Okay, so you’ve decided to take the plunge into the adventuring world with your cat. What’s the first step? Do you just pack up the car and head out on a camping trip with him? Unfortunately, no. Your kitty will need to be trained and work up to those big-time adventures. The first step is cat harness training.
I can’t stress enough that training your cat takes time and patience. Sure, there will always be the exceptions – the cats who are just naturally up for anything without much training. That isn’t the norm though. Take the time to train your cat properly, however long it takes, and things will go more smoothly for both of you.
*Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase using one of these links, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps us to continue creating helpful content. Don’t worry – we would never recommend something we don’t like or use ourselves!
Why You Should Harness & Leash Train Your Cat
Here at KittyCatGO, we believe that enriching your cat’s life with adventure, big or small, will help to give your cat a more fulfilled life. Cat harness training allows your cat to experience the sights, smells, and sounds of the outside world in a safe way and brings joy and excitement to their life they can’t otherwise experience.
Training together will also grow trust, and trust breeds a stronger bond. And don’t we all want a stronger bond with our kitties?
Even if you don’t have grand plans to hike or camp with your cat, harness training your cat has many practical applications.
- Going to the vet
- Emergency situations (for example, having to evacuate your home in a situation where having your cat in a carrier isn’t practical)
- Traveling in the car (you can let your cat out to stretch their legs)
- Just hanging out in the back yard
Now you may be thinking, “Why can’t I just let my cat free-roam outside?” Letting your cat outdoors unsupervised and without a harness and leash is not something I recommend for a few reasons:
- There are many dangers, including cars, predators, other cats, poisons and toxins, humans, etc.
- Your cat is a danger to other wildlife, such as chipmunks and birds.
- Your cat could become an unwanted visitor at a neighbor’s house.
- Most people don’t like it when dogs roam free, and it’s actually illegal in many places. Why should cats be allowed to?
Simply put, harness and leash training your cat is a great way to let them experience the outside in a safe and controlled manner.
Picking Out a Cat Harness
Before you start harness training your cat, you’ll need to figure out what kind of cat harness to get. You’ll definitely want to get a harness rather than a collar because it is unsafe to leash-walk a cat with just a collar. Walking a cat that way can lead to choking or injury to your cat’s throat.
There are several types of cat harnesses out there. Popular harness styles include the Roman harness, the step-in harness, and the walking vest or walking jacket. Each have their own pros and cons, and what works best for one cat might not be what works best for yours. You will likely need to buy a couple different ones to figure out which is best for your kitty. Check out our Cat Harness Style Guide for more information on the different cat harness styles.
Picking out a Cat Leash
There are many different leashes on the market. Retractable leashes, bungee leashes, braided leashes, nylon leashes… the list goes on. A basic 6 foot leash is the best kind to start your cat leash training though.
These leashes are lightweight, which is what you want in a cat leash. The length is ideal as well. You don’t want something too long, especially when you’re first starting out. A shorter length gives you more control and keeps your cat close by.
Cat Harness Training Steps
Once you’ve picked out a harness and leash, it’s time to begin the cat harness training process! If your cat has never worn a harness before, the first step is to get them used to wearing one. Once you’ve purchased a well-fitting and secure harness, take it slowly and follow these steps:
Contrary to popular belief, the first step to harness training your cat is NOT to put the harness on them. You must first let your cat discover the harness on their own and begin to associate it with positive things right from the start.
Leave the harness out, and let your cat smell it. Reward your kitty with treats for expressing interest in the harness. You should repeat this step several times over multiple days before moving on to Step 2.
It’s time to try putting the harness on your cat – but don’t buckle or fasten it. Just lay it on top of them.
It helps if you do this while they’re eating a meal, some treats, or engaging with a snuffle mat or licky mat so they are distracted by something delicious. These tasty distractions also help your cat to further associate the harness with good things!
Repeat this step as many times or as many days as necessary until your cat is comfortable with the harness lying on their backs.
Now you can put the harness on your cat and fasten it. Reward with treats. You can also use the distraction of meal times and snuffle/licky mats like in Step 2.
If at first you can only get the neck strap fastened, that’s okay! Start there, and try fastening just the girth strap next time. Then eventually you can work up to getting both straps fastened.
Practice adjusting the fit. You don’t want it to be too tight or restrictive, but you don’t want it too loose either. You should be able to fit one-finger-width between the harness and your cat.
Let your cat wear the harness for small increments of time – maybe just 1-2 minutes. Again, reward with treats, even if they just lie there.
WARNING: It is completely normal for some cats to react negatively to the harness at first. They may flop over, freeze up and refuse to move, or act wildly. Think about how you would feel if you had never worn clothes before and then put a shirt on for the first time. It would feel weird!
Be patient. There is no set time frame for how long this process should take. It could be days, weeks, months… It’s important that you go at your cat’s pace and not force anything. And always reward with treats and praise!
Once your cat is comfortable wearing the harness for small increments of time, you can start to encourage them to play and walk around while wearing it.
Entice them with toys and treats. Have clicker training sessions while they wear it. Just do their regular activities with them while they wear it.
The goal is to get them comfortable wearing the harness and moving around in it so they don’t even notice it’s there.
As your cat gets comfortable and confident moving around in their harness, begin increasing how long you let them wear it. Always reward with treats and praise.
Continue with Steps 4 & 5 until your cat isn’t bothered by the harness at all and will wear it for extended periods of time without any trouble.
Depending on your cat, you may need to spend more time on Steps 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 before moving on to the next step.
If one step doesn’t seem to be going very well, go back to the previous step and repeat. This happens sometimes, and IT’S OKAY!
No matter how much time you have to spend on a step, always be sure to praise your cat and reward them with treats for their progress.
Remember too that this isn’t a race. Take your time, don’t force anything, and follow your cat’s lead.
Cat Leash Training Steps
Once your cat is comfortable wearing their harness around the house, it’s time to add the leash to the equation!
From the comfort of inside your home, put the harness on your cat and attach the leash. Keep the leash in your hand and follow your cat, allowing them to freely explore. Praise and reward with treats.
Don’t tug on the leash or try to guide your cat just yet.
Avoid letting the leash drag on the ground, as that can be frightening to some cats.
When your cat is comfortable with the feel of the leash, try gently leading them. Call your cat to you and apply gentle pressure to the leash to guide them in certain directions.
You can also use a favorite toy, like a wand toy, to entice your cat to follow.
Use a consistent voice command when leash training your cat, such as “Walk, (your cat’s name).”
You should still be inside for this step.
Once your cat is doing well indoors with the harness-leash combo, it’s time to move things outdoors.
Carry your cat outside your door to your backyard or some other quiet spot outside your home. If your cat has never been outside, be prepared for the possibility of them being scared and even freaking out a bit.
Stay close to the door so you can quickly return indoors if need be. As always, use treats and praise to encourage and reward your kitty.
If they get too stressed or scared, go back inside immediately and try again another time.
As your cat becomes more comfortable with being outside, increase the distance you go from the door.
Let your cat meander and explore your yard on their own terms rather than forcing them in certain directions. Remember, you are doing this for them, so if your cat prefers to sit or lie down rather than walk around, that’s okay too!
And as always, reward with treats and praise.
Keep increasing your adventure radius.
Start trying to lead your cat on the leash some by walking beside them*, applying a gentle pressure on the leash, and using your command word(s). As with Step 6, you can use a favorite toy to encourage your cat to walk forward.
If you have a friend or family member your cat already knows well and is comfortable with, you can have them join you outside. This person can then walk in front of your cat and encourage them to follow.
Always reward with treats along the way.
*Always make sure you are positioned behind your cat and never in front of them so there is no forward tension on the leash. If there is leash tension pulling forward, your cat will be much more likely to be able to slip backwards out of their harness.
Additional Tips for Cat Leash Training
- If your cat’s regular treats don’t seem to be motivating them very well, try something new – a “special” treat that’s just for training. It could be a higher quality treat, freeze-dried treats, pieces of meat, whatever. Sometimes cats need a little extra motivation, and a new, special treat can do the trick.
- Never leave your cat’s harness and/or leash on them if they will be unsupervised. Leashes and harnesses can get snagged on things, possibly causing injury to your kitty. If you won’t be around to keep an eye on them, remove the leash and harness.
- After your cat is leashed and harnessed, always carry them outside. Don’t let them walk out the door on their own. If your cat gets used to walking out the door, they may dash for it when you come and go. You don’t want that!
- Walking your cat isn’t going to be like walking a dog. While cats will walk a trail and keep a steady pace sometimes, they also tend meander. If you go into this training experience expecting it to be like walking a dog, you will likely be disappointed. Try not to have any expectations, and just go with the flow.
- Take things slowly, and watch your cat for any cues that they are scared or uncomfortable. Follow their lead, and don’t force them to do things on your timeline. Be patient. You always want your training sessions to be positive experiences for them.
- Remember that the amount of time spent on each training step is going to be dependent on your cat. Every cat is different. You may have one cat that flies through the steps and another that takes weeks or even months to progress through the steps. Patience and knowing your cat are key.
Have you started the cat harness training process yet? I’d love to hear how it’s going! Drop a comment down below and let me know where you are in the process.
Join our Community!
Share about your adventures, ask questions, find information on training and gear, read tips and tricks, and more.
About the Author
Emily Hall is “mom” to seven cats, one dog, and two sugar gliders. She has been writing in the pet industry for almost 10 years, with a focus on traveling and adventuring with cats. Emily and her husband enjoy hiking, road-tripping, camping, and canoeing with their three cat adventurers. Read more about her here.