Getting your cat used to a harness and leash comes useful in so many situations, beyond taking them on a walk! It can provide extra security if you need to bring them outside the house for any reason, so its a good idea to harness and train your indoor cats too.
Of course, the main reason you might want to harness and leash train your cat is so you can bring them on walks. For people who don’t live in a house with a backyard, going on leashed walks is the only way to allow your cat to experience nature. For people who do live in houses, going on supervised walks instead of free roaming means they will be safer from dangers such as cars, predators, and other potential threats.
The training process will depend on the personality of your cat and how easily they adapt to change. It is generally easier for kittens to learn to walk on a leash, but adult cats usually have no issue adapting too, given enough time to get used to it. If your cat is struggling and not showing any signs of improvement after many months, you may want to rethink if leash training is right for them.
What You Will Need
You will need a harness and leash for this training, but also a collar with ID tag is highly recommended. If they unfortunately slip out of the harness at any point, a collar with ID will be allow others to locate you.
For the harness, a thin, lightweight, minimal “H harness” is recommended. It is the most basic cat harness, and you will be able to find this in most pet stores under the cat harness section, as well as online. To know that the harness fits your cat, it should be adjusted so that there is space for two fingers under the neck and chest straps.
When first getting your cat used to the feeling of a harness, the least intrusive harness is the easiest to get used to. Once they are harness trained, you can move onto a better style that is more suited for your cat. ‘
- Recommendations: Best Cat Harnesses 2022
For the leash, you also want a lightweight leash, such as a standard 6ft nylon leash. These are the leashes that are the cheapest, and some may even come with the cat harness. You can also upgrade to another leash later on, such as a retractable leash or a more durable leash.
- Recommendations: Best Cat Leashes 2022
1. Introduce the Harness (at home)
When introducing something new to cats, it should be done slowly and with positive associations. For food motivated cats, this means treats, and for play motivated cats, this means play sessions. If the cat has a negative experience with something the first time, they are likely to remember this the next time they see it. That is why its better to take things slow rather than try to rush this process.
- With your new leash and harness, let them first investigate it by sniffing, and leave it laying around the house until they are used to it. You can give them treats or wave the leash around like a toy to encourage them to interact with it.
- We will first harness train the cat. Hopefully you have a H harness as suggested, because this is easiest to train with. With the collar loop of the H harness, put this on your cat for a few seconds, and them give them a treat or toy. If your cat is used to wearing a collar, this step should be easy. If not, it may take a couple more tries.
- Once they seem fine with the collar strap, buckle up the chest strap as well. Again, leave this on for a few seconds, and them give them a treat or toy. Watch how they act with the harness on, and make sure they are fully comfortable before moving onto attaching the leash.
At this stage, we are getting the cat used to the feeling of a harness around their body. If they show signs of being uncomfortable (which is totally normal), such as freezing up, falling over, or trying to escape from the harness, you’ll need to spend more time on this step. Distract them by throwing a treat on the ground for them to chase, or use a toy to encourage them to move around. Hopefully they will focus on the treat or toy, and forget about the harness. If they don’t want to move at all, take the harness off and try again later. It may take several sessions to see improvement.
Once your cat can walk around normally with the harness on, you can practice leaving it on your cat for a few minutes at a time. Leave the harness on for 10-15 minutes before taking it off. They should not be trying to pull the harness off, because this forms habits of escaping the harness later on. If your cat walks around fine but still tries to pull the harness off, you can try to leave it on for a longer period of time such as 1-2 hours, until they accept it. This should only be done as part of training – don’t leave the harness on permanently as this is uncomfortable for your cat!
2. Introduce the Leash (at home)
Once your cat is completely fine with the harness, we can move onto the leash part of the training. The goal is for the cat to act like they don’t notice the leash. The leash is an extra weight on their back, which may cause them to slouch at first. You should also practice with dragging the leash, so they don’t freak out if you accidentally drop the leash and it sounds like something is chasing them. You may also want to try a retractable leash, this also feels slightly different as it is a light pulling force.
- Attach the leash to the harness and encourage your cat to walk around, either with treats or toys. Hold the leash up so it doesn’t drag on the ground at first. They may slouch at first but eventually they should start walking around normally. Again, you can use treats or toys to distract and encourage them to walk around.
- Let the leash go so the leash is dragging on the ground. This step is to prevent them getting spooked if you accidentally drop it while outdoors. Encourage them to walk around while dragging the leash. They may be confused why something is following them, but should eventually get used to the feeling. If you are using a retractable leash, you can also do the same, but lock the leash so it will drag instead of extend.
3. Before Going Outside
Before heading outside, you should consider the concern that once cats start enjoying the outdoors, they may try to go on unauthorized trips (also called “door dashing“). Cats don’t typically try to run away from home, but they may try to run outside to explore, and then get lost.
- If you live in a house or somewhere with direct street access, you might not want your cat learning that it is ok to run out the door when you open it. You can reduce this behaviour by always picking them up (or having them in a carrier or backpack) and carrying through the doorway, so they think that only you can bring them outside. However, cats don’t always listen, so it may be best to install a baby gate if you are concerned about door dashing.
- If you live in a house or somewhere with direct street access, you should keep a collar with ID tag on at all times, just in case they slip out when you don’t expect them to. There are also tracking devices such as the Apple Airtag, but they are heavier and may not be suitable to be worn 24/7.
- You may want to teach your cat to wait at a designated spot by the door before they can go outside. You can train this by putting a small mat on the ground and making them sit there, before you bring them outside. They will associate the mat with the outdoors over time. Having a designated waiting spot prevents door dashing, but also allows you to get them ready with the harness and leash without having to run around the house trying to find them.
You should also look into cat backpacks at this time, as most people who walk their cats will have a cat backpack with them, in case the cats decides they don’t want to walk anymore and you have to carry them. It is a good idea to get your cat used to being in a cat backpack at this point of training, so they don’t resist being inside the backpack later on, when they’re used to walking around by themselves.
- Recommendations: Best Cat Backpacks 2022
4. Introduce the Outdoors
Now that you’ve done all that preparation, its finally time to bring your cat outside! If you followed this training process, you should be confident that your cat is properly harness trained. How a cat reacts to being outside for the first time will be different based on their personality, but you should expect to see timid behaviour, or even trying to run back inside. It’s important not to put too much stress on your cat, but at the same time, you have to nudge their boundaries a little or they will never change. Here are some tips for helping your cat:
- Bring your cat outside in their carrier / backpack. Place the carrier on the ground and allow them to step outside themselves. If they feel overwhelmed, they can always retreat back into the carrier where they feel safe.
- Start with somewhere close to home, such as your backyard, or a quiet hallway in your apartment building. If they show curiosity and interest, its a good sign that they’re enjoying it.
- Repeat short outings until your cat seems comfortable with the process, and then you can try to move on to longer outings. You can bring toys and treats to make the trips more enjoyable for them. Gradually, you’ll be able to bring them to more and more places!