Many pet parents are conflicted about keeping their cats solely indoors; they fear pets will become bored or gain weight without outdoor adventures. Environmentalists are also concerned about the impact of domestic cats on endangered species. On the other hand, indoor cats have much longer lives than their outdoor counterparts – cars and other animals commonly cause injury or illness. It’s a rare cat who will come on command, let alone stay inside even a fenced yard, so what’s a pet parent to do?
The answer lies in training your cat to walk on a leash! While most felines are fairly low-energy – swatting a catnip mouse twice daily is not exercise, Fluffy – some have moderate to high exercise needs. Walking your cat can relieve boredom-related anxiety and aggression, as well as prevent and treat pet obesity.
However, unlike dogs, most cats require some serious leash training before you can start pounding the pavement. Animals in general can be wary of change, so keep it up for a few weeks. Follow these steps, and your feline will be following at your heels in no time.
1. Get the good stuff.
When it comes to leash training your cat, don’t cheap out. You want a sturdy harness and leash combo specifically designed for cats; pick one with a breakaway buckle that’s still lightweight. Cat walking jackets are also available, for a more secure fit. Place the cat leash near your pet’s favorite hangout spot, like food dishes or a windowsill. This lets your cat check it out in his own good time and get used to the harness and leash.
Another essential object when leash training your cat is plenty of treats. Many pet parents don’t feed their felines bite-sized morsels like they do dogs – and why not? Kitties love treats too! My rescue cat Bug is particularly fond of Blue Buffalo’s Kitty Yums in beef; Greenies are healthful choice that do double duty cleaning teeth. You’ll use these cat treats as rewards, making sure your pet has positive associations with the leash and harness.
2. Make the leash your cat’s BFF.
The next step involves convincing your cat the leash is his friend. It’s best to bring out the leash when your pet is hungry, to make the treats more tempting, and also to withhold treats when you’re not training. Give your cat physical affection too, including plenty of head pats, belly rubs, and rump scratches when your cat interacts with the leash and harness. Cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy of “My Cat From Hell” fame advises to go easy on the treats, saying, “As soon as he’s full, it’s over.”
If your cat seems comfortable interacting with the harness, go ahead and put it on him. For best results, do this before mealtime to teach your pet the harness means good things. Keep it on as long as your cat doesn’t mind it; distract her at first with a favorite toy or treats. Repeat this process for a few days, leaving the harness on for longer each time until your pet is totally at ease.
3. Start indoors.
It’s finally time to introduce your cat’s leash! Begin by clipping on the leash and letting your pet walk around the house with it dangling (This may not work for string-crazy kittens…); keep an eye on your cat during this time to prevent entanglements. Continue letting your cat adjust to the free-hanging leash until she sees it as a second tail.
Now begins the actual walking; pick up the leash handle and begin to follow your cat around the house. Let your pet wander wherever he or she wants at first – cats are fiercely independent and big on reverse psychology – you’re just letting your cat get used to the sensation of being leashed. Practice “walking” around the house for several days, gradually beginning to take the lead.
4. Explore the great backyard.
Start slow and small when introducing your cat to the outside world, like a deck or backyard. Avoid other animals and people as well as loud noises from streets or construction. Even the most confident of kitties may be shy at first in this brave new world; go at your cat’s pace, however slow that may be. Some cats simply lay down and refuse to budge when put on a leash – pique your cat’s interest by picking him up and placing him a few feet outside the door while leashed. If you’ve got a fraidy cat on your hands, try moving your pet as close as possible to an open, unscreened door.
Coaxing your cat outside is usually the hardest part of cat leash training. Never force your pet to go anywhere, but work at his or her level of comfort. A cat’s body language is the best indicator of emotions, specifically the tail and ears. Typically curiosity will eventually drive your cat outside; once you’ve thoroughly explored the backyard, seek out quiet, no-dogs-allowed parks or trails. Birdwatching or even tidal pools are great entertainment for curious cats. “A lot of cats love to go outside and smell things, see things and roll around in sand and grass and dirt. They love to scratch real trees. Those are things they can do on a walk,” says Sherry Woodard, an animal behavior consultant at Best Friends Animal Society.
(Featured image via Flickr.com/ejbsf.)