Ask Ms. Kitty: How to take your cat for a walk

Dear Ms. Kitty,
My cat Gandalf seems very curious about the outdoors. I know there are many dangers outside, but it still makes me sad to see him watching me at the door when I’m relaxing in the yard. Is there a safe way to let him come out with me?
Outside in Ordway  

Dear Outside,
Yes, many cats can be trained to walk on a harness and leash! As usual, cats need gentle instruction to learn do something that’s foreign to them.

Is my cat a good candidate for harness training?

First ask yourself, “Is my cat confident enough to go outside?” If Gandalf runs to hide any time someone new comes to the door, you may want to avoid harness training. Forcing shy cats outside can make them even more afraid.

However, if Gandalf is confident and eager to learn new things, he will probably be a good candidate.

What kind of harness should I use?

You will need a harness, or walking jacket, for Gandalf. Cat necks are more delicate than dogs’, so using only a collar can hurt them. Please look for one made specifically for cats, like the walking jackets available at Happy Cats Haven.

A good harness or walking jacket should fit snugly, but allow free movement. Cat necks are usually smaller than dogs’ so they need an adjustable collar at the neck. If the collar isn’t adjustable, Gandalf may be able to slip out of it, especially if frightened.

How to introduce the harness

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. Consistent training helps them acclimate.

Try not to push Gandalf too fast. Allow him to tell you when he’s ready for the next step by relaxing and enjoying the process. Keep it positive and have those treats ready!

  1. Allow him to get familiar with the harness and leash by placing them in his sleeping area for a few days.
  2. Once the harness is familiar, place it on his back for a few seconds, then remove. Repeat that process, adding seconds every time, until he’s comfortable with it.
  3. Next, close the collar part around his neck for a few seconds and give him a favorite treat, then remove. Repeat this too, adding seconds each time. Once he’s comfortable with that, close the torso clasp and repeat. Don’t forget the treats!
  4. Once he is comfortable with the harness, bring out his favorite toy and have playtime while wearing it. This gets him used to the feel of the harness while his favorite activity is happening.
  5. If Gandalf acts uncomfortable or afraid, reassure him and take the harness off to try again later. Forcing him will just give him a bad association with the harness.

How to walk outside

  1. Walk with Gandalf around the house at first until he is comfortable.
  2. Choose a safe, quiet location to start, like an enclosed yard or deck. If he has never been outside, go slowly until he’s relaxed.
  3. Pick him up and take him outside to start. This will help train him not to dash out the door on his own.
  4. Walking a cat is different from walking a dog. You don’t so much walk your cat as let him walk you!
  5. If he gets frightened, return indoors. Never let him pull back on the harness to try to escape.
  6. If he gets away, don’t chase after him. Sit on the ground, call him and offer a treat. Stay calm and entice your cat to come to you.
  7. Create a signal when the walk is over: tell him “Home” and carry him indoors. Give him a treat and remove the harness.

Soon Gandalf will understand that by tolerating the harness, he gets to explore the great outdoors safely. That will be rewarding in itself, and you’ll have a cat who loves to go for walks!

Happy Cats Haven’s volunteers Melissa Shandley, Sara Ferguson and Carole Galloway collaborated on this article.


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