A safe way to explore outside—as long as the cat remains in charge
By Bryan Lund
Some people don’t like the idea of walking a cat on a leash, like it runs at odds with the fierce independence of a feline spirit.
Just because a cat is safe on a leash doesn’t mean it’s not shot-calling, though. Just ask my neighbor, Karen Hyland, who’s been taking her cat, Tyler, a blue-ribbon-winning Maine Coon, on leashed adventures for 14 years.
“The cat walks you. You don’t walk the cat,” she says.
Best of both worlds
My girlfriend Renaux and I live in a neighborhood with big yards, green grass and a wealth of rabbit, squirrel and bird populations. It’s also home to an occasionally busy street.
Last summer, we brought two kittens, littermates, into our home. Bad and Boujee are shoulder cats who play fetch, trill when they enter rooms and accept snuggles from strangers. But they don’t go outside.
We tell each other it’s for the cats’ own good. Outside is where diseases and accidents happen. Still, hearing their fake bird-cries and watching bug hunts end against window panes makes us feel like we’ve deprived our fur-babies of the joyous outdoors, so we decided to leash train them.
I turned to Karen for advice. Her cat, Tyler, took to his harness almost immediately at about seven months old.
“I took him out and just put him down and let him decide where he wanted to go, and I followed along behind him with the leash.”
Karen’s luck brings up an important point about leash training: it’s not for all cats. Some might accept wearing a harness, while others struggle with it before realizing it’s their key to outdoor bliss. Others may never tolerate their leash. You won’t know until you try.
Introducing the harness
First things first: you’ll need a harness and a leash. Make sure to get a harness, not just a collar, and ensure that it fits your animal appropriately.
A harness will help you avoid choking your pet if you have to tug on the leash, and it’s far more secure than a basic collar. If you have a kitten, resign yourself to the fact that you’ll have to size up within a year.
Once you’ve got your harness, there are a few ways to pre-condition your cat’s acceptance of it. One trick is to leave it near food dishes at feeding and to have it present when handing out treats. This fosters a positive association with the object.
If your cats continue acting wary, let the harness sit out somewhere where it can lose its “store” smell. After that, let the cat wear its harness loosely inside for a while before attaching a leash or moving outdoors.
After a couple weeks of only sporadic harness sessions, Bad and Boujee are stuck at the “lie-down-and-act-like-they-can’t-walk-when-the-harness-goes-on” phase. This can, reportedly, be defeated with various motivational tools.
Some cats will forget their fake handicap in the face of treats or catnip. Others might spring into action at the sight of a favorite toy in motion. The main thing here is persistence and patience.
On the catwalk
Once the cat has accepted its harness, it’s time to move outside. Karen and Tyler’s adventures usually happen in her yard. Tyler likes to explore the bushes and strut his stuff up and down a small hill. The trick is to let the cat decide where to go.
At first, keep your cat somewhere relatively quiet and controlled to ensure an initially positive experience. Though he’s a seasoned leash-walker, Tyler, for example, will only occasionally venture onto the sidewalk. Loud noises still freak him out, and he prefers to have the security of bushes or a building on one side of him. Karen’s observations over the years have helped them have more fun adventures.
Sometimes even the most headstrong animals need a helpful nudge.
“They’ll get obsessed about something and get focused on it, and if I just give him a little tug and say, ‘Let’s go,’ then he’ll trot off and we’ll go on to another adventure,” says Hyland.
“Tyler loves it. I can’t explain it other than he has never known the difference.”
Bryan Lund is a writer, ghostwriter and skier living in Rochester. His childhood cat, Phil, used to taunt Tyler from outside.