When was the last time you took your cat for a walk?
If the answer is “obviously never,” you’re far from alone—most people haven’t heard of a cat leash. But for some cats, a jaunt in the fresh air can liven up an afternoon and provide safe opportunities to engage with the great outdoors.
“Leash walking can provide great enrichment,” says Dr. Liz Bales, a Philadelphia-area veterinarian who specializes in feline behavior. “Environmental enrichment is an important and emerging topic in cat care—our indoor cats need us to set up their daily lives in a way that suits their unique, instinctive nature.”
But, Bales cautions, your cat isn’t a mini-Labrador—taking him for a walk won’t be as simple as plopping Mr. Whiskers on the sidewalk and setting off on a leisurely stroll. And while some cats love leash walks and thrive from the experience, others find it terrifying and will never warm up to the idea. For the safety of your cat—and yourself—follow these tips from Bales before heading out.
Start Early for Best Results
The earlier you introduce your cat to a leash, the better. “Most kittens will be adaptable to learning to walk on a leash,” says Bales. “Ideally, you start as early as possible—you can even begin training indoors while they’re getting old enough to be fully vaccinated.”
But older cats can be good candidates, too. It all depends on your cat’s temperament: If you have a naturally relaxed, confident kitty, he could adjust easily to leash life with the proper introduction. Have a scaredy cat on your hands? Keep in mind that leashes prevent cats from reacting to danger the way they prefer—running, climbing, and hiding—and that taking away these options can be terrifying. No one has ever successfully persuaded a cat to do something he doesn’t want to do, so never force an experience.
Use Cat-Specific Gear
Before heading off for your first walk, you want to make sure that you’re set up for success. Cat walking requires some equipment, starting with a specialized cat harness that will keep your little bud comfortable and safe. “A dog’s body lends itself to a collar and a leash—but cats are not small dogs,” says Bales. “Always use a cat harness for walks, and remove it when you come back indoors.”
Prepare for the Worst
You’ll also want to invest in a lightweight leash—the one you use for your dog is likely too heavy—and an ID tag with your contact information. Although you’re planning for a safe, enjoyable walk, it never hurts to be prepared for a worst-case-scenario escape situation. With this in mind, in addition to proper identification, make sure your cat is up-to-date on vaccines and is spayed or neutered. And before taking your cat outside, check in with your veterinarian about your flea and tick strategy—in addition to monthly preventatives, a collar may provide an extra layer of protection against parasites.
Take It Slow
“Good leash training takes time,” cautions Bales. “This is not a snap-and-go kind of thing. Plan on gradually conditioning your cat to the whole procedure over a few weeks.”
First, while indoors, introduce your cat to the harness and give him a small treat to create a positive experience. Let him give the harness a good sniff, bat it around, and become comfortable around it for a few days, advises Bales. The next step is draping the harness over your cat (while offering treats), and eventually fastening the harness around your cat (cue more treats). Leave the harness on for a few minutes, then remove it (again, a small treat—you stocked up, right?).
Once your cat is comfortable wearing the harness, adjust it to fit snuggly (treats, please), attach the leash and coax him to walk around the house with treats. Repeat this process for a few days until your cat is confident in the harness and on the leash.
Proceed With Caution
After you’ve prepared your cat inside, it’s time to head outdoors for your first walk. Put on his harness and attach the leash, offer him a treat, and place him in a carrier. The carrier is key, notes Bales, as it teaches your cat that this is the way to access outside—not sneakily escaping. “This helps protect your cat from learning that it can dart out the door,” she says. “Exposing your cat to life outdoors might make it more likely to want to get out, and you don’t want to create a door-darter.”
Once you’re outside, let your cat out of the carrier and offer him a treat. Does he seem relaxed and ready? If so, you’re good to go, says Bales.
While you’re out and about, stick to routes that are likely to be free of barking dogs, crowds of people, loud noises, and other things that might frighten your cat—while tethered to a leash, he’ll feel particularly vulnerable. After you’ve enjoyed a nice stroll, place your cat back in his carrier, head inside, and remove the harness.
Congratulations—you’ve just enjoyed a walk with your cat! Next up: teaching your pig to fly.