Teaching your cat to walk on a harness and leash is a great way to let your cat enjoy the outdoors while ensuring his safety. Outdoor excursions can reduce obesity and boredom-related behavior problems that many underexercised indoor cats develop. Leash training also comes in handy during trips to the vet and other necessary travel. Before you get started, be sure your cat is up to date on his vaccinations.
How to Train Your Cat to Wear a Harness and Walk on a Leash
Most cats can be 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’s comfortable with it before you venture outside.
- Purchase a harness designed for cats. The leash attachment should be located on the back of the harness, not at the neck. Try Premier’s Gentle Leader® Come with Me Kitty™ Harness & Bungee Leash, which is easy to use and adjust.
- Leave the harness and leash near your cat’s food or favorite sleeping spot for several days. He’ll get used to the sight of it and associate it with feelings of contentment.
- In addition (or instead of Step 2), hold the harness and let your cat sniff it. Offer him treats as he does this. Then lay the harness against your cat’s neck and offer him a treat. As he’s sniffing the treat, remove the harness and let him eat the treat.
- Meanwhile—if your cat doesn’t much like being held and restrained—get your cat used to the handling you’ll have to do to put on his harness. (Just skip this step if your cat already accepts or enjoys being held.) With his favorite snack or toy close by, hold him firmly but gently for a few seconds. Softly praise him while you hold him, then show him a treat and release him to eat it. Repeat this exercise often for several days, always following your handling with treats, and gradually holding him a few seconds longer each time. Practice gently handling your cat’s legs and feet, too, and rewarding him for accepting that.
- Next, drape the harness over your cat’s shoulders and down his chest between his front legs. Introduce the new feel of the straps while your cat is sniffing or eating his treat, and remove the harness immediately. Work until you can snap the harness on him over his neck and shoulder area and between his front legs, continuing to distract him with treats.
- Put the harness on your cat, but don’t attach the leash yet. Immediately distract him with tasty treats. Adjust the fit of the harness. You should be able to slip two fingers (but not three or four) 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 his 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 he ever gets upset, distract him with treats and then remove the harness. Try again later with a better reward and take the harness off sooner, before your cat has a chance to get upset.
- Now it’s time to attach the leash. Place your cat in a room with few things that might snag a leash. Put the harness on your cat and attach the leash, letting it drag on the ground behind him. Distract him with treats or play. Repeat this step for several days. Always supervise so that the leash doesn’t get caught on something and scare him.
- When your cat seems relaxed and comfortable while dragging the leash, hold it gently (not pulling against him) while he walks around the house. Let him go wherever he wants to, and keep the leash loose as you follow him around. As he roams, praise him often and periodically reward him with tasty treats. Practice this step for a few days.
- You might be satisfied to conclude harness training here and proceed outdoors. But you can also practice directing where your cat walks on leash indoors a bit (rather than just following him) before you go outside, since you’ll need to direct him once you’re outside. Here’s how you can encourage your cat to walk along with you:
- Using a sweet, soft voice, encourage your cat to follow you.
- Drop him a treat, and while he eats it, walk away to the end of the leash. When he catches up to you, praise and reward him with another treat. Repeat this over and over.
- Apply gentle, persistent pressure on the leash if your cat tries to go in another direction. Be sure not to jerk or pop the leash. Just wait patiently. When your cat finally takes a couple of steps toward you, he’ll be rewarded by relief from the tension on the leash, and you can again reward him with a treat.
- Now it’s time to take the show on the road. 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. He’ll start exploring as he adjusts. Just as you did indoors, start by following behind your cat as he checks things out, and travel further with your new walking buddy when he’s relaxed and ready to move on.
- Your cat won’t constantly pester you to go out if you take him only at a certain time each day. Try setting a regular walking schedule.
- Always put the harness on away from the door and carry your cat outside. Never let him walk out on his own, or he might try to dash out between walks without his harness on.
- Never harness your cat when he’s crying or pestering you. Ignore him until he’s quiet. Then you can reward his good behavior with a walk.
- Do not tie your cat’s leash to something outside and leave him, even if you plan to be gone for only a minute or two. Your cat might get tangled in the leash and hurt himself, and he 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 he’s on a leash or not.