While there is some concern that giving your cat a taste of the great outdoors will turn him into a demanding puss who sits by the door meowing incessantly to go out, many feline experts believe that the greater danger lies in providing a living environment for the cat that is unchanging and unstimulating—just plain boring. The stress of boredom can be a contributing factor in a number of destructive behavior problems (e.g., furniture scratching) as well as in some physical and psychological problems (e.g., obesity, over-grooming, feline depression). While much can be done to make the home environment more interesting for the cat, nothing can compare to the excitement of the ever-changing outdoors.
Of course, allowing your cat to roam outside freely would be irresponsible. Unsupervised, your cat faces the very real dangers of road traffic, irate neighbors, disease and other predatory animals. Leash training can add a new dimension to both of your lives. Cats look forward to their outings just as much as dogs enjoy their walks. If taken out at approximately the same time every day, your cat will learn that this is the only time he can go out and there’s no point in pestering you at other times.
It’s always easiest to introduce new experiences to kittens who tend to view life as a big adventure. However, even older cats can be trained to accept a harness and leash if you are patient, persistent and sensitive to the cat’s body language. Each small step of progress toward the ultimate goal is rewarded with praise and food treats. At no time should the cat be punished or scolded. It may take weeks of conditioning for the adult cat to feel comfortable with this procedure, but the result is well worth the effort.
A strong advocate for leash training your cat, Warren Eckstein, devotes 15 pages to this subject in his wonderfully entertaining and instructive book, “How to Get Your Cat to Do What You Want.” Here is a brief summary of the steps involved in training your cat to walk on a leash:
Step 1. Purchase a harness that is designed to pull from the chest, not from the throat. A harness is preferable to a collar because if properly fitted, it will provide less opportunity for your cat to wriggle out of it. You should be able to slip two fingers between the harness and the cat. If it is too loose, the little escape artist will be out of it in no time. The leash should be lightweight and detachable and have a clip that closes tightly. We do not recommend “figure eight” style harnesses, as these can pinch and make the harness uncomfortable. Instead, the preferred design is an “H-style” design, with two independently adjustable loops connected by a third piece of material. SmartCat has a comfortable and easily adjustable harness.
Step 2. Let your cat get used to the harness and leash by leaving them near his favorite sleeping place for a few days. The training process begins in the home. Before placing the harness on the cat, prepare your cat’s favorite meal, something so delectable that it makes him forget about everything else. Immediately after placing the harness on him, put the food in front of him. Praise him profusely. After he is finished eating, let him walk around for awhile. Distract him with toys, if he seems unhappy with the harness. After he has visibly relaxed, the harness can be removed.
Step 3. Attach the leash to the harness. Don’t try to walk at this point, just let him walk where he pleases, dragging the leash behind him. Always supervise these sessions in case the leash gets caught on something. Most cats will accept the addition of the leash readily, but if yours becomes agitated, divert his attention, as before. Encourage the cat to walk and when he does, shower him with praise. Keep these daily training sessions short and positive.
Step 4. Once your cat is at ease with the harness and leash, pick up the leash and walk around the house behind him, being careful to keep the lead slack. At this point you do not want to restrict the cat’s movement, just let him get used to having you follow him. Practice this for a few days.
Step 5. Now its time to direct the cat. Using a sweet, high-pitched voice, encourage him to follow you. (Kittens have a natural follow-Mom response.) Don’t expect him to walk like a dog. Allow your cat to wander from side to side within the confines of the length of the leash, but do not veer off your predetermined course. When the cat feels resistance, he will either walk in your direction or lie down. Patience and persuasion are the key words here. Never pull or jerk the lead to force your cat back in line. One bad experience may turn your cat against leash training forever.
Step 6. Once the cat is walking comfortably on the leash inside, you can introduce him to the outdoors. It may be best to simply sit with the cat on the stoop outside for the first few jaunts. Let him become used to the sights and sounds of this new and somewhat scary world. You’ll know when your cat has adapted to this new environment. He will look relaxed, nervous tail twitching will stop and he will show an interest in exploring. Let him. Now find a quiet location that will present as few frightening elements as possible and follow the same procedure you used to accustom him to walking on a leash indoors. (Remember, never leave the cat outside unattended.)
Now your feline friend can join you for walks around the neighborhood, picnics, even window-shopping. Trips away from home (e.g. the vet) will also be easier for you and less traumatic for your cat.
The Wisconsin Humane Society (WHS) is a private nonprofit organization whose mission is to build a community where people value animals and treat them with respect and kindness. WHS is one of the oldest humane societies in the nation and the largest in the state, annually caring for 20,000 domestic and wild animals. WHS also offers programs and services to thousands of residents in the community. The organization is recognized by Charity Navigator, the nation’s leading charity watchdog group, as a 4-star charity, its highest rating.