Training your cat to walk on a leash may seem like a crazy idea at first. There’s a common misconception that cats can’t be trained, let alone trained to walk on a leash. That belief isn’t true though. Cats can be trained more easily than you probably think!
Maybe now you’re wondering, “Why?—Why would I want to leash train my cat?” For one, it is a great way to allow your cat to safely enjoy the outside world. Taking your cat for walks or hikes also provides them with mental and physical stimulation, truly enhancing their life. As an added bonus, sharing an activity like adventuring and exploring together will strengthen the bond you have with your cat.
I can’t stress enough that leash training your cat takes time and patience. Sure, there will always be the exceptions—the cats who are just naturally up for anything—but that isn’t the norm. Take the time to train your cat properly, however long it takes.
Convinced yet? Awesome! It’s time to take those first steps and pick out a harness and leash…
Picking Out a Cat Harness & Leash
Before you start training, you have to get the gear! The first thing you’ll need is a well-fitted, secure cat harness.* There are several types of cat harnesses out there, so it can be a bit overwhelming when trying to pick one out.
Popular harness styles include the Roman harness, the step-in harness, and the walking vest or walking jacket. Each has their own pros and cons, and what works best for one cat might not be what works best for yours. You may have to buy a couple different ones to figure out which is right for your cat.
The important thing is to make sure whichever harness you choose is well-fitted. A harness that is too tight can be uncomfortable for your cat, which will make it more difficult for them to enjoy training and adventures. However, a harness that’s too loose can be easy to escape from. Measure your cat before purchasing a harness and make sure you get one that is sized accordingly.
*Please note: always use a harness when walking a cat rather than a collar, as it is unsafe to leash-walk a cat with just a collar. Walking a cat with a leash and collar can lead to choking or injury to your cat’s throat.
As for the leash, a thin, 5 or 6-foot nylon leash is the best kind to start with. These leashes are lightweight, which is ideal. You don’t want something too long, especially when you’re first starting out. A shorter length gives you more control and keeps your cat close by.
Harness Training Your Cat
Once you’ve picked out a harness and leash, it’s time to begin training! If your cat has never worn a harness before, you first have to get him used to wearing one. From the comfort of your home, follow the steps outlined below, and remember to be patient and take your time. Rushing through the process won’t be beneficial to anyone.
Step 1: Leave the harness out on the floor and let your cat discover it himself. Let him smell it and inspect it. Undo any Velcro and snap/unsnap any closures so your cat can get used to the sounds the harness makes. Reward your kitty with treats for expressing interest.
Step 2: Lay the harness on your cat’s back, but don’t fasten it. Most cats aren’t used to the feeling of having something on them like this, so you’ll need to ease them into it. You may want to try this step right before a meal so the food distracts your cat from having the harness on. Reward with treats, too. Repeat this step as many times and for as many days as necessary until your cat is comfortable.
Step 3: Once your cat is comfortable with the harness on his back, you can try fastening it. Always reward with treats! Practice adjusting the fit as well. You don’t want it to be too tight or restrictive, but you don’t want it too loose either. You should be able to fit two fingers between the harness and your cat.
Let your cat wear the harness for small increments of time to start with – maybe just 1-2 minutes. Reward him with treats during the process.
It is completely normal for some cats to react negatively to the harness at first. They may flop over, freeze up, refuse to move, or act wildly. If that happens, it doesn’t mean your cat won’t ever be comfortable wearing a harness. It just takes time for them to get used to having something on them. Take the harness off and try again later.
Remember to be patient. There is no set time frame for how long this training process should take. It may take a few days or even several weeks. That’s okay.
Step 4: Once your cat is comfortable wearing the harness for small increments of time, increase the amount of time you let him wear it. Again, always, always reward treats. Encourage your cat to play or walk around while wearing the harness. Entice him with toys and treats.
Continue with Steps 4 until your cat isn’t bothered by the harness at all and will wear it for extended periods of time without any trouble.
Depending on your cat, you may need to spend more time on Steps 1, 2, or 3 before moving on to Step 4. The process will be different for every cat. Just be sure to always praise and reward your cat with treats. The idea is to get your cat to associate the harness with positive experiences.
Leash Training Your Cat
Once your cat is comfortable wearing his harness around the house, it’s time to add the leash!
Step 1: From the safety and comfort of inside your home, put the harness on your cat and attach the leash. Keep the leash in your hand and follow your cat around, allowing him to freely explore on his own terms. Don’t tug on the leash or try to guide your cat just yet. Also, avoid letting the leash drag on the ground, as the sound and feel of that that can be frightening to some cats. Praise and reward your cat with treats.
Step 2: Once your cat seems comfortable having the leash attached, try gently leading him. Call your cat to you and apply gentle pressure to the leash to guide him in certain directions. Use a consistent voice command when leash training your cat, such as “Come on, (your cat’s name).” If you are clicker training your cat (which I highly recommend), incorporate the clicker into this training step.
Step 3: The next step is to move things outside. Since you’ll be changing environments, it is extra important to make sure your cat is comfortable and confident with all of the previous training steps.
If your cat is ready, carry him out to your backyard or some other quiet spot outside your home. You may even want to use a carrier to bring your cat outside with. As always, use treats and praise to encourage and reward him.
If he’s never been outside before, be prepared for the possibility of him being scared. For this reason, you should stay close to the door so you can quickly retreat indoors if needed. It’s okay if that happens. Just try again later. You will likely have to repeat this step several times.
Step 4: As your cat becomes more comfortable being outside, increase the distance you go from the door. Let your cat meander and explore on his own terms. Don’t force him in to go in a certain direction.
Step 5: Continue to increase your adventure radius. Start trying to lead your cat on the leash some, applying a gentle pressure and using your command word(s). Just like with Step 2, implementing your clicker training can be helpful here. Also, continue to reward your kitty and to entice him to follow you.
Additional Training Tips
- Take things slowly, and watch your cat for any cues that he is scared or uncomfortable. If he starts to freak out, end the training session. You always want your training sessions and adventures to be positive experiences, so don’t force your cat to do something if he isn’t ready.
- Remember that the amount of time spent on each training step is going to be dependent on your cat. Every cat is different. You may have one cat that flies through the steps and another that takes weeks or even months to train. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just be patient and follow your cat’s lead. Don’t force him to do things on your timeline or another cat’s timeline. Patience is key!
- If your cat’s regular treats don’t seem to be motivating him very well, try using a new, special treat that is reserved just for training. It could be a higher quality treat, freeze-dried treats, pieces of meat, whatever. Sometimes cats need a little extra motivation, and a new, special treat can do the trick.
- Never leave your cat’s harness or leash on him if he will be unsupervised. Leashes and harnesses can get snagged on things, possibly causing injury. If you won’t be around to keep an eye on your cat, remove his leash and harness.
- Always carry your cat outside. Don’t let him walk out the door on his own. If your cat gets used to walking out the door, he may become a door-dasher. You don’t want that!
- As your cat progresses and grows more and more comfortable going outside, you can try visiting different cat-friendly locations. When choosing your next adventure destinations, factor in how busy they are, how noisy they are, or if there will be a lot of other people or animals there. Out-of-the-way parks and cemeteries are good places to start, as they are usually pretty quiet. Try visiting places during off-times too, like on weekdays during the daytime if possible.
- Walking your cat is NOT going to be like walking a dog. While cats can and will follow a trail or keep a steady walking pace, they also tend meander or start and stop a lot. If you go into this expecting your cat to walk like a dog, you will be disappointed. Cats and dogs simply behave differently. Just go with the flow and leave your expectations behind!
Emily Hall is a pet blogger who writes about all things related to adventure and travel with cats. She also raises awareness for and educates about cerebellar hypoplasia, a neurological disorder one of her adventure cats, Sophie, lives with. You can read her articles on cat adventure training, gear, safety, and more on her site KittyCatGO. You can also read about her and her cat’s adventures on Kitty Cat Chronicles.