If you own a cat, chances are you've seen him trying to get outside, and with good reason. Cats enjoy the freedom of the outdoors, the sights and smells which tell them that this is their natural home. As Dr. Frank McMillan, veterinarian and Director of Animal Well-being Studies at Best Friends Animal Society, notes:
"Walking outside can be great fun for cats...it gives them new things to see and sniff out...Think of it like this: If you could ask your cat every morning when you both wake up what he or she looks forward to that day, it's often difficult to think of what the indoor-only cat might say. But it's easy to imagine the response of the cat who goes outside on a harness and leash: 'Our walk! Our walk!'"
Will My Cat Walk on a Leash?
The answer is "yes," but you need to take the appropriate steps to make it easier for him to adapt to this new behavior, and to keep him safe. For example, you'll want to choose a harness rather than a traditional leash so he can't slip out and get away.
That said, here are 4 steps you should take to help train your cat to walk with his new harness leash:
1. Introduce Him to the Harness Using Positive Reinforcements
Eventually, your cat will become accustomed to walking in his harness, but he probably won't take to it overnight. It's best to introduce him to the harness over several days, first letting him sniff it. You could make it a positive association by keeping the harness near his food bowl when it's not in use.
You should also get him used to some of the new sounds he'll hear, like when you the unpeel the Velcro. Finally, give him positive reinforcements by using his favorite treats for each action he completes.
2. Give Him Several Days to Adjust to Wearing the Harness
Remember that this is a new experience for your cat. When you first put him in the harness, don't fasten it; just let him get used to how it feels. Take as long as necessary to get him used to it before you fasten it. When you do, make sure you can slip a couple fingers underneath the harness (but no more than that. You don't want him to slip out of it.). At first, don't leave the harness on for more than 5 minutes or so. Over several days, leave it on a little longer each time. Remember to use treats to encourage him along.
3. Attach the Leash and Teach Him to Follow Your Lead
It might take a week or more to get him to this stage, but it's very important that he's completely comfortable wearing his harness before you attach the leash for the first time. Go to a room that is free of objects where he might snag the leash (that could frighten him) and attach the leash, slowly without startling him. Keeping the leash loose in your hand, let him walk freely, wherever he wants (don't force him to go in any particular direction at this stage).
After he's gets used to going where he wants, you can begin guiding him gently. If at any point he begins to become agitated, ease up. Patience is again the watchword. You want to be sure he's comfortable following your lead before you take him outside for the first time.
4. Now, It's Time to Go Outside
Odds are this is your cat's first time outside, so he's likely to be hyper-vigilant initially, so take things slowly. It's best to carry him outside so he doesn't get used to the idea of walking out the door (this could encourage him to run out the door when he's not harnessed). Take him to a quiet area in your yard (nowhere near traffic). Just as you did inside, let him go where he wants at first (of course, don't let him go anywhere dangerous). Eventually, teach him to follow your lead outside like he did inside.
As they say, anything worth doing is worth doing right. Teaching your cat to walk and follow your lead on his harness does take some time, but the rewards are well worth it. After all, you're substantially adding to the quality of your cat's life when you introduce him to this entirely new and exciting world of grass, trees, flowers and fresh air. If you take the time to keep him calm, give him plenty of positive reinforcement and stay alert to any signs of anxiety, he'll learn how to walk with a harness, making both of you a lot happier.