Monday, 17 January 2022
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Your cat has been introduced to a collar, a harness, and a leash. Your cat wears these items in your house without resistance, without seeming to notice she’s got them on. There’s no objection or attempt to escape when you put the equipment on your cat, or when you take it off.

You might even suspect the cat is now attracted to collar, harness, and leash, as they all predict added attention from you and probably from the other humans in your household, too. Your cat has come to see these items as good things. This equipment has become part of her daily life.

Good for you, and good for your cat!

It’s time to take this show on the road.

Has your cat ever been outdoors?

You can’t know for sure, in many cases, because you may not have the full history of a cat you adopt, even as a kitten. The only way to be sure is to get that information from someone who’s known the cat since it was born—someone who likely owned or fostered the mother cat. If no one is around who’s known your cat all its life so far, you’ll never know everything it experienced before the cat came to live with you.

Some cats have never been outdoors.

They may watch birds through a window, observe whatever outside activity is available, react when they see nature on a TV or monitor (although cats can also get excited when you’re playing Candy Crush). They show an interest in sights, sounds, and smells from outside your home.

Many cats have been outdoors and indoors.

That was the most common cat lifestyle in the past. Cats came inside to eat, to sleep, to socialize with humans, but they often spent most of the day outside on their own. Maybe there was a cat door, so they could decide when to go out and come in, or they learned to “let the human know” when they needed to have a door opened. Many of these indoor/outdoor cats didn’t even have litter boxes, unless they were kept inside when ill.

Cats with free access to the outdoors can run into “issues” that cause them frights, injuries, and even disappearances—not to mention run-ins with neighbors who don’t appreciate their yards becoming those cats’ litter boxes!

Many cat lovers who previously had indoor/outdoor cats have decided in recent years to keep their cats inside-only . . . because outside simply isn’t safe.

It’s often these same owners who feel guilt and misgivings about what they’ve “taken away from” their formerly free-roaming cats. It’s to offer their outdoor-loving animals a safe option for experiencing time outside without risk that they decide to teach the cat how to walk on a leash.

There are also cats who’ve never been inside—barn cats, feral cats—whose non-existent sociability with humans may never put them in the position of being walked on a leash. But even feral cats’ lives can change, although learning to accept and eventually enjoy human attention takes time and expert guidance. In most cases, however, learning to walk outside on a leash will probably not be a first step in acclimating an unsocialized cat to living with humans.

Photo by Amy Fumetti-Levine

Not all cats “want to” or should be walked outdoors on a leash!

If at any point while you are introducing a cat to walking on a leash outdoors, you see that your cat is frightened—not just surprised, not slightly startled, but truly fearful—it’s time to reassess.

You want to walk your cat outside on a leash because you think it will be good for the cat. But please keep in mind—it won’t be “good” for the cat if the cat is not enjoying it.

Take all the time necessary to make sure the cat is comfortable every step of the way, including those first few steps outside.

▪ Whether your cat is used to being outdoors or not used to being outdoors, it’s wise to do some pre-training for leash-walking to introduce or reintroduce your cat to what’s on the other side of your front door.

â–Ş Use a lightweight cat carrier or a pack that contains the cat in an escape-proof pouch on your chest. (Of course, get the cat used to its carrier first.)

â–Ş Take many short walks out the front door and back in again with your cat in its carrier.

▪ Do what you need to help your cat feel comfortable. Some cats can be calmed by your voice, some by holding, and some don’t want to be interfered with at all while they’re experiencing something new.

â–Ş Let the cat look, hear, sniff.

â–Ş Take a few more steps as the cat becomes more comfortable, stay a few minutes instead of a few seconds.

â–Ş Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Keep in mind that “carrier” training as you’re doing can have the added benefit of acclimating your cat to its carrier for other purposes—riding in a vehicle, for example. Yes, even a trip to the vet can become less stressful!

The cat should definitely wear its collar, harness, and a short leash during this pre-walk training in its carrier. Both you and the cat will get some added practice in “leashing up” that way, too.

When your cat is comfortable outside in a front-pack or carrier, wearing its collar, harness, and leash:

â–Ş Put the cat in the carrier and take it outside, right where you have been practicing all along.

â–Ş Take the cat out of the front-pack or carrier and place it on the ground.

â–Ş Count to ten, then put it back into the carrier.

â–Ş Practice letting the cat out and putting it back into the carrier over time, until it becomes easy for you and for the cat. Part of what you must practice is keeping a good, solid hold on the cat during the process.

Every situation is different but, if you can practice all of the above with your cat right outside your front door (or back door, if you’re going to take the cat on-leash to your back yard), also practice taking your cat out of the carrier, putting it on the ground with you holding the end of the leash, and allowing the cat (encouraging the cat, if necessary) to go back into the house through that door.

That’s right. The first steps your cat takes on-leash are right back into his own home!

It makes sense when you realize that “right back into his own home” is exactly the place you want the cat to go should he ever get outside without you or without his collar, leash, and harness. Teach him that last step first so he practices that behavior to perfection, making it much more likely that’s where he’ll go if he ever gets outside on his own.

Inside, reward him for his behavior (coming in the door) by whatever you know is most rewarding to him. Maybe dinner?

Expand that exercise over time.

â–Ş Take the cat in the carrier a few feet farther from the door.

â–Ş Take him out of the carrier.

▪ Holding onto the end of the leash, “encourage” the cat to go inside.

How about someone in the kitchen running the can opener, if that’s a “recall” sound for your particular cat? Or entice the cat through the door with his favorite flirt-pole toy? Try what you think will work for your cat! When the cat is put on the ground, you want his default behavior to be running to and through your open door.

As the cat succeeds from a few feet away, move away a little farther—and so on!

From the cat’s point of view, the closer he gets to his own front door, the more familiar he is with his surroundings and the safer he feels. Once he gets in that door, his behavior (coming inside) is rewarded—dinner, play, treats—making it more likely that behavior will be repeated.

Don’t take your cat on a walk away from your home. Instead, take your cat on a walk back to your home.

â–Ş Once the return-to-home behavior has become a default for your cat, carry him for the first half of a short walk, heading away from your home, then put him down and encourage him to continue to walk on-leash back to your home.

▪ At any time, if the cat becomes frightened or uncooperative, or if you see something nearby that you think might be a problem (like a loose dog), pick the cat up and carry him. The front-pack carrier is great for this purpose because it leaves your hands free whether you’re carrying the cat or walking the cat on-leash.

▪ Practice the “pick up” maneuver often so you and your cat can accomplish it easily even under pressure.

Eventually, with your cat’s consent and cooperation, you can walk him or her on-leash in any place you’re sure will be safe and that will feel safe to your cat.

â–Ş Check out the area ahead of time without your cat.

▪ Pick up the cat and carry him if you feel uncertain about safety when you’re there.

â–Ş Ask your veterinarian what health precautions you should take before you walk your cat in a particular area.

â–Ş Check for ticks, foxtails, and fleas after every walk, and do what your vet recommends to protect your cat.

Cats who walk on-leash can have many fine adventures outdoors. Since there’s a loving and responsible owner on the other end of the leash—supervising, guiding, and protecting—those adventures can be safe and rewarding, both for the cat and for the cat’s owner.



The Bark Box

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