How to Take Your Cat for a Walk

Attitudes towards cats have changed a lot in the twelve years since I took my first cat Lucy for a walk on a leash. According to a December 2018 article in The Daily Mail, there’s a growing movement that is calling on cat owners to take their feline friends on walks. That movement, which can be traced back to organizations such as Adventure Cats in 2015, has the backing of scientists too.

REASONS FOR WALKS

Photo provided by Mollie Hunt
Photo provided by Mollie Hunt

In my research of this topic using reliable online sources, I found three standard reasons for cat owners to take their feline friends on walks: alleviate boredom, provide exercise, and keep both them and their environment safe. According to Ariel Mosenco, DVM, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, lack of stimulation for cats has led to an epidemic of stress-related diseases. Cats need activities that satisfy their hunting instincts and keep them active. Obesity is also at epidemic proportions. The Association for Pet Obesity says that 60% of America’s cats are obese. Clearly, finding ways to improve the mental and physical health of cats is critical. Some pet owners might contend that an obvious fix would be to simply allow a cat outside. However, this choice has become a less viable option due to the dangers that cats face outside and to the damage cats can cause to the environment. Taking cats on walks is a safer way for them to enjoy the outdoors.

I reached out fellow cat owners at online Facebook groups and asked their reasons for taking their furry companions on walks. Some simply reiterated the desire to take their cats outside safely. “My childhood cat was killed by a car, and there is increasing scientific data that free-roaming cats are having a negative impact on the local bird populations. Leash training my buddy was a no-brainer,” said Corinne Rikkelan. Another owner, Krystal Vinson, made the same choice for her cat explaining that. “Taz wanted to go outside into the yard and we showed her that the harness was the only way that was going to happen.”

Photo provided by Krystal Vinson
Photo provided by Krystal Vinson

Many cat owners wished their cats to travel safely with them for one reason or another. Nancy Ebner took her cat to visit her dad in assisted-living, and ended up deciding to train her cat to become a certified therapy cat. Emilia Evans took her cat with her to cat shows, where he liked to run around so much that she wanted a better way to supervise him. Becky Faulkner knew that she wanted a companion to take with her everywhere. “I have always been a dog person, but after losing my soul dog, I knew I wouldn’t be ready for my next dog for some time. Yet I knew I would want another pet that would be my constant companion, who went everywhere with me. I had a cat in the past that would go hiking with me and my dogs, so I knew that cats could have the desire to so things that dogs do.”

STEPS TO LEASH TRAIN

If you’d like to try to leash train your cat too, follow the steps below compiled from Adventure Cats and other sources. Remember to be patient and only proceed to the next step when your cat is truly comfortable.

  1. Leave both harness and leash lying around the house for your cat to inspect.
  2. Throughout the day, hold out the harness and leash in front of your cat so that he can sniff them.
  3. Make the introduction a positive experience by rewarding her with treats and/or playtime. For the latter, drag the harness and leash along the floor for her to chase.
  4. When he acts comfortable around the harness and leash, begin leaving the harness and leash near his food dish and/or toy collection at supervised times.

    We started leash training the day I brought him home. It was just letting the harness hang out around the house, near his food, etc.—Corinne Rikkelman

  5. Photo provided by Corinne Rikkelman, Follow Basil at @basil.goes.
    Photo provided by Corinne Rikkelman, Follow Basil at @basil.goes.

    Once she is familiar with the harness, slip it on her without the leash but don’t fasten.

  6. Continue to reinforce the idea that the harness is a positive by rewarding with treats and/or playtime.
  7. Fasten the harness and practice adjusting the fit. You should be able to fit one or two fingers beneath the harness—but no more than that.
  8. Optional: Teach your cat to sit. The command will help your cat to focus and stay in one place long enough to secure the harness.

    We worked on desensitizing her to the harness. Wearing it for a couple of minutes each day and getting lots of treats while wearing it.—Nicole Costello

  9. Leave the harness on for up to ten minutes per day for a week.
  10. If he gets upset, provide a food or toy distraction and slip the harness off. Try another day with a higher incentive such as canned/sliced meat or goat cheese.
  11. When he seems comfortable, increase to the longer time. Reward with treats and/or playtime.
  12. Bring her to a room where she’s not likely to snag her leash on anything and then attach the leash.
  13. Depending on his comfort level, either hold the leash or let it drag behind him as you reward him with treats and/or playtime.
  14. After she consistently ignores both the harness and the leash, start walking her around the room and then the house.

    I would have him wear the harness inside the house for about an hour a day until he got used to it and extending the time the more that he became comfortable with it. Next, I added the leash and repeated the process. I used treats before and after I put the harness and leash on him. I kept outside training short until he became comfortable.—Monika Montalvo-Beshears

  15. Photo provided by Monica Beshears, Follow Jude at @adventuresofjudethecat
    Photo provided by Monica Beshears, Follow Jude at @adventuresofjudethecat

    Continue to reward with treats and/or playtime.

  16. Once you’ve both had some practice, gently guide him by applying a little pressure on the leash and calling him to you.
  17. When she responds to your call, reward her with a treat.
  18. Once he’s trained to stay by your side, you’re ready to try him outdoors. Pick him up and carry him outside to a quiet area.

    Every day I would walk her around our yard or in the pastures to get her used to things. Coming from a dog owner/training background I also would reward with treats, toys, or affection for jobs well done.—Becky Faulkner

  19. Put him down and reward with treats.
  20. Stay beside him and let him decide when he’s ready explore.
  21. Keep the door open so that she can safely head back inside of her own choice.
  22. Continue to reward with treats.

    We started in the backyard and graduated to parks, etc. My biggest mistakes were not having a backpack in the beginning as this became her safe zone and also not starting on defined forest trails. She would get overwhelmed by noises and wide open spaces; the defined trails helped to build confidence. We now take her to a full range of locations from remote trails to crowded tourist locations.—Pam McIntyre

PRECAUTIONS

Photo provided by Nancy Ebner
Photo provided by Nancy Ebner

Back in 2006 when I first tried to teach Lucy to use a leash, she showed little interest and I didn’t push her. However, my husband and I still wanted a way for her to join us when we went for walks and so we bought a pet stroller. After we lost Lucy to kidney failure in 2013 and subsequently adopted Cinder, I tried leash training again. Cinder didn’t mind the harness once it was on, so we took her for a few walks. But she hadn’t having the harness put on and taken off, so I eventually gave up on her too. I wish I’d known more about the following precautions, as they would’ve encouraged me to keep trying.

First, the training process takes time. Several cat owners whom I interviewed pointed to impatience as being their biggest mistake. “Training a cat is not like training a dog,” Becky Faulkner said. She explained, “Results can sometimes take longer to happen, especially for leash walking and hiking.” Emilia Evans admitted that because her male kittens took so easily to leash-training, she rushed her two female kittens. Nicole said that she took her cat outside too quickly with the result that for a long time her cat would get overwhelmed and freeze up.

Second, the right harness is needed. According to Catster Magazine, a cat harness and a 4-to 6-foot leash is the best combo for training a cat to enjoy going for a walk. A harness should sit comfortably across the shoulders, under the tummy, and not place a strain on the neck area. It also shouldn’t get in the way of your cat’s collar and ID tags. (A collar without a harness isn’t recommended, because it’s easier for cats to wiggle out of a collar than a harness.)

Reviewing the best types of harnesses is beyond the scope of this article, but cat owners I interviewed stressed the importance of finding the right harness. Hasara Lay said that she started out with an adult cat harness. “I wish I’d known about kitten harnesses so we could have taken our kittens out earlier. The first harnesses were too big, and I was uncomfortable letting them outside till they fit. If we had let them out earlier, it might have expedited their training.” Krsyal Vinson shared the scary experience of not getting the harness tight enough and her cat escaping from it when a passing car scared her. Fortunately, her cat ran straight for the front door of their house.

Third, carry your cat outside. “The reason is to reduce the tendency for door-dashing when the leash is not on,” explains Dr. Kat Miller, director of ASPCA anti-cruelty behavior research, in an article at Adventure Cats. “A cat who is used to walking out of his own accord when the leash is on probably will try to do that at other times as well.”

Photo provided by Becky Faulkner
Photo provided by Becky Faulkner

Fourth, know your neighborhood. Catster Magazine recognizes that people and dogs can spook even the most confident cat. For that reason, Catster Magazine, advises scoping out a neighborhood without your cat to find the quietest times and the least traveled paths. Catster Magazine also notes that simply taking a cat for a short walk around the neighborhood will provide much-needed enrichment and exercise.

Fifth, don’t give up. Mollie Hunt shared this story: “The first time I tried to leash-train Little, she was about six. It was summer and she had shown interest in the outside. I got a leash and harness for her but, when I put on the harness, she went dead. Still, I persevered throughout the summer, putting on the harness and carrying her outside, where she would lay inert until I took her back in again. I quit trying over the winter, then started up again the next spring. Same results. The following spring, it was another story. After the winter hiatus, she took to the harness immediately and even liked getting into it because she knew it meant a trip outside. Never give up!”

PLACES TO WALK

In 2015, a three-month kitten came into my life, and I once again tried to leash-train a cat. Rainy proved a quick student. She took to obedience, agility, and therapy. I also easily taught her to use a carrier, stroller, and leash. The number of places we’ve gone continue to grow: neighborhood, parks, businesses, and restaurants. As a certified therapy cat, she’s also visited assisted-living and hospice facilities. What follows is a list of places that cat owners have taken their cats.

  • House: “Charlotte mostly loves walking around our house, so we stick to that for now.”—Pandastamper Williams
  • Park: “Moorea’s favorite place was Zion National Park where she vacationed with us five times. Her ashes are spread there now. ”—Nancy Ebner Denen
  • Pet-Friendly Businesses: “The hardest part is finding places to take my cats that isn’t just a pet store. I take them to parks and historical sites and other pet-friendly places.”—Emelia Evans.
  • Beach: “I love going to the beach with Starpurrd and she really seems to like it too. She loves digging in the sand and climbing beach trees. We still are working on getting her to like the water, but I think/hope in time that she will. Lately, we have been doing harbor walks also which she is learning to enjoy.”—Becky Faulkner
  • Photo provided by LiLo ChiBi, Follow at @tamachibitakikitokidokiorion/
    Photo provided by LiLo ChiBi, Follow at @tamachibitakikitokidokiorion/

    Woods/Mountain: “My cats enjoy themselves in woods more than open area like beach. ”—LiLo ChiBi

  • All the rest:
    • “Noxie prefers quieter areas like farms, parks, orchards & reserves. Lumos likes wherever he gets attention, like markets, cafes, wineries & anywhere that is cat friendly in urban areas. ”—Hasara Lay
    • “Parks, hiking trails, and random fields are the obvious choices. He likes places with ducks, frogs or squirrels. There is a parking lot nearby with a bunch of concrete risers and he loves jumping off those in summer. ”—Corinne Rikkelman

RESOURCES

As I noted at the start, attitudes towards cats have changed a lot in the twelve years since I took my first cat Lucy for a walk on a leash. Now there are entire online communities dedicated to the idea of adventure cats. Cats will reap the benefits of more stimulation, better health, and greater bonds with their owners.

For more information, check out the following groups: Clicking With Your Cat, KCC Adventure Cats, and Therapy Cats. Members kindly shared their experiences for this article. In addition, you might do a search on Instagram for #adventure cats, #walking cats, #outdoor cats, and other similar hashtags.

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