On the Road: Walking Your Cat on a Leash

When Judith Samkoff, M.D., walks her pets, she doesn't play favorites. In addition to taking her dog, Daisy, for walks, Dr. Samkoff also walks her cat, Chester, on a leash. "Chester likes to roll around in the grass," says Dr. Samkoff, of her indoor cat whom she walks around the yard of her suburban house. "He really enjoys the time outside."

If you would like to give your cat an opportunity to explore the out-of-doors safely, leash-training her is an ideal way to do it. Cats won't "heel" as dogs do, but they will follow your lead if they are trained properly.

Ideally, begin leash-training when your cat is young. If you have an older cat, you'll still be able to train her to walk on a leash, but it may take a little longer. Regardless of how old your cat is, patience is key to the success of the process. Keep in mind that you are leash-training for your cat's benefit. Some cats are frightened of going outdoors at first. If your cat objects to going outside by climbing up your legs and clinging to your chest, don't force the issue. Find some indoor activities to keep her from climbing the walls or trying to scale your body.

Purchase a harness instead of a collar. Cats can easily slip out of a collar, and a harness will enable you to control your cat without accidentally choking her. There are three types of harnesses for cats: the figure eight, the H-harness and the V-style harness. "The figure eight harness is one of the best for walks outside," says Christine Church in Housecat: How to Keep Your Indoor Cat Sane and Sound, (Howell Books, 1998), "since it tightens if the cat pulls, therefore preventing the cat from slipping out."

Not all harness types are available in all pet stores, so if you can't find what you want, check pet supply catalogs, Internet pet stores or cat magazine classifieds. Buy a harness in a lightweight material such as nylon or cotton. Avoid leather since the bulk and stiffness may be uncomfortable for your cat. A harness should be tight enough to prevent slippage, but loose enough for you to get two fingers between the harness and your cat's body. Whatever type of harness you select, find one that is adjustable so it fits your cat properly and will expand if she does.

Purchase a nylon or cotton lead that is 6 to 8 feet in length. Avoid chain leashes as they are too heavy to use with a cat. Because cats may prefer to wander a bit, try using a lightweight flexible lead intended for a small dog once you've successfully acclimated your cat to a regular leash. Be careful not to allow the flexible lead to rewind quickly as it might frighten your cat or pull her unnecessarily and be careful not to let the leash slip out of your hand. Manufacturers of flexible leads have not yet made the handles of rubber increase grip, and, as a result, the leads can slip out of your hand more easily than a regular leash.

Before taking your cat outside on the harness and leash, let her wear the harness indoors so that she becomes acclimated to it. Samkoff tried to put a harness on Chester as soon as she brought it home. "I did the wrong thing," said Samkoff. "Chester immediately made himself scarce."

A friend told her to place the harness on the floor and allow Chester to familiarize himself with it on his own. "After a few days of Chester sniffing it, I brought it closer to him and started talking about it," Samkoff laughed. In about a week, Samkoff was able to slip the harness over Chester's head without him freaking out. "Now he comes up to it when I hold it out before a walk," said Samkoff.

Let your cat wear the harness about 10 or 15 minutes a day indoors for a week or more so that she is comfortable with it. When you place the harness on her, give her some favorite treats and praise her so she associates wearing the harness with something pleasurable.

Hide some treats at various locations around the house. Attach the leash to the harness and let your cat walk around the house with the leash dragging along behind her on an indoor treasure hunt to find the treats. After she seems comfortable with the leash attached to the harness, hold it loosely and let your cat walk around the house wherever she wants to go with you at the other end of the leash. Follow the same routine of hiding treats so she associates something positive with the indoor walk.

When your cat is comfortable walking with the leash inside, take her outdoors for short jaunts of no more than 5 minutes at a time. Take a treat or two with you and give it to her as you walk. If your cat wants to just sit once, she is outside, sit with her and let her take things at her own pace. She may ultimately prefer to just sit outdoors and watch the world go by, so don't force her to walk if she doesn't want to. Gradually increase the time you spend with her outdoors.

Before taking your cat on walks, make sure she is up-to-date on her vaccinations and is protected from fleas and ticks. Be sure to avoid neighborhood dogs that might frighten your cat and set your leash-training back to square one. When your cat is on a lead, stay with her. Leaving her outside on a tether without your supervision leaves her at risk from dogs, coyotes, and even humans who might harm her accidentally or intentionally. On your walks, keep your cat from eating grass that may have been sprayed with lawn chemicals.