Cat on a leash
By keeping your cat indoors, you are helping to keep her safe from certain inherent dangers in the outdoor world, such as being hit by vehicles; attacks from dogs, other cats and other animals; and exposure to toxic substances such as rat poison and antifreeze. But a stroll outside is something that many indoor kitties still enjoy. Leash walking your cat — if she is amenable to it and has been properly prepared — is a great way of providing physical and mental enrichment for your indoor feline. But how do you get started? And how do you determine what’s a safe place to walk your feline friend?

Comfort and Kindness

First, you need to purchase a secure harness that your cat cannot get out of and that fits her comfortably. These can look like traditional dog harnesses or they can be made of fabric and fasted with Velcro. Second, you will need to gradually pair the event of your cat wearing a harness with something positive, such as getting her favorite treat or playing with her favorite toy or game. The key thing to understand is that you want your cat to feel comfortable in her new gear and to enjoy wearing it. This comfort level is much easier to accomplish when you are getting kittens and young cats accustomed to a harness. However, even some adult cats are amenable to wearing a harness, so don’t throw your hands up if you have an older cat. For example, my older male cat soon learned that, when he wore the harness, he was allowed to go outside. The reward of going outside made him much more cooperative in getting the harness on and wearing it. For more specific tips on training your cat to leash walk, take a look at this video.

Training Tips

Navigating the world outside can be made easier and less stressful for your cat by teaching her a few simple behaviors and verbal cues.

It’s very common for a cat to go outside for the first time and then freeze and hunker down when exposed to the great big world. Here are a few simple tips to help get beyond this natural fearfulness. One really helpful aid is to teach your cat the “touch” command. You can teach a cat to “touch” or “target” in a number of ways. I typically use my finger, a pencil or pen, or you can be fancy and use a target stick (or make your own using a dowel and a small pom pom on the end). Generally, if you stick your finger or any stick-like object out, most cats will approach and sniff it with their nose. When they touch the end of my finger with their nose, I mark that behavior using a verbal cue or other marker, such as a “click.” I then offer a reward, such as a food treat or praise. After repeated pairings, I will name the behavior “touch” when my cat consistently touches my finger. Once my cat knows how to touch, I will then move my finger and be able to guide her to specific locations or even teach her to “come” to me. I recommend teaching your cat how to “touch” to get her to move toward you or a target. You can follow this up with a “walk” command in order to move forward. It’s also a good idea to make sure your cat is accustomed to being picked up. I like to use the word “up” to tell a cat that she is about to be picked up so that she does not get scared by my movements.

Once your cat has been taught these cues, practice walking her around the house on leash. Make sure your cat listens and can perform her cues before you take her out. If you have a deck, patio or yard, take her out there first for short walks of a few minutes at a time to get her used to the sights and sounds of being outside. For some cats, this relatively safe haven may be adventure enough!

For more intrepid felines, when you are ready to go outside, take short walks around the neighborhood first. This assumes, of course, that your neighborhood is not excessively noisy, stressful or populated by other animals that might stress your cat. Take treats along to reward her for paying attention to you. No matter what your neighborhood is like, avoid encountering other animals unless your cat is used to this. Keep in mind that most dogs will get really excited at the sight of a cat and may behave in an excited or aggressive manner. This is why we teach the “up” cue — so that we can immediately pick the cat up and remove her from any dangerous situations. Some people use a pet sling for this reason so that they may scoop up their cat and place her in it and out of sight at the first sign of trouble. Other cat owners may take along a cat stroller so that they can place their cats in an enclosed carrier.

Park Planning

For many people, the local park is the only option for getting outside. If you take your cat to the park, be aware that other people often take their dogs to the park as well. Therefore, choose your park strategically. I would select a small park where you can see all the dogs that enter or a quiet park where there is not a lot of foot traffic. Definitely avoid large parks or trails where there are going to be a lot of people, bicycles, dogs and other distractions and/or potentially frightening activities. Before taking your cat for a walk, visit the park first yourself and get a feel for how busy and “scary” it is before bringing your cat there. If your local park or neighborhood is not suitable for walking your feline friend and you are committed to this activity, then consider driving to a more cat-friendly location in order to have your time out of doors. And finally, before taking your cat outside for walks, remember to review her vaccination status and parasite prevention needs with your veterinarian to make sure she is up to date on all and remains healthy as well as happy during her adventures!

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