Cat owner Leitha Delves knew she'd get a few weird looks when walking her cats Sheryl, Lizzie and Dudley on a leash, but after bringing her once outdoor-dwelling felines inside to live, she was determined to give them safe access to the outside world. "While I strongly support the wisdom of keeping cats indoors, I regretted them missing out on the stimulation they get from being outside, so I thought I'd give walking on a leash a go," she says.
This opportunity to reconnect with nature is one of the reasons why leash training is becoming so popular with cat owners. It gives the cat the opportunity to be a cat: they can sniff the air, scratch on tree trunks, chase butterflies and commune with nature without the possibility of harming themselves or other animals.
If you have grand plans to teach your cat to walk on a leash, there are a number of things you need to know before you start.
Know your cat
Every cat is different. Some are adventurous and outgoing, while others are more timid. Always tailor training to suit your pet, and remember: what might work for one cat won't necessarily work for the next.
Choose a well-fitting harness
Choosing the right harness is important for training success. There are two options to choose from: a simple strap harness with adjustable chest and neck straps or a vest. Both provide evenly distributed pressure and easy access for a lead. Once you've chosen a harness, make sure that it isn't too tight – you should be able to comfortably fit a finger in between your cat's coat and the harness. If it's too loose your cat might be able to wriggle free.
Reward with food
Positive reinforcement training, which uses treats to reward good behaviour, works. With cats, it's made even more effective if you train just before mealtime. When leash training your cat it's important to mark and offer a food reward for good behaviour immediately, because cats have very short attention spans. If you don't do this, your cat may not make the connection between the behaviour and the treat. Some people find that using a clicker to mark desired behaviour is helpful; others choose simple voice commands. Whichever method you use, ensure that the reward comes immediately and consistently. One of the fastest ways for training to fail is if you don't pay close attention to your cat. Keep training one on one and away from other pets.
Learning to leash train can be an overwhelming experience – especially for older, indoor cats – so it's important that you go slowly and keep the training positive. Always begin the training process indoors and venture outside only when you and your cat are confident.
The first step involves familiarising your cat with the harness but not putting it on them. Let your cat get used to the sight of it and the sounds that it makes. Leave it in a place that is easily accessible for your cat so they can play with it or investigate.
Next, try putting the harness on – but do so calmly and carefully. Any rushed movement or sound can scare your cat, so keep movements slow but confident. You may not be able to put the harness on fully the first day. If that is the case, start with the head and continue to put in on a little further over the following days. Remember to reward at each step.
When your cat is happy to wear the harness inside, introduce them to the leash. Again, do it slowly – ideally over a few days. Be careful to not let go of the leash suddenly or cause it to drag behind your cat, as this can be startling.
Once your cat is happy to wear the harness and leash indoors, start with small adventures. Don't head off on a big walk immediately – you need to slowly expose your cat to the outside world. Expand your walking route little by little, always paying close attention to your surroundings. "A dog that suddenly runs at the fence/gate barking furiously induces abject terror in a cat that cannot get away because of the leash," says Leitha. "In this case it is best to pick up your cat, because they will roll and kick and struggle to be free of the harness or jacket and could, in fact, succeed if they try hard enough."
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Understand that it's a process
Just as we accept that it takes time to train a dog, the same is true for our feline friends. This is especially true if you're training an adult who has known nothing but life inside. The more effort and time you put into training, the quicker your cat will pick it up, so set aside time each day to work on skills.
Is leash training for all cats?
Leash training is one of those things that your cat will either love or loathe. If they have a desire to explore and a natural confidence and curiosity, there's a great chance that you'll be successful. But some cats just aren't suited to leash training and that is okay too. Never force your cat to do something they don't want to do. Always keep your cat's health and wellbeing as your top priorities and stop training if they are showing any signs of being stressed or anxious.
For Leitha, the hardest part of the whole training process (besides the astonished stares of passers-by) was being patient with the stop–start nature of their adventures. "Cats are not interested in the type of experience you would get from walking a dog, which benefits both human and dog," she says. "Cats don't want constant motion and they don't want to see new things or places. They want to stay within the range of their limited territory, and they want to check the state of everything through smell. It is not very interesting for their human escorts to stand in one spot for minutes at a time while the sniff checks occur. In fact, it is quite boring. So patience is required as well as a regular reminder that it is all about benefitting the cat, not the owner."
Have you successfully leash trained your cat? How far have you ventured out with your feline friend?