How to Train a Cat to Walk on a Leash and Harness
We tend to think that our feline friends would prefer to do nothing all day except lounge in the sun or hide in leftover shoe boxes. This might be the case for the majority of kitties, but some cats actually prefer to have regular outdoor adventures.
Cats that love the opportunity to stretch their furry little legs outside, investigate nature, and go for jaunts around the neighborhood require a prepared owner. It isn't safe to just let your cat companion wander freely outside, so teaching them to walk on a leash and harness is your best bet to ensure your outside activities are both safe and enjoyable. And luckily, for the brave and active kitty, learning to walk on a harness and leash is simple to do with these handy steps.
Before You Venture Outdoors
While it may seem like a great form of exercise for any kitty, not all cats will enjoy going for walks with you. Some cats may find leaving your home to be just too overwhelming, and other cats won't enjoy being tethered to any kind of walking tool. It's important to ensure your kitty is confident and comfortable with the activity before you go outdoors. This begins with the harness!
Purchase a Harness for Your Cat
Cats do best when they are walked on a harness instead of a collar. A harness provides them more comfort and security to stretch their legs and move about freely and doesn't pull on their small, fragile necks. Collars can also easily slip off, which can lead to scary incidences and your cat getting lost outside. No matter how far you plan to go, or where, your cat should wear a harness. Select a harness that fits snuggly but is breathable and doesn't hinder your cat's body movements.
Make Sure Your Cat is Comfortable Wearing a Harness
Don't just put on a harness and plan to get moving. Your cat needs time to adjust to wearing one. Start by just showing your cat the harness, allowing them to sniff it. Give them their favorite treats each time they are near it so they begin to build a positive association with the presence of the harness.
Then, slowly begin to put on the harness, just starting with placing it over their head for a few seconds and taking it off again, giving them lots of tasty nummies. Work up to placing the harness on the body, putting the feet through the loops, and eventually attaching it. Make sure the entire process is positive and full of treat opportunities.
If at any point your cat appears uncomfortable, remove the harness and wait for another opportunity. Let your cat walk around your home with the harness on (and no leash attached) for a few minutes at a time, slowly increasing the time she wears it, before you attach the leash or start to walk with her. Cats should really only wear the harness when they will be walking on leash, so don't leave it on her for any period of time longer than a typical walk with you would be.
Make Sure Your Cat is Up-to-Date On Preventatives
The outside world poses risks to your cat that you might not consider when she lives indoors full-time. All cats should be on regular preventative medications, like for fleas and ticks, and should have their essential vaccinations. This is especially true for cats that want to enjoy the outside world.
5 Steps to Teach Your Cat to Walk on a Leash and Harness
1. Teach Your Cat to Understand a Marker
A marker (or bridging stimulus) is a sound or hand signal that pinpoints the exact moment your cat did something that earned them a reinforcer (like a treat). A clicker is a great example of an easy-to-use marker and cats do wonderfully well with clicker training. If you don't have a clicker you can use a word like "yes" or "good," but pick one word and stick to it. Mark the behavior the second you see it. The better you are at marking, the more effective your teaching becomes.
2. Use a Favorite Reinforcer
Through the use of positive reinforcement you can make sure your cat finds this entire activity to be pleasant and fun. Offer her a favorite reinforcer (like a treat or food). A good reinforcer is something your kitty really loves, is small, and is easy to give. For cats, treats that are soft or are a lickable consistency are great options.
3. Practice in the House
Once your cat shows she enjoys wearing her harness with a leash attached, you can practice walking around your home. This way she learns a positive, relaxed association to walking with you in an environment she already finds safe. Give her lots of reinforcement opportunities and keep these indoor walkies short, letting her explore with confidence.
4. Practice in the Yard
Now that your cat has learned to walk on her leash and harness with you indoors, she can begin to try it outside. Don't rush this and always let her take the lead! Let her decide what she wants to explore, and allow her to sniff (and probably pee on) all the interesting greenery.
Be cautious around trees! Even though she is on a harness the desire to climb is still in her kitty DNA. Mark and give her a favorite treat when she chooses to walk close to you or responds to her name.
5. Slowly Increase Distance
As your cat demonstrates she is enjoying her outdoor excursions you can slowly progress to walking a few houses down the street. Your cat may find that just walking around your yard is enough or she may enjoy hiking a little farther. Go at her pace, constantly watching her body language to make sure she is stress-free and having a good time, and remember that 10–15 minutes outside is plenty for most cats. You don't want her to become overheated or overly tired.
With practice, patience, and lots of positive reinforcement you may discover your cat loves nature, and walkies can be a great way to provide her quality enrichment. But many cats are not going to be like Arthur the Adventure Cat and that is OK! Enjoying the warm sunshine with your feline best friend as she desires is the best way to ensure your cat is living her best feline life.