How to Train Your Cat to Walk On a Leash

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Which one is sweeter?
Taking time to stop and smell the roses

Walking your cat has the potential to provide many years of good times for both kitty and human, but it is a serious endeavor and can be fraught with mishaps—and outright danger—if done haphazardly. And it is not for every cat.

This article—the first in-depth guide to walking your cat—discusses:

  • The benefits and risks of walking your cat
  • The substantial preparation necessary to make the experience as safe and satisfying as possible
  • How to walk your cat, when to walk your cat, and who should walk your cat
  • How to anticipate and handle a variety of challenges that may arise during a walk


Contents

Why Walk Your Cat?
But First
If Your Cat is Free-Roaming
Before You Even Think About Walking Your Cat on a Leash
If Kitty's Not Spayed or Neutered, Forget It
Think Twice About Leash-Walking If:
Considerations if You Live in an Apartment or Condo
Only a Few (Thousand) More Things, Then We're Ready
Early Safety Precautions — Long Before the First Walk
One Enhancement to the Indoor Environment
I Hope Kitty Doesn't Mind Being Brushed and Combed...
The Harness and Leash
Visible Identification
The Number One Restriction on When to Walk
The Leash Walk Schedule
Where to Walk / Staying Within Limits
"Walking:" We Use the Term Loosely
Weather and Other Challenging Conditions
The Benefits of Gloves
"No Cell Phone" Zone
Who's Allowed to Walk Kitty?
Before Each Walk
Get Kitty Used to the Harness and Leash
How to Attach the Leash to You
How to Start the Walk
Coming Back In
Possible Situations and How to Prevent and/or Deal with Them
Issues and Limitations
What if Kitty Gets Loose?
A Review of New Phrases for You to Use and Kitty to Learn
A Review of the Basic Leash Walk Steps
Home, Sweet Home

Why Walk Your Cat?

"I'll lead"
"Let's go for a walk."

Leash-walking lets kitty expand her horizons and get in touch with some of her wildness in a way that's safe for both her and the local fauna—if you take proper precautions. On a leash, kitty can leave her scent on branches, scratch her claws on tree trunks, and pick a random spot in the grass on which to repose. A leash walk can give your cat new opportunities for discovery, and also relieve stress and boredom. Leash walking can be great fun, but it is not suitable for all cats.

But First

If your cat has no interest in the outdoors, count your blessings. Make your house the best home for a cat ever, and strive to make kitty's indoor life rewarding, safe, and happy.

Otherwise, read on. The rest of this article is directed toward cats who show an affinity for the great but formidable outdoors.

It is strongly recommended that you read the entire article before taking your cat out for a leash walk.

If Your Cat is Free-Roaming...

...Please consider leash-walking as an alternative. A cat wandering on his own is exposed to a multitude of risks, including ingesting weedkiller or infected prey, getting into brawls with unneutered tom cats, being attacked by coyotes or unleashed dogs, and, worst of all, getting hit by a car.

If you let your cat out unsupervised, you have no control over where he will go or what he will encounter. By contrast, if you walk your cat on a leash, and if you do it right and follow the advice in this article, you can give your cat a great outdoor experience while minimizing the aforementioned risks—in some cases to almost zero.

In addition, by leash-walking your cat instead of letting him free-roam, he will do far less damage to the birds in the neighborhood. All your neighbors who have bird feeders or who like to watch the birds in their back yard will thank you.

Before You Even Think About Walking Your Cat on a Leash

Create a great home...

Make the house someplace she wants to return to — a comfy, cozy, accommodating, secure place she really likes. If kitty was loose, you would want her to run in one direction only: toward the house. If you can't say for sure that she would do this, you may not be ready for leash-walking. A happy home environment is the first prerequisite for leash walks.

...that Kitty thinks of as "home"

How can you be reasonably sure kitty would head for home if she were loose outside and sought safety?

  • She's lived at your present home for at least two months.
  • She has a close relationship with the inhabitants, especially you.
  • She has favorite places in the house.
  • She seems rather settled in and has a comfortable, stable routine.
  • She knows where things are.
  • She leaves her scent around the house through daily scratching.
  • Her urge to hunt is satisfied through frequent play sessions.
  • Kitty is spayed or neutered.
  • Things about the house or who lives there haven't substantially changed in the last four to eight weeks. For instance, you haven't recently added a baby or a dog to the family, or remodeled, nor has kitty's favorite feline or human companion recently left.

If you have some fear that if kitty was spooked and somehow pulled the leash out of your hands, she would run off rather than toward her home, you are not ready to leash-walk your cat. A loose cat with a leash attached is in a precarious position and at considerable risk.

Teach your cat to come when called

This article shows you how to develop a unique call to which kitty will respond by coming to you: Train Your Cat to Come to You. The article explains how, and how often to practice this "one trick that every cat can and should learn." This can be a lifesaver whether or not you take her out for a leash-walk.

Consider getting your cat microchipped

The microchipping procedure is painless and inexpensive, has no side effects, and takes two seconds. A microchip provides permanent identification for your cat. Most shelters and an increasing number of animal control officers and veterinarians are equipped with wands that detect the chip. The chip has a unique ID that identifies your cat in a central database. Many lost cats have been reunited with their families thanks to this technology.

Train your cat to accept being picked up and carried.

For leash-walks, you will always carry kitty out the door, with her harness on and with the leash handle firmly around your hand. This is also usually how you re-enter the house after the leash-walks. So it is essential that she be amenable to you picking her up and holding her in your arms. If she hates being picked up, that will be an impediment to getting her interested in leash-walking and implementing a safe leash-walking routine. Note that being able to carry your cat may be of great benefit in emergencies also. (We'll have a separate article in the not-too-distant future on training your cat to let you pick her up.)

If Kitty's Not Spayed or Neutered, Forget It

Don't even think about it. The potential for catastrophe is enormous.

Wait four to six weeks after the spay or neuter operation for the hormone levels to settle down. This adjustment period varies from cat to cat, so ask your vet for more a specific timeline.

Here is some more information about why you should spay or neuter: Why You Should Spay or Neuter Your Pet.

Think Twice About Leash-Walking If:

  • Your cat is skittish. There will be dump trucks, leaf blowers, construction, kids yelling, dogs barking, and other loud or sudden noises outside.
  • You live in a busy downtown area. Chances are kitty will have no interest in going out into the noise, but there are a few cats, such as Norton in The Cat Who Went to Paris, who seem completely unfazed by the hustle and bustle of the city. If you and your urban cat do go out, stay close to home, prefer quieter areas, and please follow all the safety tips below.
Nothing is more dangerous to outdoor cats than cars. It doesn't matter how "street smart" your cat is or how many incident-free years he's been outside. "HBC" is the standard shorthand for "Hit By Car;" it occurs so frequently, emergency veterinary clinics have an acronym for it. There are bad drivers, slippery roads, and unforeseen circumstances. One minor error in judgment, one lapse in following the rules, one fluke—all it takes is once. Never forget this.

Considerations if You Live in an Apartment or Condo

If you live in an apartment complex or condominium and either you or kitty have decided that the great outdoors isn't so great for the feline member of the household, you can get many of the same benefits of outdoor walks, and avoid some of the risks, by leash-walking kitty through the apartment halls and around the lobby—provided the management and other tenants don't mind, and kitty is not averse to the people and animals he may encounter along the way. If you do end up walking your cat up in your building, it's almost a sure bet to be a conversation-starter. You will probably get to know more of your neighbors.

Note that apartment-walking may have its own dangers: insecticides and rodent poison, fresh paint, maintenance workers with dangerous substances lying about, and so forth. Narrow hallways also present problems. If you encounter a group of people walking toward you, how will kitty react? Will he be frightened or aggressive or will he take it in stride? On an indoor walk and close quarters, people will likely bend down to pet him. Will he comply, or might he get bitey? You don't even want to think about the possible consequences of your cat biting a neighbor. When in doubt, enforce a polite but firm no-petting rule. Keep the leash short—four feet at most—so that you can pick up kitty if he's scared or in attack mode, or if he's comfortable and calm being petted only when in your arms.

Also remember that apartment buildings ultimately have doors that lead to the outside world, and that during busy periods the doors may be swinging open every few minutes—if not more frequently.

Most of the rules you're about to read—keeping to a schedule, teaching your cat to come when called, wrapping the leash handle in a failsafe manner around your hand, rewarding kitty after the walk, etc.—apply equally to walks through the interior public areas of an apartment or condominium complex. The only exceptions are rules that clearly only make sense in an outdoor environment.

Do not take kitty out on the balcony—as tempting as it may be—unless the balcony is on the ground floor or it is impossible for kitty to jump off or fall from the balcony, or slip through or jump on top of the balcony railings. Making a balcony escape-proof usually entails putting up extra-tough, claw-proof screens or solid enclosures around the entire balcony and ensuring that there is no ledge onto which kitty can jump—and this sort of fortification is rarely done.

Don't think you can beat the system because kitty's smart or "never" goes after birds or is too arthritic to jump. You'd be amazed at what kitty can do in a split-second. Cats fall off balconies so often that veterinarians have termed the condition "high-rise syndrome." It occurs most often in the spring, and the heartbreak never leaves. If you're still not convinced that it's a bad idea to take kitty for a walk on the balcony, call up an emergency vet clinic and if they're not busy ask them about cats falling off balconies, and that will probably change your mind.

We will discuss ways to keep kitty off the balcony in a future article.

If your balcony is on the first floor or is truly escape-proof, it is recommended that if you take kitty out there, you use a leash and follow the same precautions, as much as possible, as you would on any other outdoor walk.

Only a Few (Thousand) More Things, Then We're Ready

All set to go on a walk then? Wait, not so fast. You have to buy supplies, train yourself and kitty in some new skills, and perform several pre-walk steps. You want this new joint activity to be safe and pleasant, so do your prep work first.

Early Safety Precautions — Long Before the First Walk

  • Don't use pesticides, herbicides, or any poisons in your yard. Not only are they dangerous for kitty, they're harmful to other cats and dogs who may wander into the yard, not to mention the wildlife and birds who live there.

    For information on chemical-free gardening and lawn maintenance, you may want to peruse these sites:

  • For your safety, check for poison ivy. Although it rarely affects cats, kitty could rub against it and then transfer the oils from the plant to you when you pick her up or pet her. Either don't walk back in the poison ivy brambles, or remove the plants, including the roots, as explained in this article.1
  • If there are fleas in your neck of the woods, use safe2 flea protection for your cat. If you have ticks in your area, you should protect against them, also. If you're not sure, consult with your veterinarian. Note: some cats have suffered severe reactions to flea collars.
  • Make sure kitty is up to date on her vaccinations and heartworm treatments, as per your veterinarian's recommendations. (For more information on feline vaccinations, please see www.catvaccines.com.)
  • If you've been thinking about putting in some bushes around the edge of the year, especially where there is no fence or other border (in other words, if you've been hedging on this decision), now might be a good time to do that landscaping. The row of border plants may help establish territory boundaries in kitty's mind and he'll also enjoy taking advantage of the cover that a thick row of bushes provides. Of course, it may take a few years before the hedges fill in enough and are tall enough to be much of a natural border and/or hiding place for kitty.
  • Know which plants are poisonous to cats. Are any ones from the "toxic list" in your yard? Keep in mind that they may be in your yard even if you didn't plant them.

    Wild onions are common in lawns, and from a distance, or after mowing the yard, don't look much different than grass. Lilies are very toxic to cats. Tiger lilies and day lilies are quite common landscaping plants, and may spread across property lines on their own. Their flowers are easily recognizable, but the leaves, especially during non-flowering times, may blend in with the grass. So to be on the safe side, you may want to prohibit kitty from eating any greenery in the lawn. If you do let him eat anything green, you had better monitor what he's eating quite closely.

    Eating anything outside your yard should be strictly forbidden. You don't know what the neighbors have applied to the grounds. If you see chemicals being sprayed, or smell them, and there's even a slight breeze, kitty should not even eat anything from your own yard, since chemicals can travel. Similarly, kitty should not be allowed to eat rodents, birds, or other prey that he finds; they could be poisoned or diseased.

One Enhancement to the Indoor Environment

You may want to place a scratching post or pad not too far from the door by which you'll be exiting for your leash-walks. Many cats like to get in a few last-minute scratches as part of their warm-up before heading out.

I Hope Kitty Doesn't Mind Being Brushed and Combed...

...including on his belly, because you're going to have to brush him—probably with a comb and/or slicker brush—top and bottom, north to south, every time he comes in from his walk. Because he's going to have stuff on him. And if he's rolled around at all, he might be filthy. There's no telling what might hitch a ride on kitty's back. Or underside.

It is important that you get your cat used to brushing before embarking on leash-walks. Not only because you need to get dirt, bird poop, ticks, and who knows what out of his fur when he returns from his nature exploration, but also because coming back to home base should be welcoming and enjoyable. Once kitty's had a taste of the great outdoors, it is essential that he looks forward to every homecoming, and that the end of the walk is just as nice as its start.

Some cats love to have their belly rubbed, but most don't. If your cat is in the second group, here's one technique for brushing your cat's under-regions that works for many people:

  1. First brush kitty's back, shoulders, forehead, and other places where he likes it the best.
  2. If you're not in this position already, kneel down behind kitty, so his rear end is tucked between your knees.
  3. Bend down so your head is near his head.

  4. Say "Give me your belly," then slip your hand that's not carrying the brush underneath him, just behind his front paws, and gently lift the front part of him up; his hind legs should be firmly and comfortably planted on the floor.
  5. Brush him, going with the grain. At first, you'll probably want to be quite timid and only do a few strokes — unless he's really liking it. Over time, you can increase the length of the belly brushing sessions. Eventually, even if kitty started out with serious doubts about this, you may find him kneading and purring as you brush and clean his furry underside.

The Harness and Leash

Before you buy a harness...Will kitty let you put it on him? Get him used to your hands touching his belly for at least 10 seconds. Some cats are fine with this. If you don't regularly pet or brush your cat's underside, you may have to work your way up to this, a second at a time. Use treats and a calming voice. Many folks like the "kneel down behind kitty" method described in the previous section, while talking softly the whole time. But use whichever position is most comfortable for your cat. This will be part of your leash-walking routine.

Buy an H-type Harness...

An "H" harness has two loops; one goes around the neck, one goes around the chest. The double loops on the H-harness make it almost escape-proof. Ideally, get a harness that requires no pre-adjustments and that has buckles that buckle or connect on kitty's backside. Some advantages of H-harnesses that go on this way are:

  • You never have to slip anything over kitty's head.
  • You fasten the loops on top, out of the way of kitty's belly, in an easy-to-see, convenient spot.
  • One size fits all.

...And a Short Leash

Buy a leash that is 4 feet or less in length to attach to the harness. Here are the reasons you want a short leash:

  • To keep an eye on what kitty's looking at, grabbing, rubbing his face in, eating, etc.
  • To be in a position to intervene in case a dangerous situation suddenly materializes.
  • Coming Soon: Links to harnesses and leashes we like.

The leash should have a loop-type handle, because one of the safety measures you'll be taking (and which is described in more detail further down) is wrapping the leash handle around your hand in such a way that it's almost impossible for the leash to fall off if kitty yanks on it. For this reason, and because of their long length, retractable leashes, which are handy for dog-walking, are not a good fit for walking your cat.

You can buy simple, short leashes at most pet supply stores. They may be in the dog section, but increasingly you find them in the cat section.

Make sure that you attach the leash to the harness securely — no gaps or other ways in which the leash could become detached.

Visible Identification

Buy an ID tag for kitty and connect it to the harness. At a minimum, the tag should display your phone number. This is a "just in case" precaution.

The Number One Restriction on When to Walk

Only go out during the day, when it's light out.

The Leash Walk Schedule

Try to go out around the same time every day. If this is nearly impossible, try to always have your leash walks follow the same activity, such as your morning workout, or you and kitty watching old Colombo reruns. (Peter Falk is a big animal lover in real life.) This helps establish in kitty's mind the implicit rule that leash walks occur at specific times or in specific, once-a day circumstances.

If you do go out every day at 8:15am, right after your wakeup coffee, chances are pretty good that at 8:14 kitty will be lined up at the door, or doing figure eights through your legs, meowing to get your attention. Or, since he's a cat, when the appointed hour arrives, he may play hard to get for a minute, then saunter over.

If you know you'll be having lots of guests coming over, walk kitty before all the commotion. There are at least two advantages to doing this:

  1. Kitty's walk won't be ruined by cars pulling up and strange people (to her) coming out of them. She will likely perceive this influx of activity as a threat and won't be able to enjoy herself.
  2. After an invigorating walk and post-walk snack, kitty may be tired and find a private spot to take a nap. With lots of people coming in and out and making noise, often the best place for kitty is away from the crowd, in a comfy perch or cat bed.

If it's impossible to shift the leash-walk schedule when company's coming over, try to walk in areas that will remain relatively undisturbed, such as the back yard.

If it's just Uncle Bill and Aunt Lucy coming over, and kitty's used to them, you probably don't need to change a thing. Besides, who wouldn't like being greeted by a friendly kitty on a leash?

Never coerce kitty to go out.

She has her reasons for wanting to stay in — she may be tired, she may sense a predator, there may be something else outside that makes her feel uncomfortable. If your schedule permits, you can always try again after a little while. It's also okay to skip a day if kitty's not interested.

Where to Walk / Staying Within Limits

Stay in the yard, or in the courtyard or close-by vicinity if you're in an apartment. You want to enjoy the great outdoors, but reinforce the idea that kitty's territory is close to home. Many cats never want to venture far, anyway.

Prefer the quieter parts of the yard, usually the back yard, where kitty is less likely to be spooked by dogs, cars, and other real or perceived threats.

And how do you control a curious, capricious, lightening quick, clever, independently-minded cat on a leash? With a firm grip, a subtle touch, and your voice.

As long as the leash is secured to hand as explained above, you can be confident that kitty won't escape if she suddenly bolts. To prevent kitty from heading somewhere he's not supposed to be, all you need to do is stand firm and, at your discretion, give a very light tug on the leash — all it takes is a barely noticeable pull, nothing more. As you're doing that, tell kitty — using a unique command, like "out of bounds" — that he can't go where he wants to go. The slight tug — or simply standing your ground, combined with your informing kitty that he can't enter the unauthorized area — will give kitty the message.

Kitty, at least at first, may challenge you: He may repeatedly try to get you to give in — cats are masters at that — or he may hiss, whine, or meow. Hold firm and eventually kitty will pick out an alternate destination that you both will like.

"Walking:" We Use the Term Loosely

"This place looks comfortable"
Stopping at a random point

Remember: You're not really walking with your cat so much as wandering with your cat. Or letting her walk you. The idea is not to get from Point A to Point B but to stop and smell the roses. And the azaleas. And the barbecue grill. And the foundation of the house. And the paper cup in the yard. And the bird poop. Seriously. Let kitty do her job — taking inventory, putting her scent signature on various objects in the territory, investigating anything novel or new.

Be prepared for kitty to take three steps as soon as she gets outside and then decide to lie down for the duration. That's fine per se — there's nothing wrong with reposing and soaking up a little sunshine. But if you want kitty to get some exercise, don't count on it to happen during leash walks. Three considerations come to mind:

  1. Rely on other activities — primarily indoor play — for exercise.
  2. Go with the flow, especially if you have an older or infirm kitty. Let her enjoy her sunbathing and outdoor meditation. Similarly, if kitty's in a tired mood — perhaps it's her usual nap time — don't expect a whole lot of activity, and you can't force it anyway.
  3. You can give the "time to go in" notification (described below), and sometimes that will get kitty off her hindquarters and onto her feet. In those cases, you can give her a few more minutes, and then end the walk. There is the possibility that the "time to go in" call turns into the "time to go in unless you want to walk around for a few minutes first" call.

Weather and Other Challenging Conditions

Snow

It may be kind of fun to walk in the snow with kitty on her leash. Some cats are put off by snow; for others it's a source of fascination. You may find that kitty takes one step, shakes off her paw, takes another step, shakes off her paw, and so on. And yet plods on despite the annoyance. If it's cold out, between the temperature and the snow accumulating on her fur, kitty may want to come back in on her own after ten minutes or less.

Rain

Many cats will go no further than the front porch in inclement weather, as though it was the principle of the walk they wanted, not the actual walk itself. But some cats don't mind a light rain shower. Wear a raincoat or other protective clothing (or let yourself get wet; on a hot July day it's really not that bad). Trying to handle an umbrella, a leash, and a cat at the same time is asking for trouble. Note that kitty may find a dry nook under the rhododendron, leaving you out in the rain. This is kitty's excursion, to which she looks forward, so bear with it. So what if some of your neighbors wonder why you are standing alone outside in the rain?

Ice

What about icy conditions? Some cats seem to be fascinated, at least for a short time, with ice and sleet on the ground. Maybe it's the challenge, or the novelty. Others say "No, thanks!"" If you're unsure of your own footing, use caution in deciding whether to head out; you don't want to be a hazard to yourself and the cat to whom you're tethered. In some cases, you may shovel a small area, such as the walkway in front of your house, and limit your mini-walk to the cleared patch of ground.

Heat

Do you have shade in the yard or walking area? A tree is the ideal shade-maker, but a large patio umbrella may be more practical. Both of you are going to want this. On hot days, try to go out early in the morning, before the sun is high in the air, and when the dew is still on the ground. Kitty may find a shady spot that's perfect for her, but if that leaves you unprotected in the blazing sun, you may need to redirect her to an area where both of you can cool off. Alternatively, when you go out, you can carry her to an area with enough shade for both of you. Don't stay out for too long on the hottest days, and make sure kitty has lots of fresh water in her bowl when you get back in.

Use Common Sense

Don't go out in a storm or poor visibility — at least not with kitty. The possibilities for undesirable outcomes in these conditions is far too high.

The Benefits of Gloves

You may want to wear gloves if kitty gets a little bitey when you pick her up or fasten the harness on her at the beginning of the walk. You may also want to bring a pair of gloves outside when you go for a walk, and keep them in your back pocket for the following reasons:

  • Gloves may be helpful when you pick kitty back up to go inside. She may resist. Though of course you want to tell her "no" and dissuade her from biting, you also have to bring her in. So gloves may help. In addition, if kitty is a little cranky about coming back in, hold her down near your belly, not by your face. Just to be safe. Speak calmly and with an upbeat tone.
  • While outside, you may touch substances like pitch on pine trees — one of the stickiest substances in nature. You don't want to get this on kitty. If you get pitch or anything else that mustn't come into contact with kitty's fur on your hands, put gloves on before you pick kitty up to go back inside. Make sure that when you do this maneuver, you are firmly in control of the leash at all times. If you were wearing gloves the whole time and got something on them, take them off before lifting up kitty.

"No Cell Phone" Zone

Unless needed for emergency, it's best to leave the cell phone inside when you take kitty for a walk. You need to be alert to what she's investigating or ingesting and to situations that can develop in an instant. If you must use the cell phone, use a headset so that both hands are free and keep conversations brief — this is kitty's time and nearly all phone calls can wait for 15 minutes.

You may come to relish this quiet, phone-free period each day. Not only will kitty have your undivided attention, but without distractions like cell phones you will hear the birds singing and notice the bee on the hibiscus making honey. You may also find that, in general, and with the help of seeing the outdoors through kitty's eyes, you become much more attuned to what's going on in the natural world around you. You may detect the tiny vole burrowing just under the leaves, the cardinal gathering twigs for her nest, and the praying mantis adding a bit of majesty to an otherwise unassuming outside wall or deck post. You may be recharged by these convenient nature walks and be more productive and relaxed the rest of the day.

Who's Allowed to Walk Kitty?

Adults and responsible older teens only. Anyone who walks kitty should read this article and demonstrate proficiency in all aspects of leash-walking. It's simple on the surface when everything's going smoothly but the leash-holder literally may have kitty's life in his or her hands. It's a deceptively awesome responsibility.

Before Each Walk

Before venturing out for your daily walk, go out and do a once-over. Look for dangers. A quick scan around the house will likely scare off other cats and keep other critters in general at bay; this may make for a more relaxed, incident-free walk.

The pre-walk check could be considered the first step of the actual walk. Kitty may anticipate that it's almost walk time, so:

  • This quick reconnaissance walk should be void of fanfare. Do not get the leash, do not announce anything. Don't send any confusing signals.
  • Do not let kitty get out. Block the door if you have to. Note that she may be poised to dash outside when you open the door to get back in.
  • When you do get back in, then you can begin the "real" walk sequence as described in the "How to Start the Walk" section, below.

During pollen season, take your allergy meds before starting the walk. Maybe bring some tissues, also.

Get Kitty Used to the Harness and Leash

Prior to putting the harness on kitty...

...attach the leash and ID tag to the harness and let the combination lie around the house for a few days in a convenient spot—convenient for kitty, that is. Let her thoroughly sniff both pieces and put her scent all over them. Let the novelty wear off. One less thing to worry about when it's time for kitty to suit up.

The fast-track method

Most books recommend a rather drawn-out process in which you put the harness without the leash on kitty, have her get used to it around the house, then attach the leash and have her get used to the combination for a while inside. Who wants to walk around inside with a harness around you and a leash dragging behind you? Show kitty the prize—the reason for the leash. As soon as you have her harness on and she isn't visibly annoyed or uncomfortable, pick her up and go outside. Then she'll associate the leash as her gateway to fun, not a bother with no apparent upside.

For best results, choose a nice sunny day and relatively quiet time for your and kitty's maiden voyage. Just before putting the harness on kitty, cheerily announce that you're going for a leash walk (as described later in the article).

Try not to dawdle the first time you put the harness on kitty. If you're confused and making false starts, and getting the leash all tangled up, kitty will be thoroughly fed up with the whole idea of the leash, and good luck trying to get her to stand still next time you try to put it on her. Make sure you know how it goes on and how you're going to put it on her before putting it on her.

Step-by-step instructions

Many people follow the steps below. But work out any sequence with which you and kitty are both comfortable.

These instructions are for an H-harness that fastens on top. (They also assume you are right-handed; use the opposite hands if left-handed.)

  • Wait until a time when kitty seems in a pleasant mood.
  • Have the harness nearby, within easy reach.
  • The leash and ID tag should already be attached to the harness.
  • You will do this near the door—more details on that in next section.
  • Kneel down behind your cat.
  • Give her a couple of calming pets and start a soothing dialog.
  • Try to have one hand touching kitty at all times.
  • If kitty wears a collar, remove the collar. (Make sure you have an ID tag attached to the harness.)

  • Grab the leash with your left hand.
  • Put your left hand, holding the harness, approximately on top of kitty's left shoulder blade, so that the larger loop of the harness hangs down on her left.
  • With your right hand, go under kitty, grab the end of the larger loop, and then pull the loop around counterclockwise (from your perspective behind kitty) so that the loop is completely around kitty's chest. It's best if you can do this in one smooth, quick motion.
  • Fasten the upper loop; both hands should be on kitty's upper back, although a finger or two may be on his neck. Remember to keep up your dialog. The harness loop should be snug but not too snug; you should be able to fit one finger between kitty and the harness without too much trouble.
  • Do the same thing with the smaller loop, which goes around kitty's neck.
  • Once you have the harness fastened on kitty — and before picking her up — you need to secure the "human end" of the leash to your hand as described two sections down.

You can't force kitty to like the harness

Some cats seem to hate having a harness around them, and will struggle to avoid having one put on them or to get out of it once it is on them. If your cat falls into this category, the prognosis, in terms of leash-walking, is poor. But don't lose all hope right away. Here's what you can do:

  • You can't force kitty to accept the harness—nor should you try to. If she's really fighting you, let her have her way. Don't make the experience of having a harness put on her a miserable one. Quit before she gets really angry or attacks you. Talk nicely—she did nothing wrong.
  • Try again after a couple hours or so. Mentally go through how you will put the harness on kitty. Be sure you don't fasten anything too tightly. You may want to try making harness-fitting a two-person operation. One person can scratch kitty's head (or favorite place to be scratched) and perhaps feed her treats, while the other person puts on the harness.
  • As you're putting on the harness, and once she's wearing it, offer kitty her favorite treats and praise her mightily.
  • If none of this works, you can try putting the harness on her maybe one or two more times over the next couple of days. If kitty still rejects the harness, forget it. It wasn't meant to be. At least not this year.

How to Attach the Leash to You

You need to have the leash securely around your hand before you scoop up kitty to take him on his walk, and at all times during the walk.

Important: Do not let the leash slip off your hand.

Here's the situation: You're outside with kitty on a sunny spring day. After sniffing around a little, kitty finds a warm spot in the grass and gets comfy. You sit down next to her. She gets relaxed, you get relaxed. Without even realizing it, you loosen your grip. All of a sudden kitty bolts — she spotted a squirrel. The leash flies off your hand and kitty's on her own. In one second, kitty can be in the street.

To prevent this, wrap the leash around your fingers so if won't come loose if your hand is totally limp. To test, attach the leash to your hand. Completely relax that hand. With your other hand, yank the leash and see if comes off. It shouldn't. This is one of your failsafe measures — it's important.

Note: A loose cat with a leash dragging behind her is at considerably more risk than a free-roaming cat without one. Her leash can get caught on a branch or fencepost; she can become tangled in it, she might panic, and she could be left vulnerable, unable to defend herself or return home, or escape to a safe location.

Here's a good method for securing the leash on to your hand:

  1. Put your hand through the loop at the end of the leash, so the loop is around your wrist.
  2. With the loop hanging from your wrist, make a figure-eight out of it. One loop of the figure-eight will be already be around your wrist.
  3. Stick any finger other than your thumb or pinky through the second figure-eight loop, as shown in the following two photos:
    Put your finger through the smaller loop of the figure-8...
    ...so the leash will stay on your hand even if kitty yanks on it.

If you're wearing gloves or mittens:

  1. Wrap the leash handle around your wrist.
  2. Put on your glove.
  3. Scrunch as much of the leash handle as you can inside your glove, as far down as possible.

It bears repeating that the outdoors is full of dangers, and that as pleasant as leash-walking will probably be for you and your cat, it is a serious undertaking. Urban, suburban, and rural areas have cars (even parked cars can be deadly once started), dogs who get loose from their leashes, coyotes and other predators, poisons and pesticides, traps, mean people — including cat-haters — and cat thieves. The leash must not leave your hand.

Now you have kitty in your arms, safely in his harness, and the leash securely around your hands. You've read the entire article and have taken all the proper precautions. Open the door and out you go!

How to Start the Walk

"Where to, kitty?"
Embarking on a safe adventure

Kitty never exits the house on her own. You pick her up.

Establish a ritual. Make the leash-walk exit novel, different from your usual going out. That way, kitty's less likely to automatically associate "door opening" with "leash walk."

  • Use a unique voice announcement like "leash walk time" to give her the cue that it's time for your adventure.
  • If possible, use a door (often the back door) that is not the main exit from the house.

  • Put the harness on her, wrap the handle around your hand as prescribed earlier, lift her up, and carry her out. She's allowed to come back in on her own — that's fine. Or you can carry her when the walk is over, especially if she's procrastinating.

  • In general, avoid playing near the door or making that part of the house a fun place to be. For instance, when you come home from work, the "greet and treat" area should be the kitchen, or the far end of the living room — someplace away from the door. We'll talk about this more in an upcoming article about training your cat to stay inside.

If more than one person in the household will be walking kitty, each of you should follow the same procedure. Each should use the same call, even though none of your voices will be alike. Kitty will quickly understand that when mom says "leash walk time" and dad says "leash walk time" in his booming baritone, they mean the same thing.

Coming Back In

Usually kitty will want to stay out longer than you do, so you'll have to be the bad guy and end the fun. About a minute before you're ready to come in, if kitty hasn't positioned herself in front of the door on her own, give the "one more minute" warning: some unique phrase (like "one more minute") of which kitty will learn the meaning soon enough. That gives her time to rub her face against one more branch, and check out one more random thing on the ground, or spend one more minute luxuriously doing nothing.

Then pick her up. Be confident and no-nonsense yet gentle and soothing. In most cases, after a short while, she'll grow accustomed to the pace, although — being a cat — she'll probably try to push the envelope.

Reward kitty when she comes back in after the walk, to reaffirm the joy of being home. After taking off her harness, give her a good combing. Check her fur for ticks. Give her some nice petting and praise, and a tasty treat. Coming home should be welcome and satisfying for kitty. She may let you know with a steady purr.

Possible Situations and How to Prevent and/or Deal with Them

Birds

Caution: birds often like to hang out in thick bushes and trees, because it affords them protection. If kitty is near the bushes at the same time, it only takes him an instant to leap, grab, and kill an unsuspecting bird. If kitty's sitting by or under the hedges, be right there with him, maybe even with a hand on him. Your presence alone may cause the birds to fly off.

If you know the birds in your yard like to congregate in the forsythia bushes each spring and you're walking kitty in the spring, stay away from the forsythias.

Around sensitive wildlife habitat, keep a tight hold on the leash to prevent kitty's reign of terror.

Other Cats

Some cats won't care if they spot another cat on the premises, others will merely be curious, but most will want to run the interloper off the property. Use the leash, your gentle but firm voice, and your established rapport to let kitty know that he has to stay on leash.

Wanting to Chase Cats and Other Animals

What if kitty wants to run after another cat, or a squirrel? It's a balance. You don't want to scare off the wildlife, but you don't want to stifle kitty's natural instincts and desires. If he runs, you can try running as fast as you can behind him, holding the leash, but you'll slow him down and frustrate him; he'll be pulling on the leash and he may look back at you wondering why you aren't keeping up, why you're holding him back. Oh, well... It's a compromise. Whatever he was chasing will almost certainly run off, since you're essentially roped into being part of the chase. So there's little chance of kitty catching anything.

On the other paw, you may feel bad about scaring off the little cat in the corner of the yard whose family doesn't pay much attention to him. It's a judgment call. In those cases, you may have to reassure kitty that the demure tabby poses no threat, that the yard's big enough for both cats, and that after other cat leaves, kitty can rub his face all over anything the uninvited guest touched, thus securing his territory.

Issues and Limitations

Multiple Cats

If you're a multi-cat household, you basically have two choices:

  • If you have more than one qualified walker, make it a family affair — one cat per human. This is the best option.
  • Walk each cat in sequence. You should come up with totally different leash-walk announcements for each cat and always walk them in the same order. Each cat should have his or her own harness and leash. Still, expect some confusion. When you announce that it's time for Tiger's walk, Fluffy may appear, also. After all, there you are with the leash, by the door, close to the appointed hour. You'll have to make sure that Fluffy doesn't try to exit with you and Tiger, and that Tiger doesn't attempt to go out for Round Two when you take Fluffy out. Use props to block the cats' access if need be.

Don't try to walk two cats at once. It requires considerable attention and dexterity to monitor, guide, and pick up one cat, especially when out-of-the-ordinary circumstances arise. The chances for calamity — or worse — when trying to do this with two cats simultaneously are too high.

Eating Grass in Your Yard

Kitty may eat grass and throw up. Why do cats eat grass? We don't know exactly, and there may be more than one reason, but one possible reason is that they like it, and coming across a whole sea of it, as they might on a leash walk, is a novel and irresistible situation. However, grass often makes them throw up.

Different cats have different thresholds. Wide-bladed grass seems to be more of an irritant than thin grass; short pieces of grass may be easier for their systems to handle and digest than long strands. If you don't want kitty throwing up on the carpet, discourage her from eating grass. If "No" and a gentle tug on the leash doesn't work, you may have to put your foot down — literally — to block her access to grass. You may want to carry her to another section of the yard.

If your cat enjoys eating grass, and you don't want to infringe upon her pleasure more than necessary, you may want to let her eat a couple of strands and see how she handles that. Prefer to have her eat the grass near the beginning of the walk, not just before you come back into the house; that way there's more chance that if she does throw up, it will be outside. (But have some paper towels and an enzyme-based cleaner at the ready just in case.) Even if you tolerate kitty eating some grass, you may still want to keep long wide strands out of her mouth — cats often have trouble with those. So trim the grass by the side of the house, watch and regulate kitty's grass intake, and if she does ingest some grass — or go over her limit — be prepared for accidents when you get back in. (If inclined, you can also replace grass in all or part of your yard with lower-maintenance plants and ground covers in which kitty would be less interested. Here are two articles about how to do that: Top 10 Tips for Low-Maintenance Landscaping and How to reduce the size of your lawn.)

Eating Grass Anywhere Else

No! Not allowed! You don't know what's been put on the grass.

Spraying

Kitty may, on occasion, spray pungent urine along perimeters of the yard, as a way of affirming the borders of his annexed territory, especially if he detects other cats' scents. Don't worry, it's highly unlikely that kitty will expand this behavior to the indoors.

Does the spraying kill the plants? If done on an occasional basis, it may have no effect. Remember, every day, wildlife eliminates all around the yard. But if you see kitty getting ready to spray (back end slightly raised, near a vertical structure such as a plant, shrubbery, a wall, or a fence; tail straight up, often quivering; looking forward) on your ripe tomatoes, you may want to redirect him to another section of the yard.

Note: female cats spray, too, although not as much as male cats. Spayed and neutered cats spray far less frequently than intact cats. But again, if kitty sprays outside, where there is a myriad of scents of unknown animals, you shouldn't worry that he'll duplicate the behavior inside, where his scent and the scents of other household members (including those of the humans) are recognizable to him and—practically speaking—cover every square inch of the house.

Urinating

Kitty may occasionally want to urinate (not spray) when outdoors. For the most part, this is harmless, and she'll cover up with leaves and debris. As long as she's using her liter box regularly and you have a setup that's working, and the litter box is clean, well-located, and so forth, it's unlikely that she'll decide that where she really wants to go is outside. If you don't want her peeing in the just-prepared flower bed, you can gently coax her to another section of the grounds or bring her inside to her litter box. You'll have ample warning, as she'll scratch at the ground.

"I'm the leader"

Some dominant cats do not want you walking in front of them. They'll hiss, growl, and/or nip at your heels if you pass them, even on the left. Let them lead, so that it's more like kitty walking you rather than the other way around.

"I Wanna Go Out Again"

After your first venture, kitty may want to go back out 20 minutes later. He may claw at the door, wail, and aggressively rub up against you. The answer is "no." No ifs, ands or buts. Cats like to test the boundaries. Which is admirable in a way. But be firm. Ignore his pleas. Go about your day. Soon enough, kitty will understand and accept the routine.

Be vigilant during this adjustment period when you leave or enter the house. Even more importantly, warn and/or keep a watch on visitors, to make sure they don't leave the door wide open. You may need to block the door, hold kitty, or put him in another room if you have guests or any situation in which a door to the outside will be open a lot. Let visitors know that kitty is not allowed outside. A sign on the door saying "Please close the door so the cat doesn't get out" wouldn't hurt, either.

There are two times when you can break the "one outing per day" rule. One is kitty's birthday; the other is the longest day of the year (this exemption is not applicable to cats living above the Arctic Circle). But that's it.

What if Kitty Gets Loose?

If you've followed the instructions in the article, this shouldn't happen, and if it does, kitty shouldn't stray far, or should come to you when you call. If that's not the case, then you've skipped precautionary steps or something extraordinary has happened, and here's what you should do:

A Review of New Phrases for You to Use and Kitty to Learn

Modify as to your and kitty's liking:

"Leash-walk time!"

"Out of bounds"

"One more minute"

Possibly: "Give me your belly"

And most importantly, a call to which she comes when she hears it.

A Review of the Basic Leash Walk Steps

  • Do a pre-walk check on your own.
  • Announce the walk.
  • Put the harness on kitty and attach yourself to the leash.
  • Lift kitty up, open the door, place kitty gently down in the area in which you intend to walk.
  • Stay in safe and relatively calm places, gently guide kitty as needed. Other than that, let her direct where to go and what to do.
  • Remain alert to any potential trouble.
  • Issue the "one more minute" warning.
  • After a minute (or so), scoop kitty up and go back in.
  • Brush and comb kitty; look for any signs of ticks, scratches, etc.
  • Give kitty a"welcome home" treat.

Home, Sweet Home

If done properly, a daily leash-walk can be a satisfying way to spend some quality time with your cat. Watching kitty take in the sights and smells of nature, pounce on a falling leaf, roll in the gravel driveway for a back scratch, and investigate the immediate outdoor environment — in a safe way — can be a fun bonding experience for both of you.

Remember what the beginning of the article said, though: If your cat is perfectly content indoors, you need not feel compelled to take her out; leave well-enough alone. Even if you do go out, leash-walking should not be a substitute for an accommodating home in which kitty has abundant opportunities to play, relax, socialize, satisfy her curiosity, scratch, climb, and engage in a full range of activities that are important to cats. So if you just came in from an outdoor excursion, after you brush kitty off and give her a treat, do a once-over of kitty's indoor environment and make sure you've got sufficient scratching posts, cardboard boxes, perches, and other accoutrements for your feline buddy, so that the best part of your leash walks will be returning to "home, sweet home."


Notes:
  • You may want to keep a hard-copy of this article next to the harness and leash, so you (and all leash-walkers) can review it from time to time.
  • We will update this article periodically, so check back every so often and perhaps print the most recent copy.


References:

"Walking is cool!"
"Schnurri" is alert to all the sights, sounds, and—especially—smells on his outdoor walk.
1 This is actually quite an interesting article.
2 The part about shampooing your pet in the article applies more to dogs than to cats.