How do I get my cat to walk on a leash?

posted: 05/15/12
by: Laurie L. Dove
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Walking a cat on a leash may seem like fodder for a snarky cartoon. Cats nap, snack, wash and nap. It's dogs that require all those walks every day. But even if cats don't need a walk -- cat owners rejoice in litter boxes, especially in foul weather -- a supervised outdoor adventure can be stimulating for Kitty. Or it may remind her that she's content to be on the inside, looking out.

Benefits of Leash Training

Because life indoors is healthier and safer for all cats, letting yours outdoors on her own is risky. But accompanied by you, she can explore the fresh air, get some exercise, take the edge off her claws on rough surfaces that function like emery boards and observe songbirds without threatening them. Loud noises or unfamiliar creatures (including humans) won't seem as frightening because you'll be closely attached, ready to reassure her. And she'll have fun identifying tantalizing scents in the air.

Using the Right Equipment

To get started, buy a harness made especially for cats. Never use a break-away collar -- designed specifically to break free if a cat's collar gets snagged on something -- with a leash. Cats can easily slip out of collars, so a harness is a must for strolling with Kitty. This will fit around her shoulders and girth, and will be gentler on the cat's neck than a collar being tugged by a leash. These harnesses are available in many styles. More elaborate, padded versions, sometimes called walking jackets, holsters or vests, resemble life jackets, but all are designed for the cat's security and comfort. Measure for a snug, but not tight, fit that barely lets you slip a finger between the cat and harness.  A retractable leash that you can extend or shorten by clicking a button offers a range of motion for Kitty and peace of mind for you.

Step by Step

Begin by placing the harness on the cat for a few minutes at a time, at playtime or before feeding. This helps her to associate it with something enjoyable. Do this several times a day. Once she wears it without notice, add the leash, letting her drag it around. (Always stand by in case it gets tangled up.) After she's comfortable, hold the leash and walk behind her, guiding her gently.  You may need to tug slightly to get her to move. If she's already accustomed to the leash dragging behind her, she'll eventually accept your presence at the other end of it; if not, let her go back to wearing the harness and pulling the leash around on her own. She may adapt to this in a day or two, or it may take a week.

Whenever she's ready, take her outdoors, to a quiet spot on your property. Keep these first sessions short, and always offer praise and a food reward afterwards. If you're taking her to the sidewalk, be alert for cyclists or joggers who may scare your cat.

Adapting to the Catwalk

Kittens that are taught to walk on a harness adapt fast, but many adult cats can learn, too. At first, they may crouch low and remain still, perhaps thinking the leash has tethered them in place. But with the proper harness and plenty of patience, you can teach most felines the joys of walking, even if they are seniors. My brother taught an elderly tabby named Sylvester to do it. Sylvester had never ventured out of his former owner's apartment, but his portly profile suggested a need for exercise. After Sylvester realized he could move freely while wearing a harness and leash, he eagerly padded around the backyard. My brother sometimes urged him into a brief trot, the way dog handlers do in the show ring. Sylvester didn't master that blue-ribbon sharpness, but he enjoyed the pleasures of his daily walk.

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