By Sandie Lee
For some pet parents the thought of letting their beloved kitty outside is enough to send shivers through their body; meanwhile, other folks feel it’s a feline’s right to roam free and untethered.
Of course, any animal wandering at large has the potential to get in harm’s way; however, some still view it as unfair to keep our feline friends totally secluded to our homes.
So what’s the alternative?
Teach your cat to walk on a leash! (Fair warning: your cat may put the kibosh on this idea in no uncertain terms, so before you start – keep your expectations realistic.)
Know your cat
Most cats, especially kittens, can be taught to walk on a leash. However, some older felines may never take to the idea. This is when knowing your cat’s personality comes in handy. If she is set in her ways and hates new situations, then she most likely will not be receptive to the prospects of having this strange object strapped to her.
For the safety and security of your cat or kitten, purchase a harness, not a collar.
Harnesses made specifically for cats offer a few advantages: a better fit, more control, and less pressure on the throat (which reduces stress). Unlike a cat collar, a cat harness won’t break away when tugged on (a feature most cat collars have to prevent the feline from strangling if caught on an object).
Before you try to put the harness on, leave it near the food dish for a few days so that your cat can get used to the sight and smell of it. Try putting a few high value treats in or near the harness while it’s on the floor to create good associations.
Have realistic expectations
Anyone that has ever been owned by a cat knows that they’re independent creatures with very definite opinions. So when trying out the harness and leash for the first time, have realistic expectations.
Your cat will most likely not want anything to do with this strange apparatus and may even kick, roll, or try to get away when you embark on the challenge of fitting her with the harness for the first time.
This is perfectly normal, so have patience and get ready for the bribe!
Better known as “bribing,” food rewards work well for most cats, especially when they’re hungry. With this in mind, do short training sessions with your cat when it is most likely to be craving some tasty treats…or dinner. And don’t forget to make those treats stinky and high value – the average cat won’t work for just kibble.
Now comes the fun part: put the harness on your cat in the house. Make sure it is snug, but not too tight as to be uncomfortable. Once you have the harness on give Kitty a treat and praise her.
Then, let her go. If she takes a step in the harness, give her a treat and praise her. Keep repeating this step is she continues to move around in the harness.
However, if she immediately drops to the floor, wait a moment to see if she will move; if she does, praise, reward, and repeat.
If she doesn’t move or is freaking out and trying to run away, remove the harness immediately and try again later.
Attach the leash
Once Kitty is used to the harness (it may take a while), attach a light leash and let her walk around with that for a few more days, so that she can get used to the extra weight. You can attach the regular leash when you’re ready to start holding it while walking.
Practice, practice, practice
Depending on each individual cat, you may have to practice indoors for days before your cat is comfortable and confident in the harness and leash.
As your cat learns to tolerate the harness and leash for longer periods-of-time, be sure to continue the verbal and physical praise and the reward treats.
If at any time she drops or her tail is swishing and her demeanor changes, immediately remove the harness and leash, give her a treat and try again later. It’s best to end the session before Kitty starts getting upset; you always want to end training periods on an up note.
The great outdoors
Now that your cat is used to the harness and leash, it’s time to embark on the adventure of the great outdoors. Depending on the temperament of your feline friend, you could spend weeks just getting down the front walk, or you could be going for real walks in a matter of minutes.
Most likely your cat will want to drop and roll around on the soft grass, so give her the time she needs to take in her surroundings. Try to view the environment through your cat’s eyes. Is it noisy with lots of traffic, barking dogs and other distractions? These may be viewed as threatening to a newly outdoored kitty, so take her to a quieter place where she will feel less exposed until she feels comfortable.
Beware of the dangers, and be a considerate visitor
When your cat is exploring, be sure to watch her closely so she doesn’t lick, chew, or swallow something that could be poisonous or dangerous for cats. Don’t let Kitty run up a tree, and never leave your feline tied up and unattended (even for a moment) as this can prove to be hazardous if she were to be attacked by another animal or to escape.
DO NOT let your cat chase birds or other animals while you’re outside; remember that it’s their home that you’re visiting, and it’s not a fun game for them to be attacked by dangerous predators, harnessed or not.
Don’t give up!
When walking a cat on a leash they can become easily spooked, so an area that was okay yesterday may terrify your cat today. If this happens, go back to the last place she felt comfortable and start again. Also, unless your cat is in harm’s way, try to resist the urge to pick her up and soothe her. Cats learn confidence while working through a situation, so let her be.
Taking your cat for a walk on a leash is a fun and safe way for her to explore the outdoors. Follow these steps, and be patient while Kitty is learning the “leash.”