How to Walk Your Cat on a Leash
Adventure Cats author Laura Moss’s step-by-step guide for hitting the streets with your cat.
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If your cat meows incessantly at the window or makes a run for it every time you come and go out the door, you may have an aspiring adventure cat on your hands. Whether you want to indulge their curiosity in the outside world is completely up to you, but if you’re still reading, here’s how I safely harness-trained my cat for city life and the precautions cat expert and author of Adventure Cats, Laura Moss, recommends you take.
Without the foresight that my cat may enjoy her little outdoors adventure so much that she’d be asking to shake up her environment again and again — almost always at six o’clock in the morning — I figured there’d be no downside to letting her roam the halls of my Brooklyn apartment building. That’s not to say I regret my choice to broaden her horizons. When her physical environment expanded so too did her mind. The mental stimulation of trying to figure out how the front door opens (she now knows the doorknob has something to do with it) and smelling objects that go in and out of the apartment with us enriched her life in a way no other activity had. Her excitement, which she expressed through polite squeaks that turned into drawn-out lyrical whines by seven AM, was well worth the planning the adventure required.
Throughout this process, I followed my cat’s lead and paid careful attention to her body language and limitations to ensure she was not only comfortable, but showing enthusiasm for the experience. Luckily, she initially expressed interest in venturing outdoors so I didn’t have to assess whether I was projecting this newfound sense of adventure onto her. Around the time she began freely running up and down the stairs of our apartment building and lingering by the double entryway doors, I knew she was ready to take the next step into the outside world. I also knew that I wanted to make the process as seamless as possible and that would require a bit of planning. Below, a step-by-step guide for taking your cat outside on a harness in a city.
Assess their level of comfort
If your cat has already indicated that they want to explore more of the outside world, that’s great news. Otherwise, you’ll have to tread lightly and understand that all cats are different and may not enjoy the same things as others. The best way to start this process is to see how they react when you open the front door: Do they run over or stay where they are? The former are known as “door-dashers,” according to Laura Moss, and should not be rewarded for this behavior lest they try to escape on a regular basis. “Every time you go out, carry your cat with you, just so your cat doesn’t get used to walking out on their own,” she advises.
Does your cat seem curious about the sounds coming from outside the apartment or frightened by them? It’s important to stay attuned to your cat’s behaviors and work off what you know about them (because after all, you know them best) to determine their level of security and comfort. “If you try to push it, you might damage your relationship with your cat or make them fearful, but I think cats are capable of so much more than we give them credit for,” says Moss.
Start small, dream big
Laura Moss began speaking with behaviorists, veterinarians, and fellow cat owners to create a website for people who wanted to begin harness training their cat(s). The website, Adventure Cats, led to a book of the same title, as well as her second book, Indoor Cat: How to Enrich Their Lives and Expand Their World, which is coming out in April of this year. “I think there’s a tendency to think of cats that enjoy being outdoors, or Adventure cats, as these very outgoing, fearless animals, but that’s not always the case,” Moss mentioned on our phone call.
“There are people who will rock climb with their cat. My cat’s huge adventure is going in the backyard or we have a wildlife area not too far with ducks and beavers and that’s a huge adventure for them." She continues, "So it’s just a matter of knowing what your cat is capable of and comfortable doing and also doing the training.” The training she mentions is on both harness and leash, which are crucial steps in the process of getting your cat off the couch and onto their next adventure. The adventure in question may be as simple as taking a whiff of outside air or exciting as climbing a tree at the local park.
Introduce them to the leash and harness
If your cat seems comfortable with the first step of the process, you can introduce them to the harness. Begin by leaving it somewhere close by, ensuring that they’re able to smell it and familiarize themselves with this new foreign object. If that seems to be going well, you can try opening and closing the velcro straps and buckles in front of them so they have a better awareness of the sounds they will hear when it’s fastened to their body. Then, try attaching and detaching the hardware of the leash and harness so they get used to the clinking sound it makes.
Practice wearing the harness
This may prove a bit difficult at first, considering that cats notoriously detest feeling constricted and don’t take to clothing as easily as dogs in most cases. However, if you can get your cat in the habit of wearing it for a few minutes per day — leaving it on a little longer every time and letting them walk around the house — it will improve their overall comfort when they’re in a new place wearing this odd contraption.
“I would put the harness by a food bowl or give him some treats so he would start getting those positive associations," Moss says of introducing the harness to her six year old cat. “Once he was comfortable, we put the harness on and then immediately distracted him with a feathery stick or a favorite toy so that he would forget that he was wearing it.” Although it wasn’t as seamless an experience with harness training her older cat as it was her younger one, Moss offers advice to parents of cats of all ages. “It’s much easier to teach kittens because they’re so open to new experiences,” she says. “If your cat reacts negatively or they get scared, take the harness off, get them a treat, make it a positive experience.”
Attach the leash to the harness
The steps are getting more difficult with time, if you hadn’t picked up on that. While this step may seem like a no brainer, it was probably the one that my cat found most confusing and jarring. First, start by creating no tension between the leash and the harness. A cat that feels constricted or out of control of their movements will not be happy and may try to bolt. If they do make that attempt and are immediately jerked back by a taught leash, they will be even less happy.
You can remedy this by offering them a safe place to retreat to, like a backpack or crate, if they do get scared. Moss also recommends clicker training and ensuring that your cat comes when you call their name. You should also be ready to canvas the area in the case of an emergency and your cat escapes or goes missing; Moss suggests “being prepared with recent photos of your cat on your phone, which I'm sure all cat people have.” She also notes some of the latest pet technology can be beneficial in these instances, including trackers that you can attach to their collars or micro-chipping your cat.
Once your cat is comfortable walking on a loose leash, you can attempt to guide them with a bit more of a restrictive lead, but in no circumstance should it feel like you’re dragging your cat around. If that’s the case, you should immediately abort the mission.
Take your first steps outside
Well, the day has finally come for your cat to take the practical skills they’ve learned and studied so diligently and apply them in the real world. It’s almost like graduation. I have a feeling you two can take it from here, but just to reiterate, you should only take the next step when you’re confident that your cat is completely comfortable and demonstrates that they’re ready.
At this point, the world is their oyster. Take a stroll around the block, to your local park, or let them play in your urban jungle if you have any green space. Another wise piece of advice that Moss offers to cat parents seeking to raise an adventure cat: “You don't have to take your cat outside of these epic adventures. It could be as much as opening a window or building a simple catio.”
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Avery is an editor at The Wildest. She has written for numerous publications, including Refinery29, BuzzFeed, and V Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her fiancé and cat, Chicken, and has high hopes that one of them will let her adopt a dog.