Indoor cats live substantially longer than outdoor felines — 12 to 20 years versus just one to five years — but some cats just want to go outside now and then.
If your cat gazes longingly out the window and often tries to dart out the backdoor, he might be a good candidate for leash training. Taking regular outdoor walks can keep cats healthy and reduce boredom-related behavior problems.
While most cats can be trained to walk on a leash, kittens are naturally more accepting of wearing a harness.
"Leonardo has always been an indoor cat, and he was fairly old when I got him,” said Alyssa Young, who leash trained her cat in 2007 while living in Italy (pictured at right). “It would have been better had I gotten him as a kitten. He was already very fearful of the outdoors when I began training him. He was very, very slow going."
Still, even older cats can be leash trained if you’re patient and reward your pet for each bit of progress.
Get the right gear
Purchase a harness or walking jacket designed for cats, and make sure the leash attachment is located on the back of the harness — not the neck. It’s not safe to walk cats on traditional collars.
Meet the harness
Leave the harness near your cat’s food or favorite nap spots, so he’ll get used to it. Also, hold out the harness and let your cat sniff it. Feed him treats as he does this so he associates it with something positive.
"Getting the cat used to the harness was surprisingly easy. Peaches is a stomach on legs and we don't free feed her, so anytime there is food in play, you have her full attention," said Dallas resident Tex Thompson.
"We put the harness on the floor and sprinkled a little kibble in it, so she had to nose around the harness to scarf up the goodies. I also petted her with the harness whenever she came to sit in my lap. By the time I actually snapped the harness on her for the first time, she was too busy gobbling up kibble to even notice."
Start draping the harness over the animal’s shoulders to help him get used to the feel of it. Distract him with treats and remove the harness after a few seconds. Continue this process until you can snap the harness on.
Now that your kitty is wearing the harness, practice adjusting the fit. You should be able to slip two fingers between the harness and your pet’s body. Leave the harness on for a few minutes, feeding treats as a reward. If your cat gets upset, distract him with food or toys and remove the harness.
"Cats are creatures of habit, and having something forcibly tied onto their bodies is such an alien experience that the harness-training adventure is bound to be far more successful when we go slowly and make each step a natural extension of the one before it," Thompson said.
Attaching the leash
After a few days of practice, take your harnessed cat into a room where he can’t easily snag his leash on anything and attach the leash. Let the it drag behind him as you feed him treats and play.
Once he’s comfortable, pick up the end and gently leading him around your home. Keep the leash loose and let him go where he wants. Give treats and pats for good behavior and praise your pet often.
When he’s used to the leash, practice guiding him by applying gentle, persistent pressure on the leash — but don’t jerk it. When your cat comes toward you, reward him with a treat.
If your cat hasn’t been outdoors before, he’ll be nervous and easily startled, so start in a quiet area free of people and other animals. Simply sit with your leashed kitty and wait for him to explore on his own. Follow him as he ventures into new areas, but don’t force him outside his comfort zone.
"It can be very boring when it takes 20 minutes to walk the five feet down your driveway, but it's important not to push the cat and to let them explore at their own pace," Young said.
Encourage your cat to walk a little farther each day — you’ll know he’s ready when he’s walking comfortably around each area with his tail up.
Keep in mind that walking a cat isn’t the same as walking a dog. While some cats might love to walk the sidewalk and explore new areas, others might prefer to stay close to home.
"Remember that cats are not little dogs," says Rachel Conger Baca, who takes her cat Haskell outside twice a day. "They will never really walk like a dog walks on a leash. You have to look at it as if you're allowing them an explore, not taking them for a walk."
Atlanta resident Lieze Truter says her cat Davey (pictured at right) enjoys being outside, but he doesn’t like to venture too far. "He just walks and sniffs every corner inch by inch, so we don't really walk like you would a dog. It's more like, 'Let’s go outside and smell everything that I stare at every day when I'm sitting in the window,;" she said.
More leash-training tips
- Put the harness on away from the door and carry your cat outside. Letting him walk out on his own might encourage him to dash out between walks.
- Set a regular walking schedule, so your cat won’t pester you to go outside whenever he feels like it.
- If your cat gets scared while walking, don’t pick him up. Instead, retreat to a previous area that he’s explored.
- Never tie your cat's leash to something outside and leave him.
For more information on leash training your cat, check out this video: