How to Train Your Cat to Walk on a Harness or Leash
How I Trained My Cat to Walk on a Leash
If you live in an urban area or even a rural area where outdoor cats are constantly at risk of encountering cars or wildlife (coyotes), you may have elected to keep your cat as an indoor-only cat. There are pros and cons to indoor/outdoor living and indoor-only living. Indoor/outdoor living allows for cats to exercise all of their natural instincts but also exposes them to various risks—cat-to-cat confrontations, disease, predation, etc.
If you are hoping to give your indoor cat a taste of freedom, consider training them to walk on a leash or cat harness. Leash-walking your cat gives your cat a taste of the wild. The good news is that both kittens and adult cats can be trained to walk on a leash. However, if you are training your kitten, you will need an appropriate-sized harness that they can grow into.
The Best Cat Harness Kittens and Adults
When I first found my kitten, she was roughly 6 weeks to 2 months old. I knew right away that I wanted to train her on a leash so that she could enjoy nature. At the time I lived in an area where it just wasn't safe to let her outside—there were too many hazards and uncertainties. I decided to keep her indoor-only. I tried her out on three different harnesses in the last year. Here's what I found:
The Regular Nylon Harness
I initially started out with your typical adjustable nylon harness designed for kittens. I purchased this at PetSmart. I did manage to get this harness on her, and it worked well while she was under 4 months of age, but this harness was not a long-term solution. The nice thing about this harness is that it is fitted for small kittens. It was hard to get it on her, however, because she would rather play with the attachments than wear it, so it was quite difficult to fit.
The Cloth/Chest Harness
I later purchased a cloth over-the-chest harness at PetSmart. This did not go well. Cats do not like to wear things (go figure), so she wouldn't let me put it over her head at all. It basically never got used. She was also a teenager at the time, which may have contributed to the problem.
The Best Type of Cat Harness (In My Opinion)
I had been eye-balling this harness for a while—it's called Come With Me Kitty and is designed for adult cats or cats over 10 months of age. The amazing aspect of this harness and leash is that it fits over the cat's head like a lasso and easily snaps under the belly. The leash, too, expands (bungee), so this is really a natural experience for your cat. It allows them the freedom to jump after insects without strangling themselves.
How to Train Your Cat to Walk on a Leash
Here are some tips to get your cat walking on a leash. Start training as early as possible. The sooner you expose your cat to the leash, the better.
Also, work with their favorite treat. I used my cat's favorite treat to train her to accept the harness. I highly recommend that you use your cat's favorite snack and reserve it for leash-walking only. It's best to first try this harness out in a safe, enclosed space. If your cat freaks out, you will be able to calm them and remove the harness promptly. Here's how to begin:
- Unpack the leash and let it air. Seriously—cats are so picky about scent. Let your cat check it out. Give your cat a treat or two and let them inspect it and smell it. Pet them and offer reassurance. Do this for a few days.
- As your cat acclimates to the leash, hold it up beside them and begin to eyeball the proper adjustments. The harness is generally fitted for most cat sizes, but if your cat is narrow or wider than average, fiddle with the buckles. It is better to oversize the harness (indoors only!) and adjust it after it is on than to have it too small.
- Start by feeding your cat the tasty treat and try to slip the harness loop over your cat's head. It is best to approach them from behind. Do not try to put the harness over their head from the front—they don't like this. Pet your cat and say reassuring things to them verbally as they eat. Remove the harness when they tend to notice that it is on them before they become uncomfortable. Repeat this for several days.
- Again, feed your cat and slip the harness loop over its head. Replenish the tasty treat to keep them occupied and gently reach under the belly. Slowly snap the buckles on both sides of the sternum. If you can adjust the straps to the proper fitting while your cat is eating, do that now. If you can't, repeat for several days and attempt to adjust the straps after your cat as acclimated to the harness.
- Make sure the harness fits like a collar—follow the two finger rule. The harness should be snug enough to fit two fingers under but not strangling them.
- Let your cat roam the house while supervised wearing the harness. Do not leave them unattended! They can get stuck or trapped. Remove the harness once your cat seems to be over it. Try this for longer periods of time.
- There will be a moment where your cat seems to tolerate the harness well. Go ahead and attach the leash.
- Now, introduce your cat to the concept of walking on the leash inside the home. Your cat may try to play with the leash at first. Toss a treat in front of your cat to distract them.
- Let your cat roam on the leash. Never drag or try to pull your cat on the leash—they do not correct like dogs! Leash-walking a cat is much like being walked by a cat . . . on a leash.
Cat Walking on a Leash
Taking Your Cat Outside on the Leash
Once you have established the harness and leash in the indoor territory, prepare to bring your cat outside. Understand that this is very new to your cat. First, try out a quiet and enclosed space if you have it available to you—start small. If you have loud neighbors, barking dogs along the fence, leaf blowers, and other terrifying noises, try to go outside when these noises are not happening.
What If My Cat Freaks Out?
A startled cat can easily disappear or freak out and attack you in the process of trying to calm them down. Do not get bit! The best thing you can do if your cat freaks out is to stop and speak to them calmly. Do not pull, force, or chase. Channel calmness and wait until the moment passes, then reach for them. I always carry my cell phone on me should there be an emergency. It's a good idea for you to carry one with you, too.
Be wary of trees and bushes. Cats can easily launch themselves up trees when scared or can get tangled in a bush and pull out of the harness. Walk them in an open space to begin with until you figure out their rhythm. Eventually, your cat will adjust to the sights and sounds and enjoy his or her time outside as will you!
Consider training your cat to the sound of a bell. I have trained my cat to come find me for a treat when I ring a bell. If my cat were ever to accidentally get outside, I can use the bell to try to bring them back (use their favorite treat).
How to Keep Your Cat Safe on a Harness
It is extremely important to take safety precautions while leash-training your cat. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Always make sure your cat has ID (a collar with the name, hometown, and phone number) and is microchipped.
- Be sure to know your cat's weight and size before purchasing a harness (size may refer to life stage—kitten or adult).
- Cats tend to be neophobic, that is, they are fearful of new things. Not all cats enjoy having a harness placed on them. Never force your cat to tolerate the harness if they are not into it. Do not put yourself at risk of being bit.
- Be sure to fit the harness properly. Cats can still get out of harnesses and escape when startled.
- Plan your walks appropriately until your cat is well-adjusted to sounds and surrounding happenings. Any kind of startling noise or movement could result in your cat running away.
- Never leave your cat unattended with the leash or harness on.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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© 2018 Layne Holmes