Teach your cat to walk on a leash

When I adopted Willow, I had already decided that she would be an indoor-only cat. I had no yard or garden of my own to be Willow’s territory and my apartment complex is on a busy road near an even busier interstate highway. An indoor cat is a healthy cat, and cheaper with fewer vet bills to consider.

But my flat is also very small, and I knew that my indoor/outdoor cats of the past loved the fresh air, smells, bugs, and birds that they could watch while outside. I knew that if I started early enough (and Willow seemed both brave and clever enough for me to try) I could train her to walk on a leash.

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Benefits of teaching your cat to walk on a leash:

  • Your cat gets the mental stimulation that comes from being outside.
  • Because the outside time is supervised, you know what your cat is or is not getting into; also, your cat won’t be able to kill songbirds in your area.
  • Your cat will know the smells and surroundings around your home. If she ever gets outside on her own, she will know where Home is.
  • Your neighbors will see you and your cat together. Again, if your cat gets outside on her own, your neighbors will know she belongs to you.
  • Vet visits are easier because you can let your cat out of the carrier and still have control of your pet.
  • Same thing when travelling: When making a pit stop, you can let the cat out of the carrier to stretch her legs without worrying about her escaping — just keep hold of that leash!
  • Your cat will enjoy herself and you will be happy knowing that she is happy!

Like any type of training you do with cats, or other animals, you need patience. Willow was about six months’ old when I trained her to wear a harness, and though she took to it quickly, I didn’t begin by wrestling her into the thing and dumping her outside. (Hint: That is NOT the way to teach your cat to walk on a lead.)

Here’s how I trained Willow to walk on a leash in six steps:

Step 1: Choose a harness

IMG_20150930_232005I chose PetSafe Come With Me Kitty harness and bungee leash. The harness is simple to put on and the bungee leash allows for a gentle “give” when the she pulls against it.

Step 2: Introduce your cat to the harness

The day the harness arrived, I opened it in front of Willow and held it out for her to sniff. Then I left it on the floor for her to investigate. We played around it, too. The main idea here is to teach the concept: This new thing is okay. It isn’t scary.

Step 3: Get used to wearing the harness

When your cat seems to be comfortable with the harness lying around, then you can try introducing her to wearing the harness. I did this a few days later. Willow was a bit unsure at first but with coaxing, calm words, and fitting the harness loosely, she let me put it on her. It probably helped that at this point she was already comfortable wearing a collar.

Once Willow was wearing the harness, I gave her treats and then distracted her with toys. We played and she soon forgot that she was wearing the harness. Then I adjusted the straps to fit more snugly: you should be able to fit two fingers easily under the straps.

Step 4: Get used to wearing the harness and the leash

After a few days of putting Willow into her harness and playing, I then attached the leash. First I let her drag it behind her so that she got used to the weight of it being attached to her. Later, I held the end of it and followed her around so that she got used to me being attached to the other end. Usually she was the one following me from room to room and she seemed to like the idea of me following her for a change.

Step 5: Introduce your cat to the outside world — slowly!

One reason I knew Willow was ready to venture outside was because she snuck past me at the door and scampered a few feet away from me. She turned and looked back at me with an expression that said, ‘Mom! Let’s explore!’ I scooped her up, brought her back inside, put on her harness and attached the leash, and then stepped outside again. I did this immediately to enforce the idea: You can go outside — but only if you wear your harness.

Despite her eagerness to be outside, we didn’t go very far that first day, or even the first week. First she sniffed and examined every inch of the area immediately in front of my door, then of the breezeway my door opens into. Gradually, very gradually, we extended our explorations beyond the breezeway. I let Willow set the pace. I wanted her to feel comfortable and confident with her surroundings.

Willow spooked easily the first few weeks of exploring outside. Her first response was to dart to my door — what a relief! Over time she has built confidence and come to know the area better. She recognizes my immediate neighbors from watching them through the window and sits calmly whenever one of them comes by. When another resident walks by with their dog, Willow will crouch low at my feet until they’re gone.  If it’s a dog she hasn’t seen before, she looks up at me for me to scoop her up and hold her until the dog has passed.

Some of her early explorations went farther afield than what has become ‘her’ territory. There was one evening when she led me across the apartment’s parking lot to investigate the grass and bushes on the other side. Then something spooked her and she shot off back towards home — with me chasing after her, still holding the leash. We passed someone getting out of their car, who exclaimed, ‘Is that a cat?!’ as we raced by. ‘Yes!’ I shouted back, and thus cemented my reputation as the local crazy cat lady.

Step 6: Enjoy the outdoors!

Willow loves going outside. She will sit on the shelf next to the door and meow at me to let me know she wants to go out, and will reach out to paw at the lock for emphasis. She knows that when I pick up the harness that it means she can go outside; she will jump up onto the shelf and stand still while I put the harness on, purring with excitement. Her first birthday present was an extension to her leash since the bungee leash is only three feet long (though it can stretch to nearly six feet).

One thing you need to know from the start, however: Walking a cat is not like walking a dog. You can train a dog to walk alongside you along a particular route. With a cat, you are accompanying her on an investigation of her territory. Be prepared to stand still while your cat thoroughly sniffs the smells of a particular patch of grass. Willow’s territory is less than 4,000 sq. ft. Sometimes I take her to my apartment complex’s small dog park so that I can have a change of scene, but she prefers to stay in her territory.

Also be prepared to be asked, ‘Is that a cat?’ It never ceases to amuse me how many people can look at my cat and ask if she is a cat. I understand that her coloring is unusual, and it is even more uncommon to see a cat on the end of a leash, but she is still very definitely a cat. I have been tempted to reply with all manner of witty and sarcastic answers; but, being polite, I always answer, ‘Yes, she is a cat.’

And that is how I trained Willow to walk on a leash! The frequency and length of our walks depend on the weather, the time of day, and how much energy I have. Our walks usually range about 20-30 min, though on the weekend, if I’m feeling indulgent and the weather is nice, we will stay out for nearly an hour. As the weather turns nicer and we go outside more often, I plan to experiment with bringing a chair or blanket and a book out with me so that I can sit and read while Willow explores her territory around me.

Do you let your cat outside? Have you ever heard of someone walking their cat? Please comment with any questions!

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