Have you ever been out for a walk and noticed a very contented-looking cat strolling along on a leash with its owner? It’s quite the sight, right? Cats always look like they run the show and put the “own” in owner. So, seeing a cat obediently strolling next to its human is unusual.
Learning how to train your cat to walk on a leash is not as simple as you’d think. Cats aren’t dogs; they won’t simply step in stride because you force them. It takes a different approach, but with patience and thoughtful training, your indoor cat can learn to explore and go on outdoor excursions using a leash.
Benefits of Leash Training a Cat
Cat owners want their feline friends to learn to walk on a leash for several reasons. Taking your furry friends with you when you go out and about is fun. But there are other benefits of leash training your cat too:
Some cats, given a chance, settle into a couch-potato life. If your kitty is an indoor cat, their opportunity for casual exercise is significantly reduced, which can lead to your cat becoming overweight. According to the Morris Animal Foundation, 60% of cats are prone to obesity.
The main reason for cat obesity is likely being overfed, lacking exercise, and living a sedentary life (just like their owners). Cats are meant to roam, hunt, and climb trees. When their environment is too small or doesn’t afford them the opportunity to be physically challenged, they can gain weight.
Having a cat that accepts the leash means you can take them on walks, and you can much more easily take them with you when you go hiking or camping, giving you more bonding opportunities.
Better Overall Health
As a result of poor movement, circulation problems can increase, and soon, cats start developing joint issues that would never have bothered them in the great outdoors. Cats are not meant to develop arthritis but are supposed to be semi-feral creatures. With improved exercise from walking on the leash, your cat will have better circulation, heart, and overall health.
Cats can be aloof, as if nothing can bother them. But cats can develop signs of depression, especially if they feel closed in and bored. Outdoor adventures using a leash allow you to take your cat to new places where scents and activity can stimulate their senses.
As pet parents, it is our duty to prevent our cats from being bored. When a cat is bored or depressed, it may develop behavior issues and become destructive in your home. Taking your cat on a daily adventure will reduce boredom, excess energy, and bad behavior. It will also help your cat relax and chill when they get home.
Leash Walking for Cats: Pros and Cons
You may wonder if teaching your cat to walk on a leash is a good idea. After all, people have asked you, “It’s a cat, not a dog; is it even good for a cat to walk on a leash?” Or, “Is it cruel to walk a cat on a leash?”
The pros of walking your cat on a leash are that they get exercise, stimulation in an enriching environment, and bonding time with you. For me, it’s a win: win provided it’s what your cat wants, and every cat is different. My cat Jeff loves walking on a harness, while George is uninterested.
On the cons side, forcing a cat to walk on a leash or with a poorly fitted harness or collar and leash can be cruel. A cat needs to be acclimatized to their leash and harness and comfortable enough in the gear before they head down the road with you, or you may scare them and cause severe injury when they panic.
At What Age Should You Start Leash Training a Cat?
Ideally, you would leash train your cat when they are still a kitten. The younger you can start them, the better. It is important to remember that the leash isn’t there to pull them along or lift them up. Young cats have soft bones, and a too-tight leash or incorrect handling on the leash can cause serious injury to your cat. This doesn’t only apply to kittens. Cats at any age can suffer an injury.
If your cat is already an adult, do not despair, you can still train them to walk on a leash. It will take a bit longer and may require more special treats.
Is It Hard to Train a Cat to Walk on a Leash?
Training your cat to walk on a leash isn’t as simple as slapping on a collar and heading out the door. Unlike most dogs, cats can get out of all leashes and harness or collar sets. So by the time you are ready to walk down the road with your cat, you want them to be responsive and willing on the leash as you shouldn’t be hauling it to control your cat.
But with some perseverance, the right tools, loads of treats, and a pinch of patience, you can make the experience positive and teach your cat to walk on a leash.
So let’s talk about tools:
Cat Harness vs Collar
You should use a cat-specific harness and not a dog or cat collar. Cats can struggle if they feel overwhelmed in the big world outside your home, and in their struggle, they can easily injure themselves if they only wear a collar. A cat can strangle or choke itself with the collar, but a cat harness is softer, kinder, and protects its spine from injuries.
Connecting the leash to a cat harness and not to a collar ensures minimal strain on the cat’s neck (which is incredibly fragile). Choosing a well-fitted harness for walking outdoors with your cat is the best option.
How to Choose the Right Fitting Harness
When fitting the harness, it should not give more than one to two fingers space when you slip your fingers beneath the straps. It will also be uncomfortable if it is too tight, but you don’t want your cat to suddenly escape from their harness while you are walking outdoors.
If you’re wondering what type of harness you should choose for your cat, consider one specifically recommended for your cat breed. A Maine Coon cat won’t wear the same type of harness as a Siamese cat.
Measure your cat as per the manufacturer’s instructions. Each type of harness will have its unique fit, and the manufacturer will be best informed to guide you—they usually have a neat measuring chart for this, but the basic measurement guide is as follows:
- Measure the cat’s girth, circling its body just behind the elbows of its front legs.
- Use a soft cloth tape and pull the tape snugly against the cat’s body.
- Next, add an inch or two for comfort.
- Short-haired cats will do well with an inch, while long-haired cats require a little more for comfort.
Cheat Notes on Training Your Cat to Love Their Leash
Of course, cats are known to be very fussy about what they like and don’t like. We’ve all been there—bought an expensive toy only to have your cat play with the packaging instead. So how do you introduce your cat to a leash and make sure they love it?
Scaffolded learning is a great way to introduce something new with operant conditioning, such as clicker training. This means you tie one thing the cat likes to the new desired behavior, such as matching food to wearing a harness.
Your first goal shouldn’t be to get the cat harness on them but rather to have them be curious about it and see that the harness won’t harm them. Start by placing the harness next to their food bowl at feeding time. Let the cat investigate, sniff, lick, and chew at the harness. You can even rub a little catnip on it for some extra help.
Once the cat is unbothered by the harness near them, you can place it in its bed or carrier for periods of time. Make the harness your cat’s silent companion for a day or two. When your cat comfortably lies on or near the harness, progress to clicking the snap fasteners or velcro straps near them. The sound may frighten them, but they’ll be much more assured since they are familiar with the harness now.
Finally, progress to placing the harness loosely over your cat, encouraging them with a food reward for staying still with the harness. A minute or two at a time is enough. Step it up a notch, fasten the harness, and reward your cat with treats. Don’t attach the leash yet.
Only when your cat is happily eating their meals with their harness comfortably fitted around their bodies can you progress to attaching the leash. Let it lie loosely near them. When using the leash, never pull hard or force the cat to move forward.
You want your cat to want to walk forward at a suggestion from the leash. Start with a gentle and rhythmic wiggle of the leash and hold a favorite toy in front of the cat. When they step forward, reward them with a super delicious snack. Keep asking and rewarding; before long, your cat will associate leash walking with snacks and praise.
Take It Slowly
When training your cat to walk on a leash, it’s essential to take it slow. Never get impatient or try to rush the learning process. You want to make it a positive experience for them from the start. Older cats may need more time to learn acceptance of the leash or harness, and trying to force them will only create leash resistance as they’ll associate the leash and harness with a bad experience.
You can always tone things down if your cat gets anxious. So, if your cat starts to become stressed when you fit the harness, unfasten it for a few seconds, feed your cat a treat, then remove the harness and begin again. You want this to be a fun experience for your cat.
Using food rewards isn’t the same as bribery, which won’t work. Don’t hold the food out to your cat on the other end of the harness to try and bribe them to step into the harness, as the cat will walk around the harness and get upset when you redirect them.
A food reward is given only once the cat has accepted the next step in the training process as positive reinforcement. Once the harness is fitted, you can reward them with a tasty meal while they wear the harness. Trying to fit the harness while they are already eating the meal will not encourage learning.
Walk Your Cat Inside First
Start with an indoor adventure first! Always try walking in the familiar and controlled environment of your cat’s home. Again, don’t dangle food ahead of the cat to get them to step forward. Instead, get your cat interested by using something they already like, such as a toy. Remember, ask with a gentle jiggle of the leash, show them the toy, and when they step forward, click (if you use a clicker) or reward with a vocal command and a treat.
I spent days walking my cat around my apartment on its leash before venturing outside to make sure he was comfortable spending time with the leash on. Only once your cat can walk comfortably around your home with the leash and accepts forward asks with the leash can you progress to walking outside.
The RSPCA warns against walking a cat in unfamiliar places on a leash if they aren’t already used to it as the cat can struggle, hurting themselves and their owners and even breaking free, which can lead to a severe risk to the cat.
Make Sure Your Cat’s Vacs Are Up to Date
Another serious consideration is that when you take your indoor cat outdoors, they will be exposed to pathogens and other animals they aren’t usually surrounded by in your home. Ensure your cat is safe and protected by ensuring their vaccines, tick, and flea medications, and any required deworming schedules are up to date.
Keep an eye out for other animals that may approach your cat, and don’t assume that because these animals are with their owners, their vaccines are up to date, or that they will be friendly.
When to Face the Great Outdoors and Choosing the Right Environment
Okay, you’ve got your beloved fur-baby ready; they accept the leash, enjoy walking around your home with you, and come when you ask without any fuss. Is it time to head out to the local park or hiking trail? You’ve been dying to take them there, right?
Hold back just a little.
Remember that cats are territorial creatures, and your cat is going from the proverbial small pond to the big ocean. All that space, stimuli to their senses, and, well, just everything can be very overwhelming. Introduce them to an ample area gradually.
The best move is to walk your cat in your front yard or garden or just down the road in front of your home at a quiet time. Set your cat up for success as a failure now will set you back, and even convince your cat never to set paw out the front door again. I live in an apartment and would walk my cat along the corridor and staircase many times before I took him outside.
When you and your cat are happily strolling down the road, you can head to the park or a nearby space again set up for your cat’s success. If this leads to more successful walking, you and your brave kitty can progress to the hiking adventure you are eager to take on.
Learn to Read Your Cat’s Non-Meow Communication
Heading off trouble before it hits ensures your cat’s walkies go off without a hitch. You must read your cat’s non-verbal communication, i.e., body language. If you are sensitive to your furbaby’s signals, you will know they are worried about something before it turns into an unfortunate incident.
For those new to cat companionship, here are a few tell-tale signs to look out for:
Narrow Eyes that Stare
If your cat’s eyes narrow and they stare intently at something, they are either in hunter mode, ready to attack and kill an antelope (just kidding, but they can dream, right?), or they are worried and feel insecure. Their fight, flight, or freeze instinct has been triggered.
Stiff or Flat Ears
Cats with high ears that are so stiffened they almost seem to have grown horns are usually unhappy about something in their environment. They may curve and pinch their ears into crescent shapes depending on their breed.
A cat that has flattened its ears against its head is afraid. They are showing their submission and fear of whatever is happening around them.
Body Down or Up
We all know the “cat curve,” an annoyed cat can assume, where their back arches. This usually accompanies flattened fur or raised fur.
Stiff Tail that Flicks
Cats have expressive tails, and how these movements can tell you a lot about their emotional state. If your cat stiffens their tail or flicks it violently, they are upset and will either bolt or lash out.
Be Prepared for Anything
If your cat’s body language changes to show they are no longer feeling happy, you should take action immediately. Check to see what is upsetting them, and if it’s something serious like a dog approaching or another cat growing at them, guide them away from the cause of their concern.
Taking a fold-down carrier with you when walking your cat is a great way to save them from a nasty situation, as you can always let them hide in the safety of their carrier if the situation is not in your power to control.
My daughter took our cat for a walk and came across an unleashed dog. She swiftly picked the cat up, and although the dog meant no harm, the cat was terrified and scratched my daughter badly as it tried to hide under her jumper. Having a cat carrier with her would have saved my daughter and the cat.
Stick to a Regular Routine
Walking your cat is something that should happen regularly. Don’t walk your cat, then expect them to walk like a pro six months later with no walking in the meantime. Routines help cats (and all animals) adjust to what’s expected of them, giving them a sense of safety.
It’s a great idea to start with a walking routine of small walks every day. Increase this to longer walks three times a week once they become more familiar with walking on a leash. If you have more than one person in your family, ensure you use the same method when walking the cat to prevent them from becoming confused or frightened.
Regular exercise makes everything familiar to your cat, ensuring they feel safe.
Gradually Work up to Bigger Adventures
The last tip for a successful leash walk with your cat is to ensure you and your cat first have small adventures and gradually transition to a big outdoor experience not to overwhelm your cat.
Top Tips for Training Your Cat to Walk on a Leash
Some top tips for successful cat walking include:
- Take a towel or foldable cat carrier to scoop up your cat if they become frightened. Remember: scared cat = cactus, so an extra thick towel is a great idea.
- Keep a specific treat for walkie rewards, which the cat looks forward to and associates with walking.
- Carry your cat from the house, and don’t let them bolt out the door to prevent them from thinking that walkie time means they can run for the hills.
- Never use the leash or harness as punishment or to restrain your cat. Using a cat carrier to transport your cat to the vet is still best.
Frequently Asked Questions About Leash Training a Cat
Can all cats be trained to walk on a leash?
Most cats can be trained to walk on a leash, but not all cats will enjoy walking on a leash. If your cat clearly shows they don’t want the outdoors, it’s time to accept that they are a house cat, and that is that. As I’ve mentioned, I have two cats, one loves walking on a leash, and the other does not.
How long does it take to train a cat to walk on a leash?
It depends on your cat how long it will take to train them. Some cats instantly accept the harness and follow the leash because they are curious about what you show them and where you’re going. Other cats may take months of training and progress step by step.
How often should I take my cat for walks on a leash?
Take your cat for walks frequently to ensure they remember their training and because it’s fun for them and you. A good start is two to three times a week, but you can take them twice daily (every day) if you have time.
How do I deal with my cat’s fear or hesitation to walk on a leash?
Firstly, you’ll need patience. If you get upset, they will instantly get more scared. Become their calm spot in the storm (uhm, walk). If your cat trusts you, it will walk next to you more easily. Give them time. Some cats want to sniff the daisies (or sidewalk cracks), and you should let them. Honestly, walking Jeff is a slow crawl as he explores every nook and cranny. I envy cat owners whose cat walks like a dog at a reasonable pace.
Can I take my cat to public places while they are on a leash?
Even if your cat is on a leash, if you go to a place where pets aren’t welcome, you should leave them at home. A leash doesn’t give them a license to enter restaurants or other public places where pets aren’t allowed. If a public facility allows dogs, they will allow cats, but be very careful as many dogs will not be cat friendly, and it could be a terrifying experience for all!
Should I let my cat roam freely while they are on a leash, or should I keep them close to me?
Dogs are taught to walk next to their owner’s leg, but cats are likely to be more adventurous. It’s essential to easily and quickly get to your cat when walking if there’s a problem. Importantly, don’t fight with your cat on the leash. I find retractable leashes convenient for giving them the ability to roam.
The Final Stroll
Are you ready to head out the door with your adventure cat now that you’ve taught them about the leash, harness, and great outdoors? Enjoy! Remember: When things get hairy (pun intended), slow down, calm down, and don’t hesitate to scoop up your cat in a towel if they get scared.
Perhaps your cat’s not up for walking with you, but you must accustom them to being left alone at home. If your cat gets separation anxiety, you can be prepared with our handy guide.
I’m an indoor cat convert and created My Indoor Cat to help other indoor cat owners make the best choices for their cats and kittens.