Two years ago when I began taking adventure cat Amelia out on her harness and leash, the majority of people we met either laughed, said they had never seen such a thing, commented that their cat would never wear a harness or that they wished they could teach their cat to come out on a leash. Recently, I have more and more conversations with people who are trying to find the right harness for their cat or are seeking cat leash training tips. This is such a wonderful turn for healthy, active cats everywhere.
For cats that want to go outside, and not all cats do, the only way to keep them safe is to take them out on a harness and leash. And by keeping cats safe, I mean alive. Indoor only cats live two times longer than indoor/outdoor cats. These statistics were the same twenty plus years ago when Gryphon was a kitten and I decided that he would be an indoor only cat. But humans don't always get to make decisions for cats. Gryphon disagreed with my indoor only cat decree and spent his youth becoming a master escape artist. Had I, or really the pet industry been more informed, I would have taught Gryphon to wear a harness and walk on a leash. Instead, I repaired screens, barricaded vents, and spent thousands of dollars on vet bills. Miraculously, Gryphon lived to nineteen. This statistic defying lifespan was probably because Gryphon finally had to succumb to my indoor cat only rule in his geriatric years, but he got his revenge on me by passing along his outdoor-lust to his best friend, Amelia. Thanks to being a more educated cat owner, I was ready this time. A little less than six months after Gryphon passed away, I purchased Amelia's first harness and leash.
Security & Comfort
There are many choices for cat harnesses from step in strap harnesses to vests. Amelia started her harness training with a figure eight style harness, she now wears a mesh t-strap harness, and I am hoping to transition her to a walking vest before spring. When purchasing a cat harness, there are only two things that matter: security and comfort. Once Amelia was confidently walking outside like a pro, she became able to slip out of her strap style harnesses. This is why I switched to her current mesh harness. I thought the fuller coverage of this harness would bother her but what she dislikes more that her fur getting out of place as I expected, is the chest strap between her front legs. So now I believe she is ready for the full coverage, safety and comfort of a walking vest. Every cat is different. Every day is different. It never hurts to try everything! Just like adventure dogs, I think an adventuring cat should have a variety of harness options for maximum safety and comfort in all moods and conditions.
IMPORTANT TRAINING TIP: While it is is difficult to know for sure which harness to buy your cat without trying it on, do not out a harness on your cat until they are at step 2 in their harness training. Forcing a cat into a harness will make the entire training process take a lot longer.
1) Harness Happy Place
Always introduce a cat to a harness slowly. I began Amelia's harness training my placing her harness in some of her favorite places. Throughout a month or so, Amelia would find herself next to her harness during playtime on her cat tree, mealtime on the counter or nap time in the closet. I do the same thing with every new harness my cat gets. During this phase of harness training, if I see Amelia sniff or interact with her harness, I praise her and place a treat next to or on her harness. The goal is not just to get a cat used to the harness but to associate it with good things.
2) Want It, Wear It
The next step in harness training a cat is to finally try it on. I recommend putting the cat harness on for the first time after a good long, playtime so the cat is happy and relaxed. Use a loose harness and a lot of treats. The first time I put a harness on Amelia, she freaked out. That meant I had not spent enough time on making the harness a happy thing. Bad trainer. I started over again. The second time I put Amelia's first harness on, she froze. This is a very common reaction to wearing something strange. It is also what I do if someone puts something weird on me! But what this meant was that Amelia was okay with the idea of the harness (good trainer!) but not comfortable with the feeling of the harness. Fear not! That comfort will come in time. For now, praise frozen-harness cat with some favorite pets and remove the harness before the cat becomes agitated. Slowly, maybe even just one minute per harness fitting, increase the time the cat stays in the harness. After the harness is off, give lots of treats and praise. Keep doing the Harness Happy Place step and go backwards- less time in the harness, no time in the harness- as needed. Pet training of any kind is a test of patience, but one that is always rewarded!
Getting past the harness frozen cat is as easy as singing "Let It Go." Wait. It's not. But wouldn't that be great? The basics behind getting a harnessed cat to move is that if a cat is comfortable eating in the harness, then the harness is becoming comfortable to the cat. So training a cat to move in the harness is as simple as asking them to move for food. This step must also be taken very slowly. Once the cat is wearing the harness for a few minutes without being agitated or scared, offer the harness wearing cat some treats in place. It's okay if the cat does not immediately warm up to this idea. It may be necessary to remove the harness, then let the cat have the treats. Amelia believe she could not lower her head in her harness so the first time I placed treats at her feet during harness time she gave me a "yeah, right" look. The next time I put her in her harness, I held treats to her mouth in my palm. Still, she refused. Apparently her jaw was also frozen by the bizarre straps around her body. I removed the harness, and let her have the treats. After a few more of these too-frozen-for-treats harness training sessions, Amelia finally took a bite. The freeze was over! "The cold never bothered me anyway!" And I might have actually belted that out... might. From here, in each short harness wearing training session, I was able to go from treats in my hand, to treats on the floor, to treats one step away. If Amelia ever seemed hesitant or afraid, I stopped, took the harness off and let her have the treats. Eventually, I was placing the treats a few steps away.
Once those first few steps while wearing a harness have been accomplished, it is time for more! Now it is time to put the harness on a hungry cat at mealtime. Again, if the cat becomes irritated or frightened, stop, take the harness off, and try again at another meal. The first time I dressed Amelia up in her harness for a meal, I prepared her food and set it in the hallway. As she walked past me to get to her food, I put her harness on. She froze. I watched the clock and after three minutes, I took her harness off and let her proceed to her meal. This happened a few more times until one fateful day, when she was obviously particularly hungry, that after slipping into her harness she continued towards her dish. Now, the awkward walk she did was going to win her a Best In Cat Show title, but it was movement. She ate a few bites and as soon as she looked up at me from her dish, I removed her harness and let her finish eating naked. This mealtime training continued slowly until she was eating an entire meal and even walking away for a post meal playtime with her harness still on. Eventually, I placed her meal where she had to jump to it while wearing her harness. At this point in the harness training, my cat acted as if she was wearing nothing at all.
We continued (and still continue) with Harness Happy Place and Mealtime Dress-Up harness training. Like any pet training, there are ups and downs of good days and bad days. Even just one bad experience, maybe something only a feline notices, can set training back several steps. But it's okay! The goal is that the harness remain a happy and fun experience for the cat.
The next step in getting adventure cat Amelia ready for safe outdoor trips was teaching her to be on a leash. The first time I put a leash on my cat, she moved exactly like the Tasmanian Devil and broke a mirror. But at least with the harness part over, we were over half way towards getting safely outside. Amelia has seen the Pacific Ocean, explored a beached shipwreck, sniffed old growth forests, hiked around a crystal clear alpine lake, and many more cat friendly adventures are yet to come. And through it all, besides knowing I am doing what is best for Amelia's health and safety, I have a wonderful feeling that Gryphon is very proud of both of us.
Know thy cat: not all cats are adventure cats! Just because you want to walk your cat on a harness and leash does not mean your cat will agree. Never, ever force an animal to do anything against their will.