Dear Ms Kitty,
I read all the time about cats who go hiking with their people. It sounds like fun! My cat Doja is a little shy, but might it be good for her to get outside with me like that?
– Backpacking in Bear Creek
Doing fun things with your cat can enrich her life and deepen your bond. Backpacking is great for some cats, but please ask these two questions before taking Doja out in one.
Is your cat confident enough for this activity? And are you patient enough to train her?
One way to tell if she is confident enough is to watch her reaction when the doorbell rings. If Doja comes running to the door with tail up, ears and whiskers forward, she is telling you she may enjoy new experiences. A confident kitten under 4-6 months may be more easily trained for outside adventures.
If Doja hangs back or hides with new sounds or people, please reconsider asking her to be an Adventure Cat. Cats instinctively know how vulnerable they are outside. That’s why they get low to the ground and head for cover when scared.
If Doja is confident enough to want to go outside, your next step is to find the right equipment and train her for that. For her own safety, she should be harness trained before taking her outside. This is a process of gradually adapting her to a secure harness or walking jacket so she feels comfortable walking around (or even playing!) in one while still inside.
This involves many steps, so please see our article on taking your cat for a walk for how to do this. Once she’s accustomed to the equipment, take her for practice walks around the house first. Give her treats while she ambles around in the harness. This allows the equipment to become normal and fun for her.
Once she’s comfortable with that, you can start to take her outside. If you live in an apartment, taking her for practice walks in your hallway is perfect.
Choose a quiet time when she will meet the fewest people. If neighbors do appear, take time to introduce them to Doja to show her they aren’t strangers. Let them feed her a treat or two too.
Once she’s walking around your home or hallway, the next step is to take her outside. We suggest carrying her over the threshold every time so she does not get rewarded for going outside on her own.
Again, choose a quiet time with the least foot traffic to expose her to the outdoors. Let her move around at her own pace.
She may lie down or want to hide under things. If she’s normally confident inside, let her do that (as long as she doesn’t try to burrow into a place where you can’t get to her) so she can acclimate at her own pace.
Please keep in mind that once you let her go outside and she enjoys it, you will be committing to taking her for daily walks for the rest of her life, just like dog guardians do. If she is confident and being outside is rewarding (tail up and ears forward!) this will be a door you won’t be able to close once it’s open.
Once you know she enjoys being outside, you can introduce her to the backpack. There are many different styles of cat backpacks available. You’ll want one big enough so she can lie down if she needs to, both for rest and if she feels like she needs to retreat from anything scary.
Many of them have bubbles or windows so the cat can see out. Even though this looks fun to us, it can be intimidating to be on display with nowhere to hide, while being forced to take in far more sounds, sights and smells than they would ever get inside.
Introduce the backpack inside. Make it a fun place to hang out just like you would her carrier. Place her favorite food and toys in it so it becomes a normal part of the furniture.
Once she’s very comfortable with the pack, put on her walking jacket and let her go inside. Zip her in (many packs have a hook inside to attach her leash to) and go for a short walk around the house. Reward her when she’s inside.
Let her out and reward her again. Use high-protein, yummy treats and give her lots of rewards to make walks and backpacks as pleasant as possible…before you even go outside.
Just like carrier training, go gradually, treating all the while, to make going outside a fun thing to do. This is where training a confident kitten will probably lead to your most successful adventures.
Please pay attention to what Doja is telling you with her body language. If she crouches with ears low, whiskers back and dilated pupils, she is afraid. A fearful cat is not having fun outside in your backpack, no matter how much fun you are having.
A recent webinar with Kimberley Freeman, a professional tracker who finds lost cats with her own search cat for her company LostCatFinder.com, reported that the adventure cat trend has dramatically increased her lost cat cases. If Doja is a less confident adult, please ask yourself if trying to make her into an adventure cat is worth it if you lose her forever.
Several years ago, a young woman went hiking with her cat Sammy on the Manitou Incline, not too far from Happy Cats Haven in Manitou Springs. He was partially blind and declawed. She had him in a backpack, even with a harness for safety, but fell coming down the mountain. He got out of the pack and ran away, terrified.
Long story short, they put up flyers and 10 days later, a runner who was training at night spotted Sammy because he knew to look for him. This was before trail cameras were prevalent so it still took them another two weeks to locate Sammy by imitating his own call at night.
Three weeks later, he was finally back home because his person didn’t give up. His veterinarian said he would likely not have survived another couple of days in the wild.
A big retail business has emerged with the adventure cat trend. Blog after blog shows photos of confident cats walking on trails and peering adorably out of backpacks. They don’t tell the stories of all the cats lost in the wild…or the ones found dead under a tool chest in a garage four houses down from where they were lost.
If you have a confident cat (tail up and ears forward!), consider carefully, plan thoughtfully, go gradually and train thoroughly. For some cats, travel is a wonderful extension of your time with them. For the other 95%, a walk in the back yard may be adventure enough.
Sara Ferguson is the Director of Happy Cats Haven and Carole Galloway is the owner of Colorado Cats Boarding. Ask Ms Kitty supports cat behavior consulting offered on our website through our Helpline.