If you ask clients why they do not allow their cat outdoor access, you will hear a few common things: The client is fearful that harm will come to the cat, the client lacks knowledge on how to safely provide outdoor access, or the client simply doesn’t feel the cat is missing any opportunities. Fear of harm is a very valid concern, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. We do not need to remind most cat owners of what could befall an unsupervised cat outdoors. Simply put, owned cats should not be allowed to roam free. Most owned, indoor cats lack common sense when it comes to outdoor dangers, and other families in the neighborhood should not have to be burdened with a strange animal in their yard. Rather than shutting the door on experiencing the world outside, we as cat advocates should be educating clients about ways to provide safe outdoor opportunities for indoor cats. The chance to walk outside on a leash is a great chance to experience new things, practice exploratory and hunting behaviors, work on training behaviors like recall, and for clients to have fun seeing the world through feline eyes!
Exploring the world outside
For the client who does not feel that a cat needs to be given outdoor opportunities, it may help to ask them how would they feel about a dog being an indoor-only pet, or a horse being a “barn-only” horse? Ask them in an honest manner why they feel their cat would not benefit from outdoor activities. Educate the client on the benefits of giving cats novel stimulation and point out that a well-exercised mind is a tool in helping any living thing cope with the stress of their environment. If the client is not committed to conditioning and controlling the environments they will be putting the cat in outside, it is probably not a good fit, as leash training is an involved process. In that case, more “hands off” solutions, such as a catio or bird watching stations, are better—I’ve discussed these in a previous article.
The outdoors has so much to offer!
Before taking a cat outdoors, we must consider some safety concerns. The three most important components in a safe leashed adventure are properly fitting equipment, conditioning to being outdoors, and controlling the environment. A harness that doesn’t fit will not do its job correctly, and cats that are too panicked to deal with a stimulus are a danger to themselves and others. Being careless about when and where you walk your cat could have a deadly result. These things must all be considered and understood before attempting to leash train a cat. It is also vital to make sure the is cat up to date on parasite control and vaccines prior to going outside.
Choose low traffic times of day for walking. Ensure that loose dogs or other animals are not likely to be in the area. A garden fence can be placed as an extra barrier should a cat escape their harness, and it also encourages other animals to stay out. Bring a carrier or other enclosure with you in case the cat panics or a strange animal approaches. Before walking a cat, have the client sweep the area for hazards such as hornets’ nests, stray cats, or harmful plants. Do not allow strangers or other pets to approach your cat, as this could spook even the most calm of cats. If a strange animal does come up to the client, advise them to stay calm, and do their best to keep the cat from bolting and potentially escaping their harness. In the event the cat does escape, remind the client to never chase or run at the cat. Using a food lure can convince them to come back, and eating can keep them there whilst they pick the cat up or clip on their leash. Patience is key.
Getting used to the equipment
A mistake I often see is a client putting the harness on a cat and whisking them outside with no backup carrier or previous experience being outdoors. The cat freezes, or worse, totally panics, and no one is happy. The client is discouraged that the cat “hates” it, and may not want to try it again. A fearful cat is not going to be immediately open to the idea of walking on a leash.
Conditioning the cat using a carrier, cat stroller, catio, or soft-sided enclosed puppy playpen are all good ways for an inexperienced cat to get used to the outdoors. Using positive experiences and closely watching the cat for signs of overstress, over a period of time you can accustom a cat to going outside. Some things to suggest the client expose the cat to as part of a desensitization protocol are dogs barking in the distance, children screaming, bikes, cars, and wind.
Accustom the cat to the equipment indoors where they feel safe and secure. Fit and function are extremely important in creating a positive experience. A too-snug harness will not allow movement, particularly in the shoulder, and the cat will often flop down and refuse to move. A harness that allows for too much movement could cause the cat to get loose, or get a leg stuck. Sturdy, well-made vest-type harnesses are the best for proper fit and ease of use. . The “Kitty Holster” is my most recommended brand right now for adult cats and larger kittens, followed by the Sturdipet walking vest. For smaller kittens, I recommend the “Come With Me Kitty” from Petsafe. This style of harness fits over the shoulder and comes with an elastic leash, which is excellent for beginners. Remind clients that leashes need to be lightweight and that retractable leashes are never recommended for cats.
In addition to a harness, cats should also wearing a breakaway collar with ID, a bell, and an LED light/reflector so they are easier to find in the event that they escape. Microchipping is also a good idea.
Harnesses can also be worn under other things!
Cats new to leash training will often spook or startle when exploring outdoors, and its important a client knows how to recover a cat who spooks. Giving the cat a bit of slack so they don’t feel a sudden tug on their body is essential. This is why an elastic component to a leash is good for beginners, as you have some give in the line. Stay behind the shoulder as much as possible in order to avoid pulling the harness off. Cats who are resisting the leash tend to hunch up and pull backwards, which could result in the cat slipping a leg out and bolting. Calmly speak to the cat and bend down to their level, reassuring them. Some cats can be calmed by stroking the back by the tail, while others may need to be picked up or lured with food. If the cat cannot be convinced to calm down, end the session and take the cat inside. If the cat is inconsolable and is putting themselves in danger, the client can throw a jacket or blanket over the cat. This should only be used as a last resort, as it will be an unpleasant experience for the cat.
Once the cat is reliably walking around and is no longer prone to fighting the leash, you can begin to have the client work on turning and stopping. Verbal cues are a better strategy for this than using the leash to direct them. Instead of pulling on the leash, encouraging the cat to come when called or giving a cat a firm verbal warning when approaching a barrier (such as the neighbor’s yard) is more likely to make walking an enjoyable experience for both the cat and their owner. Again, remind the client to keep the pull of the leash gentle and behind the cat. If a cat insists they cross a barrier or approaches an object that is forbidden, the client can simply pick up the cat, move them away, praise them, and resume the walk. If the cat keeps returning to the same site, end the session. A few repetitions of this will teach the cat that they can remain outdoors longer if they avoid areas they have been given a warning about when they approach. The client must stay calm during these lessons and never punish or yell at a cat, as this can scare the cat and destroy all the hard work to get them to this point.
A good recall helps a lot with keeping safe
It’s important to advise owners about the potential for their cat to enjoy going outside so much that they try to get out whenever the door is open. This can be a big problem for obvious reasons! Physical barriers on doors and windows can prevent escapes, and the cat can also be prevented from making the association between the door opening and getting to go outside in the first place. Have the client only take the cat outside in a carrier or held their arms—when they’re outside and the door is closed, they can put the cat down or open the carrier and begin their exploration. It’s also important not to reinforce the behavior of going outside whenever the door opens, so be sure to avoid taking the cat outside for at least 15 minutes after an unwanted escape has occurred.
All cats are different, and what is a great source of enrichment for some might not work so well for others. What’s more, an individual cat might have different requirements as they get older, they have dietary or activity restrictions, their owners move with them to a new area, or their human and animal family changes. That’s why it’s important to be as creative as possible when thinking about enrichment and have more than one tool in the box. Between this article and my last one that focused on indoor activities, I hope to have provided some insight into how to set up enrichment that satisfies a cat’s need to observe, explore, and hunt in a way that is easy and fun for your clients, too.
Your cats, and your clients, will thank you!
Kat has been caring for and learning from felines all her life. Her experiences as a young adult included farm, kennel, and veterinary work. While she lived in Michigan, Kat founded a cats-only rescue called Tiny Tales. It was rescuing the “death row” cats that inspired her to start educating others on feline behavior. Kat spends her free time showing and training her Oriental Longhairs. She is active in TNR feral cat work and loves to garden