When most people see someone leash walking their cat, they usually react with a mix of surprise, curiosity and disbelief.
However, the idea of taking your cats on your next outdoor adventure is becoming increasingly popular. Our cats are part of the family pack, and taking them on our holidays is now not frowned upon any longer.
Granted, not all cats will embrace leaving their favourite couch and venture outside.
But there’s a good chance your feline friend will appreciate a breath of fresh air and happily tag along your journey, rather than being relocated to a cat sitting structure while you’re gone.
Where it all started
The photos of adventure cats started popping up all over the web in 2013, when Stephens Simmons, an Iraq War veteran, integrated outdoor hikes with his black cat Burma in his daily routine to help him manage PTSD.
A couple of years later, pet behavioural journalist and adventure cat owner Laura Moss was frustrated with the lack of information about training your cat to be outdoors, and launched adventurecats.org.
The website currently has over 40,000 monthly visitors, while 285,000 posts on Instagram carry the #adventurecat tag – which are both a clear indicator of how popular adventure cats have now become.
For different reasons, people started realizing that they could take their cats outdoors, share an adventure with them, keep them healthy and safe, and protect wildlife.
And, ultimately, travel long term and long distance with them.
Does my cat want to be leash trained?
The short answer: No.
Most cats will likely reject the harness. Many will just refuse to walk and ‘play dead’ as soon as you try walking them.
Cats who have never experienced anything on their backs will often react as if they’ve been attacked by a predator, either freezing or fighting back.
So why put yourself and your cat through this misery?
Taking your cat along on your next travels is not the only reason why it would be worth it to leash train him: Cats have a biological need for mental and physical stimulation and, if these needs are not met, they can externalise into undesirable or destructive behaviours.
You know that new sofa that cost you 1500 € and is now full of scratches? Or all the nights you wake up at 3 am when your feline friend suddenly decides it’s time to run up and down the hall?
Yes. It could all be prevented with a bit of leash walking and outdoor venturing.
Prior to diving full in with the whole harness training thing, however, you need to do some groundwork and establish whether your cat actually has an interest in being outside, and joining in on your adventures.
Each cat has its own interest and personality, and it all adds up to whether they want to be outside or not.
Ask yourself these questions:
– Does my cat look out of the window all day?
– Does he express an interest in being outside (meowing or scratching the door)?
– Has he ever Houdini’d his way out of the door as soon as you opened it on your way back home from work?
If you answered Yes to any of these, you should probably consider training your cat to wear a harness and walk on a leash.
How to leash & harness train your cat
Not all cats take to a leash immediately. Leashes can initially feel restrictive or uncomfortable – especially for a pet that’s known for being SO independent and freedom-loving. (to the point that they’re believed to have domesticated themselves thousands of years ago.)
Leash training will require a little (okay, A LOT) of training and patience.
When they are still kittens, between two and nine weeks old, cats can be socialized to be open to new people and new experiences, including leash training. This becomes harder as they get older, but it’s still possible.
Moss, from adventurecats.org, says: “Don’t be alarmed if your cat goes limp, lies down, refuses to walk, or walks strangely the first few times he dons his harness”.
You’re most likely to experience this scenario the first (few) time(s) you’ll try to leash walk your cat.
Here’s a quick guide on how to introduce your cat to leash walking.
*Before you read the following guide, a word on safety:
It’s fundamental that you pick an escape-free harness, so that your cat can’t wiggle out of it whatever happens. Also, you’re probably better off to add an extra layer of safety with a GPS or Radio Frequency tracker – in case he does manage to escape.
• First, you should gently introduce your cat to the harness and leash by leaving them in your cat’s sleeping area for a few days, and then by placing the harness completely open on his body while he’s relaxed.
• Try to distract your cat with treats or a toy when you do this. It’s important to work with positive reinforcement: the experience should always be a positive one, so make sure you reward them, and to use those treats only for training purposes.
• Once he has accepted the harness (warning: this could take weeks!), walk with your cat indoors until he is comfortable in the harness and with the leash.
• It’s time to go outdoors!
If your cat is or used to be outdoors, or is an outdoor/indoor cat, this might turn out a little differently. You might have to stop letting him out all together, so that he knows that harness = outdoor time; No harness = no outdoor time.
If your cat has never been outside, you’ll also need to train him or her to be comfortable outside the house. If you noticed that he gets scared, go back inside.
First, pick a safe location. Motivate your cat by making him associate the harness with a fun activity (like going outside, playing with a favorite toy or receiving a treat).
• Remember that walking your cat is very different from walking your dog. Your cat will more likely be walking you than the other way around.
You will need to be patient and allow him to discover his surroundings, which usually means frequent stops and smelling everything around him.
• If you are just outside of your house, keep the door open so he can go back if needed. If you’re venturing a little further out, make sure to bring something to create a safe space (a carrier or a ‘catpack’).
If your cat seems frightened, you can pick him up and end the session.
In other situations, when he is getting used to the harness and leash, try not to constantly pick him up and disrupt his learning process.
More resources to leash train your cat:
While quick online guides will be useful, the best thing you can do is get your hands on an extensive, detailed book on how to leas and harness train your cat.
If you really want to dive deep and train your cat like you could train a dog, understand how they think and perceive us and the world, we highly recommend “The Trainable Cat” by Sarah Ellis and John Bradshaw.
Other books that we recommend for cat training are “The Little Book of Cat Tricks: Easy tricks that will give your pet the spotlight they deserve” and “Trick Training for Cats: Smart fun with the clicker” (for which you’d obviously need a clicker, like this one).
Have you ever tried leash walking your cat? How did it go?
Let us know in the comments! 🐾