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How to Leash Train Cats

by | Jan 23, 2023 | Cat Behavior & Care | 10 comments

Why would you want to leash train cats and confine kitties from stalking and pouncing? Isn’t that mean? Actually, it’s not cruel, but without proper introduction, it can be a wee bit scary. In my Complete Kitten Care book, I call this LIBERATION TRAINING. Teaching your new cat to walk on a leash is a safety issue, but also means they get to venture beyond the confines of your house and into the yard and beyond.

This week during a cat consult, a pet parent asked about training her cat to walk on a leash. It’s always a good time to revisit the notion. An adult cat won’t automatically understand the concept, though, so this blog not only explains the benefits of leash training to YOU, it also helps you purr-suade your cats to get a new leash on life. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

How To Leash Train Cats—Choose The Best Halter & Leash

I like the figure-8 harnesses because when the cat tugs (as nearly all will); the design tightens so they can’t wriggle out and escape. These often come already attached to a leash. The smallest size H-harnesses made for Toy-size dogs may also work. The jacket-style harnesses also work well for cats, particularly for big kitties. These fasten with Velcro and are adjustable for the best comfort fit.

cat leash

Choose a lightweight leash for cats.

When the harness and leash come separate, I recommend a lightweight fabric leash that won’t weigh down the cat. A six-foot or shorter leash works well. You don’t need the kitty ranging too far from you for safety reasons, so I don’t recommend the retractable spooled leashes for that reason.

Whatever the style, it’s vital that you fit the harness correctly for two reasons—first, a cat not used to the outside easily becomes frightened and lost if she gets away.

And second, even if she escapes the harness while inside the house, it teaches the cat that she CAN escape, so she’ll continue to fight the harness. You want the cat to accept the harness and leash so she can fully enjoy the benefits.

cat leash training

I’m not a fan of clipping the leash to the collar–cats can slip out of collars, and their fragile nects are easily injuried. But DO start training INSIDE the house before venturing outside.

Training Cats—Really?! Yes!

Kittens are incredibly easy to leash train. I’ve had shelter kittens walk happily on leash within five to ten minutes of meeting them. It takes a bit longer with adult cats, but the technique for leash training your cat is the same whether she’s a kitten or a senior citizen cat.

Seren learned to walk on a leash when she was about five months old. At less that 7 pounds, I got her one of those tiny dog H-harness contraptions and had to adjust it down even farther. That, of course, was over 20 years ago, and times have changed. Today there are new options for kitty harnesses that are much more comfortable for the cat, and less likely for the pet to wriggle out.

Karma-Kat Walking Vest & Why Leash Train Cats

So I took a look around when Karma came to stay. Although Seren only rarely went outside on walks and never without her harness and leash, I suspect Karma may be more interested in an occasional ramble. Why do this? Well, for a couple of reasons.

KarmaHalter

Karma is still adjusting to his halter-vest. Image Copr Amy Shojai, CABC

First, I want Karma to be comfy wearing the equipment–and it actually seems to calm him down somewhat, so that’s a plus! Also, wearing a harness gives me added grab-icity (something to hang on to) if he decides to wriggle around. I’ve found this to be very helpful with Seren during vet visits, as she was never a happy patient.

Finally, because of the way Karma came to us—wandering up onto the back patio—there’s a chance he got away from someone. Yes, he’s now microchipped just in case that ever happens again. But ultimately, I want Karma to be very familiar with the immediate area surrounding our house, so he knows and can recognize HOME.

Lost cats rarely run far away from their house even if they get out, but they may hide–and if chased by a strange dog or (gulp!) coyote, they might race far away from familiar territory. This actually was part of the plot in my second thriller HIDE AND SEEK, where the main character hung up a variety of wind chimes around the house that also served as audio signposts to the pets.

For Karma, I chose a small dog harness that also works well for cats. Puppia comes in a variety of colors and sizes and there are many other options that may also work well for your cat. You can check it out here:

Cats often act “paralyzed” and refuse to move when they first wear the harness or vest.

How to Leash Train Cats, Step-By-Step

Make It Part of the Furniture. Leave the halter and leash on the floor for your kitty to find.

Smell It Up. Make the halter smell like him by petting him with it, so it’s less frightening. Remember, cats communicate with smell, so if it has a familiar scent, the cat will be more accepting of the halter. If he really likes catnip, spike it with this cat-friendly herb.

cat leash training

The harness should fit snug to the cat’s body–this one’s a little too loose!

Turn It Into A Game. Drag the leash around like a toy, and praise Kitty when he catches it, to associate the leash with fun times. Make the leash-chase-game part of his routine, always beginning the process with the halter-petting. Do this for at least a week before you ever attempt to put the halter on your cat. Once the leash and halter have become part of his normal routine, sit on the floor to play with the cat put the halter on him.

Lure Him to Move. If he tolerates wearing the halter and immediately moves around or licks it—BRAVO! You have a genius cat ahead of the game. But if he turns into a furry lump and refuses to move (typical of many cats), use the end of the leash to get him engaged in that familiar chase game.

The key is to get them moving, because once he does get up and discovers he’s not “tied down” he’ll be willing to explore—and that’s the whole purpose of the halter and leash training. If he’s not interested in the leash, try using a feather lure or a treat—anything to convince the cat he’s able to move is legal. After five minutes, take off the halter.

Baby Paw Steps. Gradually increase the time that he wears the halter.

Bribes Are Legal. Be sure to offer a special treat or toy/game after each session, so he recognizes there is a lovely payday to be earned.

Let the Cat Lead. After several days, when he’s no longer protesting, clip on the leash and hold it while following him around. Let him direct where you go, rather than pulling or tugging to direct him. At least initially you want him to believe he calls the shots—use the feather lure to get him moving the direction you like.

KarmaHalter2

“Hey, I really can move in this thing!” Image copr Amy Shojai, CABC

Success At Last!

Eventually, when both you and Kitty feel secure on the leash, you can explore the porch, smell the roses, or even mall walk together. Be one of those fashionistas who visit the pet products stores and allow Kitty to choose his own toys! And if you wish to make a really bold fashion statement, I know for a fact that kitty halters and leashes come with sequins.

Once a cat accepts the halter and leash, Kitty can go on safe walks with you.

By the way, the first two times I put on his vest, Karma pulled the old OMG I’M PARALYZED! routine and fell over on his side and lay there. Even my standard technique of teasing him to move with cat wand toys failed to get him up and moving more than two or three wobbly steps. So I took off the leash, and walked into the other room for something and….IT’S A MIRACLE! he raced in after me, stopped as if caught in his act, and sauntered on into the room. Now he’s rocking his kitty vest!

Do your cats ever go outside on leash (or otherwise?). How do you ensure they stay safe? Have you created scented or audible or special visual signposts to aid a new pet to know that THIS is home? Does allowing them outdoor access “create a monster” so they beg to go out? I found that happens with some cats, but never has been a problem with Seren. We’ll find out about Karma.

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I love hearing from you, so please share comments and questions. Do you have an ASK AMY question you’d like answered? Do you have a new kitten and need answers? Stay up to date on all the latest just subscribe the blog, “like” me on Facebook, and sign up for Pet Peeves newsletter. Stay up to date with the latest book giveaways and appearances related to my September Day pet-centric THRILLERS WITH BITE!

Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!

10 Comments

  1. Nancy J Nicholson

    Amy, You have a really cool kitty vest for Karma. We use the old H harness, but ours isn’t for walks, it’s for keeping Neville on a leash while we’re at sea and contained in the cockpit.

    He’s pretty cool with it and it works as a great grab tool as well.

    • Amy Shojai

      Thanks Nancy. For tiny kittens I like the figure-8 leash/harness combos because they’re light weight and actually tighten if the kitten tries to pull out of them. This one from Puppia is a dog vest and still a big big on Karma–but I was afraid to get the next smaller size that he’d outgrow it. *s* If he doesn’t get much bigger I may need to get the next size smaller (he was right at the size limit there). My friend Debbie over at GloGirly also has her cat Waffles wearing this vest: http://www.glogirly.com/2014/03/katie-waffles-purr-sonal-convo.html

  2. Karyl

    Do we know why cats pull the paralysis routine? I’ve always kind of wondered. There’s got to be a reason they do that and dogs usually don’t.

    I plan on leash training the jellybean when s/he finally comes home (which may be sooner than anticipated – my aunt says mama cat is running out of milk so she ought to be teaching them the ropes of eatin’ food and poopin’ in a box before too long), don’t know how much it’ll really be used for “outside time” but hopefully either way the wee furball will be like our other kitties have been, and be perfectly content with the safe indoor world of pillows.

    • Amy Shojai

      Some dogs do this as well. It may have to do with how touch-sensitive the pet is. There’s also a mechanism here (sort of the “swaddling” effect) that not only calms but apparently triggers the freeze-impulse in some pets more than others. *shrug*

  3. Caren Gittleman

    Cody doesn’t go outside (I tried twice and he wants no part of the outdoors, which I am actually happy about). My Angel Bobo used to go out on a leash. Ready for this? I don’t like cat harnesses at all. I bought a super good quality leather dog collar (just for going outside purposes), and a HEAVY chain link leash (also for dogs)….I put it on him….for the first day or two he walked like he was in the war (hunched down), then he LOVED it. He used to wait at the door for me to put it on him. I find that the dog collars and leashes are made much better than they are for cats. Worked like a charm. I have never trusted harnesses and still don’t

    • Amy Shojai

      Hi Caren, I agree that the dog harness/leashes are typically made much better. My concern with walking a cat on a collar is that kitty necks tend to be much more fragile than dog necks, and can be easily injured if the cat lunges. And secondly, collars very easily slip off over the cat’s head (unlike a harness) because the feline neck and head typically are very close to the same circumference. If it works for you, though, great!

  4. Brenda

    This is just the post I’ve needed as I would like to have kitty harnesses in case they are ever needed — evacuations, that kind of thing.

    Wilde Oscar ONLY goes out in our arms though he has taken unapproved rambles in the past, once when a guest of ours terrified him, a prequel of warning to us all! We turned Handel on a bit louder and more lights to alert him to where home was the time we feared he was confused. There was a special noise we used to make for him when he was an outdoor cat before we rescued him and we have used that as well.

    Our new little rescue girl, Samantha, who looks a lot like your Karma does not want to see anything resembling a door that leads back to the hunger she experienced as an outdoor cat so we do not take her outdoors in our arms lest that encourage it. She enjoys a good window when she can finagle it away from Oscar.

    • Amy Shojai

      Those are great tips–familiar music, and bright lights. Thanks for sharing. I think part of Karma’s insistence on eating from every bowl/treat container he finds hearkens back to when he was outside searching for food and always hungry. Now he doesn’t want to waste any opportunity to gnosh.

  5. Brenda

    In re the kitty paralysis scam — our Persian mix did that to me and no one else even tried to leash train him. I think they do it because it WORKS sometimes! He was a smart kitty! Oscar did it & scared me he would harm his neck so mostly I didn’t use it on him either. My take is they are good psychologists and know who it will work on. Besides, nothing ventured and all that.

    • Amy Shojai

      I think you’re right–cats psych us out much more than we do them!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Outside Cats: How to Keep Outside Cats Safe Outdoors - […] HALTERS & LEASHES and of course cat leash training. […]
  2. Dog Training & Cat Training: How to Clicker Train Pets - […] and Karma-Kat also learned to come when called, sit on command, and wave (and walk nicely on a leash!).…

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