Have you tried to train your cat to walk on a leash or harness and failed? You’re not alone! I recently tried with one of my foster kittens, and my well-intentioned but uneducated efforts, while comical (see his meowing protest in the photo), did not seem to be moving in the direction of a walkable cat! But I’m ready to try again, after reading a great article published in The New York Times. Writer Stephanie Clifford experienced the same difficulties I did at first, but successfully trained her newly adopted cat Mac to walk on a leash! I especially love the harness she chose, a vest-style small dog harness – so different from the typical spaghetti-like nylon harnesses that are sold specifically for cats. My experiences with the strap harnesses was just trying to get one on a cat is quite a challenge! Not to mention keeping it on. The vest looks much more secure, since in my experience cats are little houdinis when it comes to getting out of normal harnesses, and to make it tight enough to stay on seemed to me to be part of the discomfort that makes them not want to walk with it on. I can now also put into practice the expert tips of the $375.00-per-session TV celebrity trainer Jackson Galaxy that helped Stephanie and Mac. Like… I didn’t realize a cat flopping over or lying down was “normal”, how to reserve his favorite treats as rewards only when in the harness, and that even walking just a few feet after 2 weeks of training is a normal amount of progress. Of course, definitely get your cat comfortable on the harness BEFORE going outside, as they do in the article. There is a lot more to learn and enjoy by reading the full NYT article here, and I’ve included the article’s closing tips for training your cat on a leash here too:
1. Know your cat. If it doesn’t mind being handled, is pretty confident and not easily spooked, it’s probably a good candidate for leash training.
2. Get the right gear. It is not safe to walk cats on a traditional collars; if they escape up a tree, a breakaway collar will detach, while a standard collar can strangle them. Mr. Galaxy prefers two styles of walking jackets, though a harness made for a cat is also fine.
3. Hungry is good. Many cats respond to food treats, so start with a hungry cat. Cut treats into tiny pieces, because when a cat gets full, it will stop working. Only give the cat treats when you’re doing the training, and limit the overall amount.
4. Start small. In the first session, place the harness on the cat with confidence, and fit it snugly but not tightly. The moment you’ve finished putting it on, give your cat a treat. If the cat then falls to the ground and plays dead, give it a treat if it moves at all. If it is willing to try walking in the harness, give it a treat when it takes a step. The moment the cat starts seeming overwhelmed, remove the harness and give a treat to end on a high note. Throughout the process, give lots of praise and head pats.
5. Set goals. Push the cat a little farther each day, by breaking up leash walking into small steps. When it walks around each new area with its tail up, it’s ready for the next step.
6. Expect some setbacks. If the cat is afraid of something, try to redirect its attention to another area. If the cat completely freaks out, retreat to the previous area you were walking until it is confident again. Try not to pick up the cat, which erases its confidence.
7. Be careful if your neighborhood has lots of off-leash dogs; consider taking the cat to an area that’s more protected. Don’t let the cat chew on or lick anything. Substances that are common on streets, like ethylene glycol in radiator coolant, taste sweet to cats but are potentially lethal. And prevent your cat from climbing trees on a leash. It’s not safe.