by Jason Nicholas, BVetMed
While there are a ton of (easy, and not-so-easy) things you can do for indoor environmental enrichment, some cats have the personality and interest for, and can also benefit from safe outdoor enrichment, such as leash walking.
Taking your cat for walks can be a novel and fun way to give them the mental stimulation and physical exercise that so many cats crave and need, without letting them loose as an outdoor cat (which significantly reduces their life expectancy, as compared to indoor-only cats).
The type of cats that might enjoy and benefit from outdoor leash walks could include:
Adventurous cats that might show an interest in going outside (e.g., cats that spend a lot of time looking out the window or glass doors, cats that try to “bolt” whenever you open the door, etc.).
Cats showing potential signs of boredom and stress, even if you’ve tried to make their indoor environment more stimulating. Signs such as over-grooming, aggression, destructive tendencies around your home, and even urinating outside of their litter boxes can indicate boredom (but they can also indicate underlying medical issues — be sure to have them checked out by your vet before just chalking it up to boredom!).
Cats living in small apartments — although you should still take steps to provide plenty of indoor environmental enrichment, too.cat on leash at the park
Cats transitioning from outdoor to indoor lifestyles, whether they’re in the process of switching or have already made the switch.
If you are going to walk your cat, don’t go about it like this writer from the New York Post.
“I procured a cat leash and harness… from a friend, who had attempted, unsuccessfully, to walk her own cats. Hoping to have a better go of it, I strapped my 7-year-old tabby, Jameson, in and headed out on a recent sunny Saturday.”
As you might imagine, she soon realized that walking a cat is not exactly like walking a dog! First of all, cats don’t always take to leashes and walks as readily as dogs (at least not initially). Second, being cats, they’re not exactly, shall we say, “naturally inclined” to being led around by a leash. Third, many of the places you’d likely take your dog typically aren’t as well-suited for a cat (but fear not, there are often plenty of great alternatives!).
These differences don’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t try taking your cat for leash walks. After all, many cats can really enjoy and benefit from them! But they do mean that you really do first need to train and prepare your cat — and yourself — for these new outdoor adventures!
Before you go out and try a little turn on the “cat walk,” there are a few things you need to do and be aware of — including some potential hazards that your cat might encounter — so you both can have the best and safest time possible.And before I even dive into those things, I just want to take a second to also point out the importance of ensuring that your cat is protected. This means getting them vaccinated against infectious diseases likeFeline Leukemia virus (a.k.a. FeLV); and properly identified, both by a legible ID tag AND a microchip. Cool? Great, let’s make like Christopher and get walkin’! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist >😜)
Walking Your Cat Starts Indoors
Successful outings with your cat actually start indoors! To have the best chances for the best walks, there’s a bit of kit you’ve got to get, and a bit of training you’ll have to do.
Get a Proper Harness and Leash
Cats are great squirmers. If you try to hook a leash to their neck collar, you will soon see firsthand how easily a cat can slip that collar. If you’re going to try leash walking your cat, you’ll need a good harness.
The best harness for your cat will be good at two things:
Distributing pressure across multiple areas so the harness doesn’t choke your cat (this is the comfort part)
Preventing your cat from slipping out of their harness (this is the safety part)
This means your cat’s harness should have adjustable straps that go around the neck and around their body. Depending on your cat’s body type, fur length, and personality, you can choose between strap harnesses or fabric wraps. The wraps can be difficult to fit around an especially fluffy or overweight cat, while the strap harnesses can sometimes slip off of a slender-framed or short-haired cat. I’ve included a few recommended harnesses for walking cats below. (You may note that one of them is actually a dog harness, but I’ve heard lots of positive reviews from cat owners who use it for walking their cat, so it’s included in the recommendations.)
And don’t forget the leash! There are lots of good cat leashes out there, and a couple of the harnesses below actually include the leash. What’s very important to note here though is that there’s also a very dangerous type of cat leash out there… retractable leashes! I’ve written before about the dangers of retractable leashes for dogs, and many of the same concerns and dangers still apply to cats. On top of everything else, retractable leashes present the additional risk of increased distance between you and your cat, meaning you will have less control should an unleashed dog or other animal suddenly appear on the scene. Please, just don’t walk your cat on a retractable leash.
Get Your Cat Comfortable Wearing their Harness and Leash
In the example mentioned above from the New York Post, the writer seemingly decided on a whim to take her cat on a walk. This means she likely hadn’t taken the time to get her cat used to and comfortable with wearing the harness or walking on a leash. It sounds like she just tried to get her cat to go straight from a known, indoor lifestyle to a very new, very public park… this is a recipe for disaster!
Anyone who knows cats knows that they aren’t exactly eager to jump into new life experiences. They need time to grow familiar with new experiences. So don’t make the same mistake the Post writer did. Before you take your cat for a walk outside, make sure you have taken the time to familiarize and get them comfortable with wearing their harness and being “on-leash” inside.
Let your cat explore the harness: Be ready with treats and a clicker. (Never used a clicker before? Check out “An Introduction to Clicker Training.”) Every time they sniff, touch, or show interest in the harness, click to mark the successful behavior and give a treat as a reward. Here’s a great multipack of clickers I recommend.)
Touch your cat with the harness: Drape the harness on your cat. As long as they don’t freak out and try to pull it off or run away, click to mark the behavior and reward with a treat.
Put your cat in the harness: Only when your cat is fully comfortable with this new wardrobe choice should you attempt to put it on. Gently slip them in the harness, clicking and providing treats the whole time to reinforce the idea that wearing the harness is a good thing.
BONUS TRICK: Calming pheromones, like Feliway, can help some cats feel comfortable in and adapt to new things and situations more easily and quickly. Get a spray bottle of Feliway (original, not the multicat) and give your cat’s harness a quick spritz or two a few minutes before bringing it into your cat’s environment. You don’t need much of this stuff — just a spritz or two — and you never want to spray it directly on your cat.
Begin by Walking Indoors
When your cat is comfortable wearing their harness, start going for little walks indoors.
Let your cat wander the home while wearing the harness, with you holding the leash. Click and treat frequently to encourage a positive association. If your cat struggles or refuses to walk, it’s time to take a break and then start again later at the level your cat was previously comfortable with.
Patience is key at this phase. Don’t try to tug your cat into submission or force them to walk. Instead, reward them when they behave the way you want them to.
Give lots of praise and treats when your cat walks alongside you. Your goal should be to get your cat walking freely, but close enough that you can easily scoop them up in your arms, should the need arise.
It really is important to take this acclimation and training process slowly and at a pace that’s safe and comfortable for your cat. While the training process is likely to be easier the younger your cat is, you can still train an adult cat to do this. Of course, when training a young kitten to do this, don’t forget about the word of caution above: making sure that they’re protected with the appropriate vaccines. Fortunately, there’s plenty of acclimation and “indoor prep work” you can do while you’re waiting for their “kitten shots” series to end.
Once you’ve checked all of these boxes and cleared all of these hurdles, then try the outdoor walking thing — first in the comfort and safety of your own yard, or another uncrowded and relatively private outdoor space. Only when you and your cat are comfortable with these escalating challenges should you attempt to venture further afield.
Now that you and your cat are ready to become explorers, there’s just a few more things to be aware of and precautions I’d recommend to ensure the safest expeditions possible.
Fleas, Mosquitoes, and Worms… Oh My!
Outdoor cats, whether leashed or wandering freely, are at greater risk for infections and other problems associated with bugs and parasites. (Note that indoor cats aren’t completely immune from fleas, mosquitoes, and worms… but they do have less risk.) Here’s some info and advice to help you protect your cat from these problems.
Fleas: Can result in everything from a bad itch to tapeworms to anemia due to blood loss, and a whole bunch in between. Fortunately, there are several safe and effective flea medications for use on cats. (Always read labels though, and NEVER use a dog flea medication on your cat, as they can cause a dangerous and expensive case of pyrethroid toxicity.)
Heartworm: This is where the mosquitoes come in! Did you know that mosquitoes transmit heartworms? And that cats can get them, too? Unfortunately, heartworm is very difficult to detect once it’s infected a cat, and there is no cure. Fortunately, there are safe and effective heartworm preventatives you can use on your cat. Learn more about heartworms and cats, including the preventatives you can use to protect your cat.
Intestinal Worms: Roundworms and hookworms are intestinal parasites that can easily infect cats, and cats that venture outside at even higher risk. The eggs of these two types of intestinal worms are commonly found in dirt and mud, but they can also be present on many other outdoor surfaces. (And we can bring these eggs into our homes on the bottoms of our shoes.) Thankfully, the heartworm preventatives listed in the article linked above can also help protect your cat from intestinal worms.
Parasites Aren’t the Only Predators
The outside world can be a scary and dangerous place for cats, especially one that’s not “worldly,” or used to being outside. Even on a leash, cats can be attacked by dogs, coyotes, other large predators, and even other cats. Be aware of these risks when deciding where to walk your cat. The ability to keep your cat close and be able to easily scoop them up in a dangerous situation is another one of the reasons why I don’t recommend using retractable leashes when walking cats. (Bonus Tip: Carry a thick towel with you when you first start walking your cat. This will come in handy — for quickly and safely picking up your cat without getting scratched or bit — should they get spooked or threatened.)
Know the Dangers of Plants and Flowers
It only takes a tiny nibble or quick lick of a lily to send a cat into potentially fatal acute kidney failure. And it’s not just the petals and the stems of lilies that are poisonous to cat kidneys, it’s also the pollen! So even a curious brush up against some lily flowers, followed by a little self-grooming session, could prove debilitating or deadly for your cat.
Although lilies are perhaps the most dangerous plant to cats, they’re not the only plant that is toxic and easily found in your neighborhood or at a public park. Other plants like sago palms, tulips, and azalea’s can also cause toxicity resulting in vomiting, diarrhea, and worse.
Check out ASPCA’s list of plants and flowers that are toxic to cats for more information.
Well, there you go. You’re now armed with the knowledge and tools to more safely make your cat a (leashed) outdoor adventurer.