Have you ever thought about taking your indoor cat outside?
Have you ever wondered how to train your cat to walk on a leash?
This is the foundation for outdoor safety for indoor cats.
I do want to note: The purpose of this post isn’t to argue that I think it’s best for cats to be indoor only. Cats do live a longer, happier, healthier life if they’re indoor only (with exceptions for feral cats, which our shelter has an amazing barn cat program to provide safe havens for those cats, too). Here, on our neighborhood NextDoor, there’s a constant stream of posts about cats being killed by coyotes, and we had the horror of finding what was left of a kitty post-coyote in our front yard.
Which, of course, is why I want my cats to be indoor-only.
They want to go outside. The LOVE to go outside. I don’t want them to be killed by a coyote or a car, get into fights with other cats, pick up diseases, etc., etc., etc. but I do want to enrich their “catness.” So, I’ve leash trained my cats.
We’ve taken a ton of flak for it, too, but I stand by our system, so I thought I’d share it with you guys in case anyone else was interested in safely taking their cat outside.
Why take your cat outside on leash?
It’s enriching: Being outside gives your cat the opportunity to smell fresh air, to munch on grass, to chase bugs.
It’s stimulating: Lots of cats are bored. That boredom can result in all sorts of undesirable things like overweight kitties who have nothing to do but lounge all day OR troublesome/naughty behaviors from kitties who create their own entertainment. Getting outdoors stimulates all her senses and exercises some of her instincts, resulting in a less problematic behaviors inside your house.
It’s fun: She’ll have a grand time. You will, too, seeing her antics. Be sure to bring a camera!
And, depending on your cat’s personality, it can strengthen and enhance your bond. She’ll have to trust you as you go out and about, and you’ll have to give her license to lead the way. You’ll explore together, have fun together, and build on your relationship! For me, I was pleased to find that Ripley would come running to me when I crouched down and called her, so of course I lavishly rewarded her for that good behavior!
When you take your cat out on leash, you can’t clip the leash to the collar like you might with a dog. You need a harness. That said, your cat also needs to be wearing a collar that has a tag with her name and your (correct) contact info on it. But the leash clips to the harness.
We’re extra cautious with this because cats are masters at wriggling out of seemingly cat-proof situations.
Both our cats wear two harnesses when we take them outside.
We put a vest-style harness on first. Newtie wears the butterfly-print cat harness from Sturdi Products, which I can’t seem to find on Amazon anymore. Maybe they’re sold out? But it’s like this one (though cuter, imo!). Ripley’s is this one. Then, on top of each of their vest-style harnesses, we add a second buckle harness like this. The leash clips to both so if one malfunctions, there’s a backup in place.
Do you need two?
Well, no. But, it makes me feel safer!
As for the leash, use whatever lightweight leash you have! We actually use a 20-foot-long training leash that we used with the dogs for recalls. No, we don’t walk them down the sidewalks with a 20-foot leash. This is just to let them roam as they please around our yard. It’s long enough for them to run and jump and play but not long enough to get out of our fence. If you want to walk your cat down the sidewalk, I recommend a four- or six-foot lead.
OK, so you have your collar and tag, your harness situation, and your leash. Now, let’s dig into the nitty-gritty of actually using this equipment! The fun stuff! The going outside with your cat stuff!
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Here’s how to train your cat to walk on a leash:
So much of this process depends on your cat. Newt, for instance, took ages to get used to the harness. Then, she took ages to move slowly outside. Then, she took ages to realize she could walk while outside.
Ripley? This is her first summer with us, so we only just started this process. She was good to go on the first try, though she did just hang in one spot the first two times we took her out. The third time she was like, “AH! This is awesome!” and bounded every which way.
Here are the steps, though your cat determines the pace:
- Get your cat used to the walking harness. Put the equipment on your cat inside your house in a safe space during a calm time.
- If you have other pets, consider separating them for the first go-round. Offer your cat tons and tons of treats (we like squeeze cheese) and praise. Aim for short sessions of putting it on, doling out treats and praise, taking it off. As your cat starts to feel comfortable, elongate the sessions until she’s cool wearing the equipment.
- Newt took MANY sessions. We’d put the harness on, she’d flop on her side, and play possum. Ripley wriggled like crazy getting it on the first time but was totally fine that very first time. Let your cat set the pace. <— I’ll repeat this refrain through all the steps!!!
- Take your cat outside. Once she’s good to go with the equipment, put it on her, then I suggest simply opening the door. She may flee. She may poke her nose into the air and sniff. She may creep forward. She may dash outside. Again, she determines the pace. If you force it, you’ll likely scare her and set your training way back. Repeat this exercise until she either starts going out on her own or is comfy enough (like, she lays in the doorway) that you can encourage her to step out with treats and praise.
Our experience: We messed this up with Newt. Big time. We simply carried her all the way into the yard and plunked her down. She panicked and scrambled, literally clawing at the back door to be let back in. Lesson learned. It put us back quite a bit, actually, because we had to retrain her to the harness. After that, though, we realized: She sets the pace. With Ripley, we knew better, so we opened the back door, and–Ripley being Ripley–she waltzed herself right out the door. Then she froze stock still and wouldn’t walk one step. But she was outside! Baby (kitten?) steps at their pace!
- Let her choose the direction and pace of her first walk. Once she gets outside, she gets to choose which way to go and whether she jumps around after bugs or lounges in a sun spot. At this stage, you’re focused on expanding her horizons, so she gets to do and experience what she wants how she wants. Keep the first walk very, very short.
Our experience: See above for Newtie’s first time out. Oops. As for Ripley, the first two times she went outside, she didn’t want to walk at all. The third time she decided to explore everything everywhere! Now, when we go outside, John takes one leash, I take the other, and we wander around wherever they want to go.
- Start to shape her walking behavior. If you want your cat to venture out beyond your yard, at some point you need to shape the walking behavior. She’s been leading the way, now you need her to follow you, at least in a general direction, though not right by your side like you would with a dog. Use treats (again, we recommend squeeze cheese… easy to dole out and irresistible to kittehs) and walk gently. No pulling or yanking. This will be a sloooowwwwww process.
Our experience: We decided early on that Newt probably wouldn’t enjoy leaving the yard. Based on how long it took us to get her comfortable, and based on how she behaves when she has to go anywhere else (the car, the vet, a hotel when we moved, etc.) she is a cat who is pretty darn frightened of the wide world. She’s cool at home and in our yard. She gets a ton of exercise, and she LOVES chasing bugs. We’re happy with her not going beyond our fence. Ripley, though, is so adventurous that we’ll start working on it with her!
- Make going back inside worthwhile. If possible, time your return indoors with a meal. If it’s not possible, be sure to give lots of her favorite special treats; this is the time to break out the tuna fish or something hugely valuable! Once they’re outside having a fun time, you want to remind them that inside is awesome, too!
Our experience: Nearly every time she’s been outside, Newt has told us when she wanted to come back inside. She simply walks to the back door. So, we immediately let her in, unclip her harnesses, then give her a treat. Ripley, since she’s so new at this, we’re still rewarding her a ton when we go back inside and last time timed her sojourn with dinnertime.
The bottom line: Don’t rush or push your cat! This should be a fun, rewarding experience for both of you–a way for her to get extra stimulation and enrichment, a way for you two to bond, and a way to possibly improve her behavior indoors. But, if you push her to go at your pace or try to force her into the next step before she’s ready, you might turn going outside into a fearful affair or, worse, diminish her trust in you.
OK, so if you got to this point, way to go! I hope you feel inspired to take your indoor cat outside on a leash!
Are you left with any questions or in need of additional advice? Leave your Qs in the comments, and I’ll come back to share my thoughts! If you decide to take your cat out, let me know in the comments below how it goes!