It’s not common to walk cats on a leash, but it can be done. So how do you train your cat to wear a harness and a leash? And should you at all—is it cruel?
How do you train a cat to walk on a leash? It needs to wear a harness rather than a collar. There are several types of collar which offer compromises between safety and comfort; pick the best for your cat. The harness should be adjusted so that there is a finger’s width between the collar and the neck. Allow your cat to wear the harness indoors until it’s comfortable before attaching the leash. Walk your cat indoors or around the yard before taking it in public. Remain aware when walking of traffic, other pets, the weather, and other people. If your cat has an intense reaction either to the harness, the leash, you guiding it on the leash, or going outside, don’t walk it.
The guide below covers how to train your cat to walk on a leash step by step: getting it used to its harness, getting its used to its leash, walking it indoors, and finally—how to walk your cat outside. That’s not all, though, as we’ve also compiled a quick FAQ on the best breeds for walking, whether harnesses are cruel or not, and how long a cat should wear a harness for!
How to Train a Cat to Walk On a Leash
You can’t put your cat in a harness and immediately walk it on a leash outside. There are several problems that you need to overcome before you do:
- Cats aren’t as obedient as dogs. Dogs have been bred to be loyal, and to do what you say. Cats haven’t. If you try putting a harness and leash on your cat straight away, expecting it to be as good as a dog would be, you’re in for a surprise!
- Your cat won’t be used to the feeling of a harness. Your cat may never have worn anything in its life. Its harness will be restrictive in ways that it isn’t used to. It will try to get out of it.
- Your cat won’t be used to the feeling of a leash. The weight of a leash, and the owner pulling on the leash, are two other unfamiliar feelings. Your cat won’t initially understand that pulling on the leash means ‘come this way’.
- Your cat may not be used to the outside. If you want to walk your cat because it’s an indoor cat, the outdoors may be overwhelming for it. This can exacerbate all of the problems listed above.
At the same time, you may have good reasons to want to walk your cat. It may be an outdoor cat that you’ve had to keep indoors, e.g. because it hunts birds. Or, your cat could be significantly overweight and unwilling to exercise. The steps below will prepare both you and your cat for the walking experience.
Step 1: Pick Your Harness
Before you start training your cat, take care to pick the right cat harness. There can be a big difference in both safety and comfort between one harness and another. This is one time you don’t want to go for the cheapest option, because if you do, your cat could be too uncomfortable to wear it.
There are also three different kinds of harness: H-style harnesses, figure-8 harnesses, and vest harnesses.
- H-style harnesses have three straps. One goes around your cat’s neck, one goes around its waist, and one connects these two either along the belly or the back. The harness’s double loops make it difficult for your cat to wriggle out of it.
- Figure-8 harnesses have two loops instead of three; these two go around the neck and under the forelegs (where a cat’s armpits would be if it walked on two legs). Instead of having another loop connect these two, they cross in the middle. That’s why when you remove the harness, it’s a figure-8 shape. These give your cat good freedom of movement.
- Vest harnesses look like you imagine. They look like tiny vests. They have holes that your cats forelegs go through. Some have more fabric in them than others, but the idea is for them to be entirely secure.
Pick the kind that you think is going to be best for your cat. If your cat is a creature of comfort, for example, then a vest harness might be best. The loops on other harnesses can get too tight and press hard into the skin, like plastic shopping bag handles press into your skin and leave marks when they’re overloaded. Vest harnesses, since they have more fabric, don’t do that (although they can still be too tight). But if you think your cat would panic having its entire midriff contained within the fabric of a harness, pick a figure-8 or an H-style harness.
You need to put your cat in a harness rather than attach the leash to a collar. That’s because your cat’s neck muscles are not as strong as a dog’s. You need a way to make the pressure, weight and pull of a leash spread out rather than apply solely to the neck. That’s what a harness is for. You also need to buy a harness specifically cats, rather than one for a small dog, as these are easier for your cat to escape from.
Step 2: How Tight Should a Cat’s Harness Be?
Perhaps the biggest obstacle you have to overcome is getting your cat to actually wear the harness.
Some cats can react very badly to being put in one. Yours may panic and try to get away, hissing loudly and scratching you in the process. The reason for this is that cats aren’t used to wearing things like we are, and don’t understand why we try and put harnesses on them. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, and is especially unpleasant if the harness restricts your cat’s ease of movement.
All of this is to say that you have to adjust the harness correctly. If you don’t, it will chafe your cat’s fur and skin and restrict its movement too much. Your cat will never want to wear the harness if it makes it uncomfortable, like how you wouldn’t wear clothes that are three sizes too small. You should therefore adjust the harness once it’s on your cat, and come to a compromise between comfort and safety.
If the harness is looser, then your cat stands a better chance of getting out of it. It will also provide less consistent leash signals, since there will be more give in the harness itself; so when you pull on the leash, it won’t immediately guide your cat. But a looser harness is much more comfortable for your pet. Conversely, if the harness is tighter, there’s less chance of your cat getting out of it, but it’s less comfortable.
You should ideally be able to slide one finger between the harness and your cat’s neck. This doesn’t allow enough give for your cat to easily escape the harness, but it also shouldn’t chafe. With the harness at this level of tightness, gauge your cat’s reaction: does it have full range of movement, or does it hold its head upwards or downwards in a way that looks uncomfortable? Can it walk with normal movements, or can it not fully bend/move its legs? Adjust the harness as necessary in response to your cat’s behavior.
Remain calm when you apply the harness. If you scold or shout at your cat, it will not want you to put the harness on it again.
Step 3: Have Your Cat Wear The Harness Indoors
With the harness adjusted correctly, you can allow your cat to get used to wearing it. Have your cat wear it infrequently, e.g. once per day for five minutes. As it becomes more comfortable, have the cat wear it for longer and at more frequent intervals (e.g. half an hour per day). Allow it to go about its day as it usually would.
While your cat is wearing its harness, try to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Avoid shouting at your cat or handling it roughly, as it will associate these negative feelings with the experience of putting on and wearing the harness. Instead, develop positive feelings by feeding your cat treats, petting with it, and playing with it with toys.
It can take days, even weeks for a cat to get used to wearing a harness. Throughout this time, get your cat used to having the harness put on and taken off. Put it on and take it off slowly rather than being rough. Some cats never get used to wearing a harness at all, and if your cat doesn’t become more comfortable with wearing one over this time, don’t force the issue. You will make your cat hate you. Instead, try putting your cat into a different harness. If your cat doesn’t like a vest harness, you could try it in one of the other two kinds.
The best way to get a cat used to a harness is to teach it to wear one when it’s a kitten. While young, kittens learn what’s right and wrong, how to act and how not to act, and what’s normal and what’s not. It’s therefore easier to get a kitten used to a harness than an adult cat.
Step 4: Attach The Leash
The next step is to attach the leash to the harness. But your cat still isn’t ready for you to walk it.
The problem your cat may experience when wearing a leash is that it doesn’t understand what the feeling of tugging on the leash means. It won’t respond to your movements like a dog will. At the same time, the feeling of the weight of the leash will be an unusual one for your cat to understand.
Begin by attaching the leash to the harness and following your cat around. Hold the leash in your hand and try to avoid applying any pressure. At this point in time, it’s fine for the cat to guide you both, even if you will want to do the guiding when you walk your cat outdoors. This will also help your cat understand that you want to walk with it; it may wonder what you’re doing at first, but will get used to you being there.
By this point your cat should feel increasingly comfortable in its harness. With the straps adjusted properly, it should enjoy full range of motion, and should walk around as it would without one on.
Step 5: Teach Your Cat About Leash Tension
The next step is to allow the weight of the leash to fall on the harness. Still holding the leash in your hands, allow the weight of it to fall down between you and your pet. This will place a slight tension on the harness without guiding your cat just yet.
This feeling will be another one that’s new to your cat. The leash isn’t heavy to you, but your cat isn’t as strong as you are, so the leash weighing on its neck will be heavier than you realize. Your cat’s neck muscles will have to become accustomed to the feeling.
If your cat responds well, you can try pulling on the leash slightly. You don’t need to yank the leash, just apply a slight amount of pressure. You want your cat to get used to the feeling of having its neck pulled in a certain direction, which is a lot to ask: imagine if somebody tried to teach you the same thing! The goal here is not necessarily to get your cat to move in a particular direction—you’re unlikely to succeed anyway—but help it understand that it isn’t going to choke or die, so it doesn’t need to panic.
The key to leash training a cat is to be respectful. Don’t yank on the leash, and at all times remember how you would react if somebody got impatient with you in the same way. Walking a cat on a leash is difficult enough without making your cat hate it.
Step 6: Walk Your Cat Indoors, Not Outside
Now is the time for you to put everything together, and teach your cat to expect ‘walkies’ when you put its harness and leash on.
By this point, your cat should allow you to put its harness on without too much fuss. Once you put its harness and leash on, walk it around, as you would when you walk outside. Try to walk along at a steady pace, but allow your cat to do the majority of the guiding, so long as it stays safe.
Walking a cat… Isn’t easy. Cats aren’t easily guided like dogs are, so your cat probably won’t respond well to this. The most common reaction, in fact, is for the cat to turn and stare at you—it’s wondering what on earth you’re doing. Try moving ahead of your cat and guiding it along gently; it will either plod along after you, or sit still/lie down and not move, as if in protest.
Even with frequent training, your cat may not let you guide it. If that’s the case, there isn’t much you can do but accept the fact. When you walk your cat outside, you’ll have to wait for it to move along as it wishes rather than guide it. That’s not a bad thing; the only time you’ll have to correct the behavior is if your cat tries to walk out in the road into traffic. Don’t pull at the leash harshly, as this teaches your cat nothing other than to dislike going on walks.
Step 7 (Optional): Get Your Cat Used to The Outside
Indoor cats can feel overwhelmed when they go outside for the first time. There are all sorts of new smells, new sights and new sounds that they have to get used to. There are things that are dangerous that they may not recognize, and things that are safe which they will think are dangerous. Your cat may feel frightened for its life, hyperactive, or a mixture of both!
You should therefore get your indoor cat used to the outdoors before taking it for a walk. There are a few ways to do this, and it’s possible to do so in stages if you feel it’s necessary:
- Take your cat outside in a cat carrier. Leave it to sit for a while if it’s calm. This will get it used to the sights, sounds and smells of the outside, while still feeling relatively safe in an enclosed space.
- Walk your cat around the yard. Before walking your cat around the block or park, walk it around the yard. Your cat will be more familiar with the yard, having seen it through the window, and having sat outside there in the carrier.
If your cat is already an outdoor cat, then there’s no need to take this step. Your cat will already be comfortable enough with going outside; it’s only the leash and harness you will have to get it used to.
Step 8: Walk Your Cat Outside
By now, your cat should be fully prepped to walk outside with a harness and a leash. Having done all that preparation, you should be fully used to your cat’s temperament when being walked, so there shouldn’t be too many surprises when you finally get outside. Look out for:
- Other pets. Your cat may startle when it sees other cats or dogs outside. It may try to hide, run away, or fight.
- Traffic. Your cat may not appreciate how dangerous traffic is. This is one instance when being more forceful with the leash is necessary.
- The weather. If yours is an indoor cat, it may never have experienced rain, sleet or snow. It may react badly to the feeling of rain and want to hide.
- Other people. Other people may want to stop you and pet your cat, even without asking. Your cat may not like this.
There may come a point where it’s necessary to pick up your cat and walk it home immediately.
Should You Leash Walk Your Cat? (FAQs)
There are some people who think that walking cats on leashes is a bad idea. And in some ways, it is: cats are invariably more difficult to walk than dogs, and there’s much less need to do so, too.
But this is something that is best left up to the individual.
Not all cats take well to leash walking. Some don’t like the harness, others don’t like the leash. Some don’t like the other cats and dogs (and people) they encounter when outside. Other cats are a danger to themselves or to road users, as they don’t understand how dangerous it is to walk out in front of cars.It’s a bad idea to walk these cats, so gauge how much your cat enjoys walking on a leash, and whether it’s a danger to itself or others, to decide whether you should or not.
What’s definitely true is that you don’t need to walk your cat if you don’t want to. Cats don’t need to let off steam and exercise in the same way that dogs do.
Is It Cruel to Walk a Cat?
It’s not necessarily cruel, but it can be.
If your cat is happy to walk with you, and you don’t have to pull on the leash at all, then it’s difficult to argue that it’s cruel. It may be so if you walk your cat somewhere very dangerous, e.g. where there are lots of dogs or fast-moving traffic, but most people wouldn’t do that anyway.
What is cruel is to persist with the idea even when the cat clearly doesn’t want to be walked. To force a cat to wear a harness when it doesn’t want to, force a cat to be on a leash when it doesn’t want to be, and to pull on that leash consistently could be considered cruel. In circumstances like those, it’s best not to force the issue, and simply to respect your cat’s wishes.
Can a Cat Wear a Harness All The Time?
So long as your cat is comfortable wearing its harness, you could leave it on for extended periods of time. It would be a bad idea to leave it on permanently, though.
That’s because the harness could start to chafe your cat’s skin. Even if it doesn’t chafe over the course of a half-hour walk, it may start to do so if you left it on all the time. If you never took it off, it could even rub away patches of fur and leave bald spots. These spots would become very painful in the same way as chafing clothes hurt you.
There’s also the issue of grooming. Your cat needs to regularly groom itself, and the harness could get in the way. A harness with lots of fabric will cover large areas of your cat’s body that it would never be able to clean. The harness may also limit your cat’s range of movement, in which case it can’t reach certain parts of its body any more.
How to Walk a Cat Without a Leash
Walking your cat without a leash is almost certainly a bad idea.
Taking your cat to an unfamiliar place exposes it to threats it may not recognize or understand. Let’s say you live on a quiet road where only a few cars drive by each hour. If you were to walk somewhere that there are more cars, or where the speed limit is higher, your cat would be unprepared for that and could put itself in danger.
What you could do is follow your cat along as it goes wherever it wants to go outside. Your cat might wonder what you’re doing, but you wouldn’t be putting it in any extra danger compared to just letting it outside.