Leash Training for a Happier, More Confident Cat

Leash training your cat can be one of your most rewarding experiences as a pet parent:

  • It makes for a cat who is more self-assured and outgoing.
  • Your cat can explore the outdoors more safely.
  • It enhances the bond you have with your cat.

Many people who have tried leash training their cats give up as soon their feline friends flop over in a harness and refuse to get up, but you can successfully leash train your cat if you learn a few tricks.

First, you need a harness the cat can’t easily slip out of. Best are walking vests, but they are also the most confining. A well-fitted strap harness that is made specifically for cats can work well. You should be able to just fit a finger or two under the strap. The D ring (where the leash attaches) should be right behind the shoulder blades. There are a lot of cute dog harnesses, but your cat might be able to slip out of a harness made for a dog.

Binga, a tortoiseshell cat, goes exploring on leash.

Once you have a harness and a lightweight 6-foot leash, you need to persuade your cat that using them is something he would enjoy.

  • A slow introduction to the harness is best. Instead of putting it on your cat immediately, let him sniff it, then reward him with a treat, playtime, or something else he really likes. After doing this a few times, drape the harness on him, then reward him. Once he takes this in stride, try putting it on. If your cat flops over like a slug with the harness on, offer his favorite treat, but a few steps away, so he has to stand up and walk over to get it. Rotisserie chicken or another fresh treat will persuade most cats to walk with a harness on.
  • Same with putting on the leash: do it gradually. Attach it to the harness, but don’t pick up the other end. When you do pick up the leash, don’t expect your cat to heel like a dog. Cats do best on a leash when they are allowed to explore or to just sit there and take in the sights around them. Unlike dogs, cats should be the ones to lead. Let your cat wander inside the house until he is used to it.
  • Make training routine so your cat learns to expect it.

Once your cat is used to being on leash and moves comfortably, gradually introduce him to the outdoors. Take him out in your backyard or somewhere that is quiet and close to home. He may be nervous at first, so take him out for only a few minutes at a time. Gradually, he’ll learn that it’s a fascinating world out there and start to explore and have fun.

Summer models a walking vest.

Words of caution:

  • Let your cat set the training pace. Some will harness up and get walking quickly, but many cats like to go slowly.
  • Avoid noisy outdoor areas that can scare your cat. No matter how snug you think your harness is, a cat frightened by a loud, sudden noise could bolt right out of it. Never take your cat out during any holiday where people set off fireworks.
  • When you are outside with your cat, be his extra eyes and ears. Watch for stray dogs, and keep him away from the street or anything else dangerous.
  • Don’t take your cat outside at night. If he gets out of his harness, it will be difficult to find him. Dusk and dawn are bad times too, since that is when predators are active. In some areas, they are aggressive and will attack pets on a leash.

Once your cat is used to walking on a leash around your home, it’s up to you and your cat how much farther you want to take it. If you never go beyond your own yard, your cat’s life is already enriched. If you want to try some trips to the pet store or other pet-friendly establishment, and your cat is willing, go ahead. If let your cat take the lead, he will tell you how far he wants to go.

From the wall, Binga has a good view of her territory.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT