cat on leash on a walk exploring the forest

Photo Credit: @black.cat.mafia

The Importance of Leach Training for Cats

Leash training a cat is one of those ideas that may have seemed ridiculous just a few years ago, but is quickly catching on among younger and forward-thinking pet parents.

As Steven Appelbaum, the President of Animal Behavior College, points out:

“Leash training is beneficial for many reasons. First, it allows you to exercise your cat, which is particularly important as felines age…Once your cat is leash trained, you can take her out into the world. This means that she can learn to be more confident around various settings, peoples, dogs, other cats, noises, etc.”

Once you begin leash training your cat, you may encounter skepticism from family and friends. For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been that cats would hate to be walked. After all, cats are “too independent,” right?

The truth is, our cats may have that self-assured attitude, but they’re still our little fur-babies. Our kitties depend on us to look after their happiness and wellbeing, both physical and mental.

That responsibility we have as cat parents is why you shouldn’t let your cat free-roam. Free-roaming cats have much shorter, more stressful lives than indoor cats. They are exposed every day to the dangers of wild animals, weather, disease, cars, other cats and even unkind humans.

That’s exactly what makes leash training the perfect solution for responsible cat parents with adventurous kitties. Going outside provides irreplaceable physical and mental stimulation for your cat, while doing it at the end of a leash ensures your cat’s physical safety.

Plus, the process of encouraging your cat to become confident on the leash is a journey the two of you can take together to build your bond. Leash training a cat is truly a win-win-win!

Do Cats Really Like Walking on a Leash?

Even if leash training keeps your kitty safe, you may wonder if there are any potential downsides. Would your cat truly enjoy it, or would they resent you restricting their freedom? Is leash training bad for cats somehow?

In reality, the only way leash training could be “bad” for a cat is if they come loose and get away from you, potentially becoming injured or lost. That’s why it’s important to have a well-fitting harness that your cat can’t squirm out of.

Of course, our fur-babies are all individuals. Some cats (especially if they’ve been indoors their whole lives) are overwhelmed by the whole outdoors experience and are more than happy to sit and watch the world go by through the window, provided you give them enough physical and mental stimulation indoors.

Yet while some cats will never enjoy the experience of being on a leash, you’d be surprised — if you’re patient and consistent, most cats will come to enjoy it with time!

More often than not, if your cat seems stressed by the experience, it’s because you’ve pushed them too fast. Slow down and take a few steps back before you give up and declare that leash training is just not right for your cat.

So, how do you know if your cat is enjoying walking on a leash? Cats don’t have the same body language as dogs, so some pet owners who are more used to a dog’s signs of happiness find cats hard to read. But just because a cat isn’t wagging their tail, jumping up and down, or panting and wiggling like a dog would does not mean they are grumpy or upset! (This is especially true if your cat has a killer RBF).

A cat’s “happy place” tends to be a state of gentle curiosity and quiet contentment. If your cat lays down in the grass with relaxed body language and slowly blinking eyes, or bats at the occasional passing leaf, that tells you Whiskers is calmly enjoying the experience of the great outdoors.

How to Leash Train a Cat the Right Way

If you’ve never leash trained a cat before, you may wonder how easy or hard it’s going to be. The general process is the same for all cats, but how easy each step will be depends on your kitty’s level of caution and how much time you have to devote to training them — and of course, your own level of patience.

#1: Get the right equipment.

To get started with leash training a cat, you’re going to obviously need a leash!

The best leash for cats is a simple, flat leash that untangles easily (for when Kitty enjoys a roll in the grass, for example). Shorter is better, as you don’t want your cat getting up a tree or too far away from you.

It’s best not to use a retractable leash. Your cat should never be more than a couple feet away from you anyway, and the sudden sound or movement will almost certainly alarm them.

In addition to a leash, it’s also very important that you use a harness. Even if your cat is comfortable wearing a collar, you never want to attach your cat’s leash directly to it. There are several reasons for this.

If your cat pulls (or if you have to pull them back from danger), a collar puts too much pressure on their neck and esophagus. Also, a collar is easier to slip out of and escape from than a harness. Finally, if you drop the leash by mistake and your cat runs away, a collar puts your kitty at risk of accidentally strangling themselves if their leash gets caught on a branch.

Harnesses distribute the pressure more evenly over your cat’s body, and don’t restrict their breathing even if the leash gets caught. They’re overall much safer, more secure and more comfortable for Kitty than a collar would be.

Make sure you buy a harness fitted to a cat’s proportions. A small dog harness isn’t quite the same; your cat just isn’t built like a Chihuahua or Dachshund!

Some cat harnesses buckle underneath, while others have a Velcro close over your cat’s back. If your cat remains skeptical of the first harness you pick even after desensitizing, don’t be afraid to try another style instead.

#2: Build positive associations 

Before you even put the harness on your cat’s body, you’re going to want to start with desensitizing.

From the moment you show your cat the harness, they’ll be wondering — What is this object? What does it do? Is it a toy? Is it dangerous? Should I be concerned? You want to show your cat that they can put any fears to rest, and that the harness is an indicator of good, fun experiences.

Let your cat simply sniff the harness to their heart’s content the first few times you pull it out. Don’t just grab your cat and wrestle them into the harness! Get them used to the strange new item simply being nearby and part of the environment.

Only then should you hold it up and coax your cat to put their head through it (or step through it, depending on the style). You never want to force it; let your cat approach the harness with calm curiosity.

With most cats, the fastest way to build positive associations is by using food rewards. Train when Kitty is hungriest for the best results!

The higher the value of the treats you are using, the better. You could even use the most special treats exclusively for harness training. For example — Kitty ONLY gets the Duck Liver Treats she LOVES while inspecting or wearing her harness.

Remember that the key to building intentionally positive experiences that outweigh any unexpected negative experiences is to always stop while you’re ahead. Once your cat is willing to wear the harness for a few seconds, slowly take it off them while they are still curious and confident. Don’t wait for your kitty to start getting nervous or upset before you take it off — you want to stay within their limits, not exceed them.

#3: Be patient and go slow

Cats can and do learn, but they are by nature more cautious and skeptical about it than most dogs. Dogs, in general, want to please us and will try new things simply to make us happy.

Cats don’t have the same relationship with us — they’ve never needed to! — so in order to convince a cat to do something, you’ll always have to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Bribe your cat with their favorite treats into letting you attach the harness. Slowly increase the amount of time your kitty wears the harness before you take it off, always making sure they are staying calm. If your cat freaks out, back up and build their comfort level slowly.

Once your cat can comfortably lounge around the house wearing their harness, the next step is to attach the leash and let your cat get used to walking next to you around the living room. (Keep the treats coming, of course!).

Only when your cat is comfortable with that step is when you can finally start taking your feline friend outside for brief periods at a time, as their confidence grows.

How long does the process take to leash train a cat? Quite frankly — as long as it takes! Don’t be afraid to take two steps forward and one step back. If you stay patient, you and Whiskers can accomplish this together.

Frequently Asked Questions About Leash Training Your Cat

When should I start leash training my kitten?

Don’t worry about your cat being too young to learn to walk on a leash. Kittens are curious and unafraid, and adapt to new experiences quicker than an older, more cautious cat.

As long as you have a properly fitting harness, feel free to start leash training your kitten right away.

Can I leash train my older cat?

Yes, older cats can absolutely be leash trained! Even a senior kitty in their golden years can learn that the leash represents a safe, happy, stimulating experience.

Leash training an older cat is the same process as it would be for a younger kitty, except that you may need to have even more patience and progress a little slower. Even cats well into their teens have been successfully leash trained, and able to enjoy lounging outside in the sun.

What do I do if my cat gets scared while walking on a leash?

At some point while you are walking your cat on a leash, you may encounter something unexpected that scares or alarms your feline friend. When this occurs, resist the urge to coddle your cat — but don’t traumatize her, either.

You don’t want to drag a fearful cat towards something that scares her. Doing so will guarantee she never wants to wear a harness again! On the other hand, you also don’t want to swoop in and scoop her into your arms the moment she tenses. The goal is for Kitty to gain confidence in the great outdoors, and not learn to be dependent on Mommy to save her.

From a safe distance, let your cat quietly observe whatever alarmed her and she may relax on her own. If she becomes more overwhelmed, gently lead her back to an area she’s already explored and will feel safer in.

If you have a particularly cautious cat, it may take a while to even coax her off your front doorstep, and that’s okay. Whatever happens, just don’t freak out — or your kitty will, too!

How NOT to Leash Train a Cat

DON’T let your cat harass other cats.

While you may be excited by the leash training progress you and your cat are making together, the other felines in your neighborhood or apartment complex may be less than thrilled when you and Whiskers saunter by.

Don’t let your cat get into a staring match with strays or other people’s cats — even through the window. A challenging glare from your kitty could trigger territorial behavior in other cats…and you really don’t want to be responsible for your neighbor’s cat suddenly spraying indoors!

DON’T let your cat off-leash.

Maybe you have a friendly cat who actually comes to you for chin scritches when you call her name. You may wonder if you can train your cat to walk without a leash.

However, that would be a risky decision. There’s no telling when a dog, another cat, a backfiring vehicle or a sudden group of children may appear to spook your feline friend. For your best furiend’s safety, keep them securely on-leash at all times while outdoors.

DON’T expect your cat to walk like a dog.

Finally, in the wise words of feline behaviorist Jackson Galaxy, “People are guilty of looking at cats through dog-colored glasses and experiencing them as failed dogs.”

That’s why the biggest mistake people make when leash training a cat is expecting Whiskers to behave like Fido. Your cat is not a dog! Your cat will not learn like a dog, and your cat will not walk like a dog. 

When it comes to leash training a cat, Jackson Galaxy says it best:

“Understand that walking a cat is very different than walking a dog in that, essentially, your cat will walk you. You might take a few steps, then stop so they can take a few sniffs. A few more steps, a quick dart to explore a bug, followed by a few more sniffs, etc. From there, you might go into a little bit of a trot, only to stop again for more sniffing. Clearly, this is not the excursion into aerobic exercise that walking a dog can be, so be prepared for the slower, more contemplative experience of cat-walking.”

Essentially, you’re not “walking” your cat; you’re simply allowing her to explore under your supervision.

 

Remember: leash training a cat requires patience, persistence…and a few bags of delicious bribery! Good luck, and happy strolling!!

Once your kitty masters the leash, check out these other kitten training tips.