—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
Every time I go to the park with my cat Miss Lucy, people stop, stare, point, and yell, “Is that a cat? Are you walking your cat? That’s so cool!” Lucy loves to go on walks.
She listens to my verbal commands and mostly just trots on the walkway. But it wasn’t always so easy. Initially, she hated being constrained by a harness and would get very angry at me for telling her “no” when she wanted to go places she shouldn’t. It took time, patience, and training to get her to where she is today.
Let’s take a look at the steps you can follow to train your cat how to walk. Remember, the walking part is natural to them – it’s the being restrained and told what to do that isn’t.
Be kind and patient with your fur baby, and you’ll eventually have them walking and loving it!
Step 1: Is My Cat Made for Walking?
There are a number of things to consider before you decide to teach your cat how to walk with a harness. Not all cats are a good fit for this activity.
YES, your cat might be a good "walking partner" if they have any of these traits:
Interest in the outdoors (ex. loves to sit at the door or window and watch birds).
Likes to explore new things.
High energy level.
- Isn’t easily startled.
NO, you might not want to teach your cat to walk if they have any of these traits:
Fearful of or disinterested in the outdoors.
Is a bolter (runs and hides).
Energy level that's so high energy you don’t think you could control them even with a leash.
Previously lived outside (you don’t want them to get reintroduced or they will likely beg to go out all the time).
Only wants to eat grass. Cats like this will be difficult to train because they will hyper-focused on finding grass, and once they find it, they will not want to go elsewhere.
- Isn’t friendly. You will likely encounter people when walking, especially ones who want to talk to you. You don’t want to put them or your cat in a stressful situation.
Step 2: Find the Right Harness
After you decide if your cat is a good candidate for walking, the next and most important step is finding a harness that fits your cat comfortably. While you want it to fit securely so they can’t wiggle their way out (extremely important), do not put it too tight because it will restrict their movements and make them very uncomfortable.
Be sure to measure their neck, around their bellies, and down their back so you can find the appropriate size.
Although some harnesses are labeled for dogs and cats, their bodies are different, so I recommend getting one designed for cats. If you really like one designed for both, see if there are cat owners who reviewed the product. That will be a good indicator if it fits their bodies too.
As far as styles go, my favorite are ones that look like vests and fasten on the belly and under the neck. I find them both more secure and less constricting than ones that are just straps. These typically have a metal loop on the back where you can hook a leash.
Step 3: Get Your Cat Used to the Harness
This is always the tricky part. You get a harness. You put it on your cat. You’re so excited. They just lay there as if someone shot them with a tranquilizer dart.
Trust me, this is normal! I have a few suggestions of things you can try to help them get used to the harness.
Start when your cat is a kitten. There are plenty of kitten harnesses, and if you start them young, it will be normal by the time they’re adults.
You can always start with a T-shirt first to get your cat used to wearing something on their torso.
Put the harness on while you’re hanging out with your cat inside. You can start by putting it on in short stints, and slowly increase the time (start with 5 minutes and expand by an extra minute each day). Always reward with treats if your cat is food motivated.
- While in the harness inside, use their favorite toy to get them moving. Once they are comfortable playing in their harness, they are likely ready to try going outside.
Step 4: Start Going Outside
Before you do anything, treat your cat with the appropriate flea and tick treatment. Ask your vet for what you should use. One of my favorites is Revolution Plus, which is also a dewormer.
Similar to getting used to the harness, plan on going out for short stints and reward with treats throughout their time outside. If you have a deck or porch, that’s a great place to start. See how your cat reacts.
Let them get used to walking around. At this point, it will be hard to lead them, so let them explore. If they try to go somewhere they shouldn’t (like on a neighbor’s property), just calmly say “No” followed by their name and slightly tug to redirect them.
It may take varying amounts of time to get them used to this, and that’s okay. When they seem comfortable, you’re ready to walk on a sidewalk or in a park with a walkway.
Step 5: The Walk
You may need to walk in front of your cat and tell them, “Come here,” to get them to start actually walking. You may have to do this over and over and that’s okay. They will eventually get it. Do not drag your cat with the leash. You can definitely tug at it to get them to move, but you don’t want to do anything uncomfortable or unpleasant.
Be sure to use a lot of encouraging language like “Come on,” “Good girl,” “What a good boy!” Saying things like that plus treats will help your cat understand they’re doing something that deserves a reward.
You likely have to tell them “No” if they start wandering off the sidewalk or path. And that’s also okay. Just keep a calm voice and think of it as your way of telling them that isn’t the direction you’re walking. My cat Lucy has been walking for over a year, and I still do this because she sometimes likes to push her luck on where we go.
Eventually, over time, your cat will enjoy going on walks without the need for constant treat rewards. If you find your cat will only walk with rewards, that is okay, just monitor how many treats you’re giving them. You don’t want the treats to result in any weight gain.
Step 6: Close Encounters
My Lucy doesn’t like other animals. She doesn’t mind people, but dogs are a big no. Your cat may not be thrilled with strangers or dogs too, so here are my suggestions.
If it really wouldn’t be safe or you couldn’t control your cat if they encountered something they didn’t like, only walk them in more secluded areas, empty parks, or around your backyard. It isn’t worth a person or your cat getting harmed or stressed.
You can also change direction if you see people or dogs walking toward you. Go the opposite way.
Direct your cat off the pathway or sidewalk to put distance between them and approaching people and dogs.
Plan ahead. If you know there will be barking dogs in certain areas (like fenced in backyards), just avoid them and go different routes. It’s not realistic to hope they won’t be there when you walk by.
While it’s not common, if you have a more docile cat, you can always hold them when a dog walks by. Know your cat and don’t do this if you know your cat will still pitch a fit.
My oldest cat, Vito, is nearly 16, and he will calmly sit in my lap while waiting for the vet. He doesn’t like dogs, but I know he will just relax in my lap, no matter how many barking dogs walk by.
Although I’ve broken it down step by step, you’ll need a lot of patience to teach your cat how to walk on a leash. It’s best to do one step at a time, and only go to the next step after they’ve conquered the task at hand. While walking is natural for them, having their movements limited with a leash is not, so just give them time to get used to the whole experience. And be sure to tell all your friends, “Yes, you can teach a cat new tricks.”
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist