Teaching your cat to walk on a harness and leash is a great way to let your cat safely enjoy the outdoors. It can also come in handy during trips to the vet, other necessary travel, or even when safely introducing two cats to each other. Before you get started, be sure your cat is up to date on all recommended vaccinations and has a microchip in case they get lost.
Most cats can be easily trained to walk on a harness and leash. Kittens are naturally more accepting of this new experience, but older cats can be trained with patience. Proceed in small steps, rewarding each bit of progress. Start harness training indoors so that your cat is comfortable with it before you venture outside.
How to Train
- Purchase a harness designed for cats, for example “Come with Me Kitty.” The leash attachment should be located on the back of the harness, not at the neck.
- Leave the harness and leash near your cat’s food or favorite sleeping spot for several days. This way your cat will get used to the sight and smell of it and associate it with feelings of contentment and comfort.
- Hold the harness, let your cat sniff it, and offer them treats. Then lay the harness against your cat’s body and neck. As they’re sniffing the treat, remove the harness and let them eat the treat.
- Next, drape the harness over your cat’s shoulders and down their chest between their front legs. Introduce the new feel of the straps while your cat is sniffing or eating their treat, and remove the harness immediately. Work until you can snap the harness on them over their neck and shoulder area and between their front legs.
- Put the harness on your cat, but don’t attach the leash. Adjust the fit of the harness. You should be able to slip two fingers between the harness and your cat’s body. Leave the harness on for just a couple minutes, removing it before your cat’s interest in their rewards starts to decrease. Repeat this training daily for several days. If your cat stays relaxed, gradually increase the time the harness is on. If they ever get upset, distract them with treats, and then remove the harness.
- Now it’s time to attach the leash. Place your cat in an open room with a few things that might snag a leash. Put the harness on your cat and attach the leash, letting it drag on the ground behind them. Distract them with treats or play. Repeat this step for several days.
- When your cat seems relaxed and comfortable while dragging the leash, hold it gently (not pulling against them) while they walk around the house. Let them go wherever they wants to, and keep the leash loose as you follow them around. As they roam, praise them often and periodically reward them with tasty treats.
- Now you are ready to practice slightly directing where your cat walks on leash, start indoors before you go outside, this is important since most likely you’ll need to direct them once you’re outside:
- Using a sweet, soft voice, encourage your cat to follow you.
- Drop them a treat, and while they eat it, walk away to the end of the leash. When they catch up to you, praise and reward them with another treat. Repeat this over and over.
- Apply gentle, persistent pressure on the leash if your cat tries to go in another direction. NEVER jerk or pop the leash. Just wait patiently. When your cat finally takes a couple of steps toward you, IMMEDIATELY put slack in the leash and they’ll be rewarded by relief from the tension on the leash.
- Most cats who haven’t been outdoors are nervous and easily startled outside. So start in a quiet, sheltered spot and just sit with your cat on the leash. They’ll start exploring as they adjust. Just as you did indoors, start by following behind your cat as they check things out and travel farther with your new walking buddy when they’re relaxed and ready to move on.
- Try setting a regular walking schedule, so your cat won’t constantly pester you to go outside.
- Always put the harness on away from the door and carry your cat outside. Never let them walk out on their own, or they might try to dash out between walks without their harness.
- Never harness your cat when they’re crying or pestering you. Ignore them until they’re quiet. Then you can reward their good behavior with a walk.
- Do not tie your cat’s leash to something outside and leave them, even if you plan to be gone for only a minute or two. Your cat might get tangled in the leash and hurt themselves, and they won’t be able to escape if a dog or other animal approaches. In fact, it’s best to avoid leaving your cat outdoors unattended altogether, whether they’re on a leash or not.
- If your cat is stalling or crouching on a walk or tries to escape they might be scared, and going for walks is not a good way of enriching a fearful cat’s life. There are many options for indoor enrichment that can make your cat happy and engaged in an indoor environment – see our handout on enrichment indoors.