Yes, you can train a cat to walk on a leash! Just like anything else, cats need gentle instruction to learn do something that’s foreign to them.
We hear people say they’ve tried halters or walking jackets and their cat doesn’t like them. Cats who have never experienced anything on their backs will often act as if they’ve been caught by a predator: they either flatten and freeze, or fight back.
Unfortunately, this is one of the most famous videos of a cat on a leash, clearly an example of what NOT to do, slapping a leash on an obviously frightened feline: Pinky freaks out
Instead, look at Josie on her walk: confident, comfortable and ready to play and experience the great outdoors…safely.
Happy Cats volunteer and Play & Treat Pet Services’ Melissa Shandley has written a great guide to get you started on leash training your own cat. If you have any questions, please feel free to give us a call at 719-362-4600.
Why should I leash train my cat?
Many cats live indoors to keep them safe, preventing injuries, illness and premature death. Indoor cats may get bored, obese and develop undesirable behaviors if they don’t have mental and physical stimulation.
A cat that is harness & leash trained has more options for safely traveling and spending time outdoors. The opportunity to spend time walking in the neighborhood can increase a cat’s confidence since they can expand their territory. You can enjoy the experience of having your cat with you in the yard or on the deck.
A cat that is satisfied and well exercised will be a calm and pleasant housemate for you and other animals in the home.
How to introduce the leash & harness
Each cat will have their own unique reactions to harness training and these steps should be modified to fit your cat’s response.
- Allow your cat to get familiar with the harness and leash by placing them in your cat’s sleeping area for a few days.
- Distract your cat with treats or a toy when placing them in the harness. Be sure to make the experience positive. Save these favorite rewards and only offer them during training.
- The harness should fit snugly, but allow free movement. It is not safe to walk cats on a traditional collar.
- If your cat shows any behavior that indicates the experience is unpleasant for them, reassure them and take the harness off. You can try again later; forcing your cat will just give them a bad association with the harness. Also end the session if you get frustrated.
- Walk with your cat around the house at first until he or she is comfortable in the harness. Introducing the cat to the outdoors is a completely different step and should be done slowly.
- Choose a safe quiet location to walk your cat. Help motivate your cat by getting the harness associated with some desirable activity like going outside, playing with a favorite toy or getting a desirable treat.
- If your cat has never been outside, you’ll need to train him or her to be comfortable outside the house with these training tips first.
- Once your cat is comfortable with going outside, you can pick your cat up and take him or her outside to start. This will help train your cat not to go out the door on their own. Once outside you can encourage movement with treats.
- If your cat gets frightened, return indoors. Never let them pull back on the harness to try to escape.
- The best position for you to stand is to the side and behind your cat. You can guide your cat with gentle sideways pressure on the leash.
- Create a signal when the walk is over: tell your cat “Home” and carry the cat indoors. Treat and reward the cat and remove the harness.
- Walking a cat is different from walking a dog. You will be keeping your cat safe and controlled while they get a chance to go out and investigate. Don’t let them get too far away, especially if there is dense brush around. It is not safe to let a leashed cat climb trees.
- If your cat gets away don’t chase after them. Sit on the ground and call your cat and offer a treat. Stay calm and entice your cat to come to you.
What else should I know?
Train when your cat is hungry and motivated by treats. Have a good supply that you can easily offer to reinforce your cat’s efforts.
Many cats will fall over or freeze when they feel the harness because it triggers a survival response that they would employ if grabbed by a predator. You need to help them move through this instinctual behavior with a highly attractive motivation – toy or treat — and lots of praise.
Go slow and reward your cat for small advances. The training will be more successful and you will be out enjoying the company of your leashed cat sooner if you don’t make the experience unpleasant.
If the cat pulls on out of the harness, immediately slacken the leash. This is easiest if you are standing behind your cat. If the cat gets frightened, consider picking him up and ending the session. In other situations while your cat is getting used to the harness and leash, try not to interrupt the learning process by repeatedly picking your cat up. Instead let the cat learn that the leash allows good things to happen.
Be confident and praise your cat as you place him in the harness. If you enjoy the process it will give him confidence.
Additional leash & halter training resources
The following link will take you to an article featuring Jackson Galaxy consulting with a client on leash training.
Nine Lives, One Leash
Where to find safe harnesses: