safe and enriching outside experience. I have had both outdoor and indoor cats, and although it’s a much safer option for cats to be inside, there’s no reason you can't have your cat enjoy the outdoors.
We have a great article on How to Walk Your Cat on a Leash, so I wanted to see if I could leash train my two cats and if they would enjoy walking outside.
First, it’s important to note that you shouldn’t just put a harness and leash on your cat and walk right out the door. Introducing any new experience to your animals should be well planned, and you need to be mindful of your cat’s mental and physical health. Signs of stress you will want to look out for include:
- Trying to escape (back inside)
- Hiding under something
- Freezing in place (indicates intense fear)
It's important to also watch for the position of your cat's tail. Tails that are tucked beneath or puffed can be a sign of fear or agitation. A good "tail" sign is if it sits straight up, meaning they have confidence in their current environment and are enjoying the experience. If the tail is dropped down a bit (horizontal to the ground), it just means that they are being cautious, which is to be expected when your cat is exploring new places.
Putting Your Cat on Parasite Prevention
Before you consider if you should take your cat for a walk, it’s crucial that you put them on an appropriate safe and effective parasite prevention, if they aren’t already. Even if you have indoor-only cats, they are not immune to getting fleas, ticks, intestinal worms, or even heartworms. Yes, cats can get heartworms ... and they can be devastating!
There are several ways cat parasites can make it inside your home. Fleas can jump and don't necessarily need anything or anyone to hitch a ride. But when they do hitch a ride, it can be on clothing, furniture, or rodents that make their way inside. Ticks can come in on us and other pets - intestinal worm eggs in fleas and on our shoes - and heartworms in infected mosquitoes. Thankfully, there are many safe cat flea treatments you can choose from, some of which even help to protect cats against ticks, intestinal worms, and heartworms — speak to your veterinarian about which one is likely to be best for your cat(s), home situation, and area you live in.
SAFETY TIP: Always be extremely cautious about flea and tick medications that contain pyrethrin or the synthetic permethrins being used on or around your cats, as these chemical compounds can be very toxic to cats.
Why Choosing a Good Cat Harness is Important
There are a number of reasons why harnesses should be used over a standard collar. One of the most important reasons for this is cats can escape (which can lead to their disappearance or injury). A harness also helps distribute the pressure over several areas of the body, reducing the strain on their neck and back.
When looking for a harness, do not do what I did and just guess when it comes to the size. I made that mistake, and the first harness didn't fit our larger cat (but did, fortunately, fit our other cat — she's skinnier). It's important to take your cat's size, length of fur, and personality into consideration before choosing either a strap harness or fabric wrap. In our situation, because Rajah is thicker and doesn't pull on the leash, we decided on a PetSafe strap harness, which would give him a little more mobility. With Zsa Zsa being slim and more prone to pulling, we used the soft mesh harness we originally bought for Rajah. It's worth the money to find a high-quality harness that they won’t mind wearing (even if they are inside). Check out this video of how to correctly measure your cat before purchasing a harness:
*Remember when using a string (as she shows as an alternative measuring tool) to put it somewhere they can't reach after measuring. That a piece of string can actually be dangerous, causing a linear obstruction if your cat ingests it.
The best harness for your cat will need the following two things:
- Comfort: The harness should distribute pressure across multiple areas of your cat's body, so it doesn't cause discomfort or choking.
- Safety: A cat harness needs to be fit well and have secure straps, designed to prevent your cat from slipping out.
Fortunately, I happened to have a small dog harness (listed below and used for cats too!), and it fits perfectly. At the same time, I waited for the alternative PetSafe Harness to arrive, which you can see below.
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There are plenty of leashes (and many come as a combination with the harness as you see above), so choose what best suits you. An important note — please don’t walk your cat on a retractable leash. We have an article about the dangers of retractable leashes for dogs, and many of the same concerns and risks equally apply to cats. Imagine the horrifying experience you and your cat would have with that increased distance, and you suddenly run into an unleashed dog, another animal and your cat gets spooked and bolts up a tree. Not good!
See below, where I break down how I acclimated my cats to their harness.
What You'll Need for Leash Training Your Cat
- Treats: A great motivational tool to reward good behavior and help keep your cat focused and perhaps help them be a little more adventurous.
- Clicker: A training tool used to reinforce the desired behavior. Be mindful of the sound your clicker makes so that it doesn't startle your cat. You can muffle the noise by placing it in your pocket or simply click a pen to make a very soft click sound. We recommend the Big Button Clicker from Downtown Pet Supply.
- Toys: When we brought our cats outside, we had our daughter bring out some of their favorite toys, including a feather wand, which instantly created a playful atmosphere.
- Cat Carrier: If your cat is comfortable with their carrier, it's convenient to have with you if they feel they need to escape to a safe zone. Check out our article on tips to make your carrier a cat-friendlier place.
- Harness & Leash: This is all about leash training your cat, so don't forget the two most important pieces.
Preparing to Leash Train Your Cat
Paramount to our success was to start our journey indoors. We needed to create a process that would give us the results we hoped for. "Whenever you are introducing your cat to something new and potentially scary (such as wearing a harness and going outdoors), it's so important to build positive associations with the activity and only expose them to the new activity in tiny amounts," says Dr. Marci Koski of Feline Behavior Solutions. "This is called counter conditioning and systematic desensitization."
Dr. Koski stresses the importance of managing your expectations. Walking a cat on a harness and leash is not the same as walking a dog on a harness and leash. While dogs enjoy exploring their environment, their daily walks will probably be much further, since it's a source of physical exercise. Cats aren't necessarily taking a walk for purposes of exercise, but rather for mental exercise and environmental enrichment. They may flop over for a roll on the warm cement or crouch in a spot of grass. So, your cat may not even make it down the street, but it's more important that they are having a positive experience.
With two young kids in the house, it was equally important to explain what we intended to do, how the two of them played a role in the success of our mission, and that there was a real chance that our cats could soon be taking walks down the street. Anyone with kids knows they often times can get overly-excited or very loud, and those sounds and movements can be startling to a cat — especially one who's new to a harness. The last thing we wanted was to create a negative experience for our cats so early on.
Additionally, including your kids in the process can help teach them patience and involve them in exercising your cat. Of course, we also prepared them that our mission could fail initially, and at a minimum, we would learn more about our cats and their likes and dislikes!
Training Your Cat to Wear a Harness
I wanted to start out with our more mellow cat, Rajah, and see his reaction to wearing the harness, before trying it out on his sister Zsa Zsa (due to her disdain for constraints). Don’t be alarmed if you put the harness on your cat and their initial reaction is to flop down on their side or to just lie down on their stomach. No, they are not paralyzed (they’re just great actors). Imagine running around all of the time with nothing on, and suddenly someone put a harness on you — it’s a new experience and one they need to get used to.
However, if your cat does sink down in a sitting position immediately after getting the harness on (or when you take them outside), they could be experiencing some stress or nervousness. It's essential to approach these situations with some caution. If you feel that your cat is not having a positive experience, relieve them of the stress and try again later or another day. Not all cats like having a harness on and may not ever want to go on walks.
As expected, Rajah was very amiable about having a harness put over his head and strapped in. We started Rajah out wearing just his harness for 10-minute increments inside the house, and I would monitor his mood. Again, as expected, he seemed perfectly comfortable (albeit a little uncoordinated) wearing the harness. Check out the video below as Rajah has his first experiences with the harness, walking around inside the house, and finally stepping outside.
This brings me to my next point. As I addressed early in this article, don’t expect to just strap on a harness and leash and take your cat out for a walk. As everything outside is a new (and sometimes scary) experience, so is the harness. They need to grow accustomed to wearing it. You are modifying or creating a new behavior, so you want to make it a positive experience.
Another great idea to help calm your pet during this leash training is cat pheromones. We recommend spritzing a little Feliway Spray on the harness. It can be an important part of acclimating some cats to the harness itself. We also have the starter plug-in set from Comfort Zone Multi-Cat in our home (from a time the cats were suddenly fighting). It was perfect because of the multiple levels in our home, and the kit comes with three ports and three refills. We were also stocked with their favorite treats. If you are looking for a healthy, low-cal cat treat, Pet Greens makes a great one with no artificial colors or flavors.
And just like dogs, you can clicker train your cat. Although we didn't use a clicker in our experience, clicker training can help with the harness desensitization process and even teach your cat how to walk into the harness on their own. Check out our podcast Paws & Play, where Dr. Koski explains the benefits of clicker training.
Lucky for us, Rajah is a food-motivated feline! In each step, whether smelling the harness or putting it over his head, to walking outside for the first time, he got a treat to create a positive association with the experience.
Will Your Cat Walk on a Leash Outside?
After spending several days of training our cat with the harness, we decided it was time to introduce Rajah to the backyard. Although your cat may be comfortable walking around the house in a harness, your cat may not be ready to go on walks yet. "It's important to keep in mind that many cats who have been exclusively indoors may not be well-suited for spending time outdoors," adds Dr. Koski. "Pay attention to body language, and respect what your cat is trying to tell you."
If you have a fenced-in backyard, it's a great place to start if, by chance, they get away from you. Our cats have gotten out on occasion without any restraint. Because they're indoor cats, they are more apprehensive about scaling a fence or climbing up a tree because it's a foreign environment (as opposed to a feral or outside-only cat). It's safer to have any type of containment for your cat and for you, in case they get nervous or aggressive.
If you don't have a yard, start somewhere outside where you have some control. Usually, if we leave a door open, both cats can't wait to jump out like it's a prison break. However, with a harness and leash attached, their first steps were a little more apprehensive.
Our approach was to be very mindful of his reaction to everything he was suddenly experiencing. We also spoke in soft tones and had treats ready to reaffirm this positive experience. What I noticed quickly was his sense of touch. He was much more comfortable on the cement patio or on the firm dirt of the garden beds, as opposed to the grass.
With that in mind we didn’t push him to walk on the grass and let him lead us. We repeated the backyard experience several days in a row and witnessed his comfort level increase each time. He still doesn't like grass at this point but does walk around the perimeter of our yard, which is lined with garden beds.
As for his sister Zsa Zsa, we did get her in a harness and tried the same process. She was quite comfortable being in the harness and being outside. However, we found that all she wanted to do was sit on patio furniture and enjoy the sun. Since we haven’t gotten there quite yet with Rajah, below you see a friend of Preventive Vet, Christine Edwards, with her cat Mr. Eko taking a stroll.
With time and patience, your cat's world could be greatly enriched by learning how to walk on leash. Imagine the adventures! Even if you find your cat doesn't want to go on walks, you have opened up a new world to the outside. As we continue to train Rajah to eventually walk on a leash, we bring both our cats outside and sit with them on our patio furniture. They seem to be incredibly happy.
And we didn't stop there. We've also put up an outdoor cat tent for them to relax with the family, and this summer we are planning on building a catio! Whatever your cat decides they're most comfortable with, you've created an incredible experience for your cats that will make them happier and healthier for years to come.
Let us know if you've tried taking your cats on a walk in the comments below!