Walking your cat - it’s not just for your eccentric neighbor lady anymore (if it ever was). Thanks to the influence of people like Jackson Galaxy, more people are coming around to the idea that hey! Maybe it’s not safe to just let our cats run wild, but their wild sides do benefit from being outside! With supervision. Like toddlers.
Furry, purring, adorable jerk toddlers.
But how do you harness train a cat to walk on a leash? It may sound like mad science, but it’s not. Let’s break this down.
STEP 1: SELECT A HARNESS.
Clearly, one of the most important parts of harness training your cat is selecting the correct tool for the job. Never get a collar - they're flat out dangerous to your pet. A startled cat trying to flee up a tree or into a tight spot may quickly find themselves strangled.
Harnesses are the only suitable choice, and they come in quite a variety. Take time to browse through your local pet store, or research online - the MetPet WalkingJacket is quite nice, as is the Kitty Holster. I’ve seen the PetSafe Come With Me Kitty Harness & Bungee Leash often recommended as well.
Morty modeling his red Come with Me Kitty Harness + Bungee Leash
Make sure you take your cat’s measurements and get the best-suited harness for their size. Know what happens if you get a harness that's just slightly too big, or if you don't adjust the straps correctly for your cat's body? You discover that all cats are actually descended from Houdini. That's right, Houdini was just a bunch of cats in a magician's suit.
Let me explain: the first time I put my giant orange tabby Tiger Jack in a harness, he immediately went all “OH HELL NO” on me. I blinked, he wriggled, and the next thing I knew - well, I was holding an empty harness, and Tiger Jack was grooming himself across the room.
Make sure the harness fits.
STEP 2: ACCUSTOM YOUR CAT TO THE HARNESS.
Now that you've got your harness, you can just throw it on the old feline and trot on outdoors, right? Well, no. The very next thing you need to do is get your cat used to this strange contraption you plan on strapping your confused furry friend into. Sometimes, this is easier said than done.
Take Tiger Jack, for example. He’s fascinated by the outdoors, and loves Kitty TV - I mean, looking out the window. He doesn't want to roam, but he does want to accompany his humans for short jaunts. So we got him a harness, put him into it, and... he promptly tumps over onto his side, the very picture of depressed exasperation. His entire body shouted, “What indignity have you thrust upon me?!”
No walks for Tiger Jack yet.
Tiger Jack on his harness
To combat this stage of injured feline dignity, it's best to get your cat to associate the harness with good things. Give your cat a treat and some petting once you put the harness on. Give your cat another treat if he walks in it, and build on that behavior. If your cat immediately keels over and expresses his displeasure (tail lashing, ears laid back, the perfect picture of “cat-god kill me now”), take it off and give your cat a treat for doing that too. Just keep working at it until you can slide that harness on and your feline companion couldn’t care less. Then graduate to practicing leash-walking inside.
STEP 3: GO OUTSIDE!
Okay. So you've selected the harness, and now your cat's all good with that human-applied nonsense. The great outdoors await! Let's make like Aladdin and show our cats a whole new world, no magic carpet required!
Here's what you want to do: start small. Keep your cat limited to calm, familiar areas at first. Let your cat explore an area at their own pace. Only once the cat is moving around comfortably and at total ease should you expand on the adventure - maybe going for a short walk in your neighborhood, or at a quiet park. Always build on small steps.
Harness training outside
Cats are vulnerable to being badly startled by loud noises (cars backfiring, screeching brakes) or perceived threats (dogs, fast-moving humans), and those shocks can easily translate into problematic behavior. It can turn a confident cat into a terrified hellbeast. Please pay close attention to your pet while you have them out on and about - at the first sign of distress or discomfort, retreat back to those safe spaces or right back inside your home. Which brings us to…
STEP 4: THINGS WILL GO WRONG.
These are cats, after all. Kings and Queens of My-Way-or-the-Highway. If you want to try harness training your cat, you have to roll with these punches and accept that your cat has the final say on how far you go. Some cats will decide they want nothing to do with the outside. Some cats won't want to go any farther than your patio or backyard. Some cats will refuse the harness. Some cats will be okay with adventure one day, and the next tell you to go groom yourself, if you catch my drift.
Two weeks ago, Tiger Jack would bury the harness under any handy towel or blanket he could get on the floor and drag over to the offending item. Today, after rousting him from a pile of clean laundry (clearly in need of a fresh layer of cat hair), he was happy enough to get strapped in, get a few treats, and trot outside. Of course, then he consented going only a few inches outside the porch where he lay down, content to make his humans stand around with him.
Your cat's comfort and happiness should always be your top priority. It's true that going outside (in a controlled and supervised way) can benefit your cat immensely - they’re exposed to fresh air, sensory stimulation, and more. However, they may not be down with walking and prefer to enjoy the outdoors in a more limited way. If that’s the case, may I recommend an outdoor enclosure? Catios are so hot right now.
For more detailed tips on harness-training your cat, please see Dr. Karen Becker’s “Walking Your Cat.”
Written by Deborah Brannon