How To Leash Train a Cat
Cat leash training is not an urban myth. The photos and videos of kitties in harnesses, adventurously exploring the outside world are not trick shots. And the cats? They're not professionally trained commercial and movie "actors."
They're everyday cats, just like your kitty, whose owners took the time to harness and leash train them.
Cat leash training is possible. It's just takes patience.
"Leash training your cat could be an excellent investment of your time..."
"Leash training your cat could be an excellent investment of your time," Steven Appelbaum, President of Animal Behavior College. "However, it's essential to be gentle and patient."
And, let's make one thing clear. There's a reason this blog isn't titled: "how to teach a cat to walk on a leash."
The truth is, it's a rare cat who will walk with you on a leash the way a dog does. In 99.9% of the cases, you do not walk your cat. Your cat walks you.
Except for when you stop her movement (to keep her out of things that might be dangerous), your cat is going to go where she wants to go. She's going to investigate what's interesting to her. And if she feels like sitting and enjoying the sun for five minutes in one spot before moving on, she's going to do that too.
Coastal Pet has rounded up everything you need to know about how to leash train a cat, including the benefits of walking a cat and the steps you'll need to follow. Then, when you're ready, check out our collection of cat-specific harnesses and leashes.
Why Leash Training Your Cat Is a Good Idea
Need more than "why not!" as a reason to leash train your cat?
"Leash training is beneficial for many reasons," says Appelbaum, "First, it allows you to exercise your cat, which is particularly important as felines age."
Like children, Appelbaum says, kittens are active. But as cats age they tend to slow down and become less active. Being outside and going for walks with them – if your cat does more than plop down in the sun or stop to chew grass – gives them a reason to perk up and stretch their muscles.
But leash training isn't only good for their physical health. It's also good for their mental health.
We've all heard the rhyme "curiosity killed the cat." If you've ever lived with one or more feline friends, you know their curiosity is insatiable. They're at their mentally healthiest when they're exploring the world around them. But a cat living in an apartment or a house has a much smaller world to explore. And even with a regular turnover of toys, boredom is a risk.
By harness and leash training cats, you give them access to a much larger world … in a safe way.
"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.," Appelbaum says.
Finally, leash training your cat, along with your joint "walks," are perfect activities for strengthening the bond between you and your kitty.
Which Cats Can Be Leash Trained?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to harness and leash train your cat, we want to make one thing clear. Not every cat is going to take easily to harness and leash training. And many cats take several weeks (or even months) to get used to being on a harness. Whether or not you're successful with leash training often depends on how consistent and patient you are with the training.
"In my 30+ years of training, I have only seen a few dozen cases where leash training would have been… challenging enough that it was probably best to let sleeping cats lie," Appelbaum says.
It's usually easier, he adds, to start leash training while your cat is still a kitten. But that's not to say older cats can't be leash trained.
It helps if they're confident cats not easily scared by new things, trusting of you, and food motivated.
"In the vast majority of cases, leash training isn't impossible, it just takes knowledge and patience… The oldest cat I know of that was leash trained was 16."
Harness and Cat Leash Training: Step by Step
Step One: Familiarization
Before even thinking about putting a harness on your cat for the first time, you want to get her used to it as an object. To know it's nothing to be afraid of.
Put the harness among your cats' toys. Put it on the floor by their food when they're eating. Give it to them to smell.
Step Two: Put the Harness On
Once your cat is familiar with the harness, it's time to put it on.
Expect a struggle. Expect your cat to flop down on her side as if the harness weighs 50 pounds. That's all normal.
"This is where food comes in handy," Appelbaum says.
Once the harness is on, reward your cat with a special treat or two. Wait a minute or two, then take the harness off. You're done for the day.
On day two, keep the harness on for a little longer. Maybe five minutes the next day or two, then 10 after that. Again, reward your cat with a special treat. Pet her. Give her a hug (if she likes that sort of thing). Then take it off.
The key is to train your cat to associate the harness with things she likes.
Keep this up for as long as it takes (often several weeks). Each time keep the harness on longer. But always remember to reward with treats and love.
You'll know you're ready to move on when your cat barely reacts to having the harness on – except, perhaps, expecting a treat.
A note about harness sizing: Leave enough space so that you can fit two fingers between the neck/body of your cat and the harness.
Step Three: Attach the Leash
The first few times you attach the leash, you don't want to hold onto it. Let your cat drag it behind her so she gets used to the feel of the tug it creates.
As always, give her a treat. And repeat the process for as long as it takes until she doesn't seem bothered anymore.
Step Four: Hold the Leash
Last step before taking it outside!
Start following your cat around while you hold the leash. Gently try to guide her by stopping her forward movement (not pulling, just stopping) and then tugging ever so slightly in a different direction.
Reward your cat if she follows your suggestion.
If that doesn't work, try putting a treat on the floor in the direction you want her to go so she has more of an incentive to move that way.
Repeat this a few times, but don't worry about perfecting the art of guiding your cat. Depending on your cat, it might always be her leading you.
Step Five: First Trip Outside
You're ready to take your cat outside.
Don't go far if you don't have to. If you have a front or backyard, go there.
If you live in an apartment, find someplace quiet and dog-free for her first trip. The goal is to minimize the stimuli and anything that might scare her.
A note about going outdoors: Always pick your cat up and carry her outside. Even if you're just going to the front yard, you want your cat to know that you control going outside. If you let her go out on her own, she'll think she's free to dart out the door anytime it's open – even if she's not wearing her leash and harness.
If you'll be driving someplace, put your cat in a carrier, like the Bergan Cat Carrier or cat backpack, like the Bergan Backpack Pet Carrier, before leaving the house. Don't take her out until you've arrived at your destination and the leash is attached.
How long you'll spend outside on your first outdoor excursion will depend on your cat.
Look for signs of fear like not wanting to move at all, ears back, or fluffed tail. You can try and give a treat, but some cats won't take it if they're too scared. Don't overdo it on the first try; there's always tomorrow.
Step Six: Enjoy!
Let your cat guide you from here. She'll set the tone for how long she wants to be outside.
Remember to be patient. And that your cat might want nothing more than to explore the grass and bask in the sun.
Don't be heavy handed with the leash. Cats are stubborn. And dragging your cat in the direction you want to go isn't a fun experience for anyone.