A beginners’ guide to walking your cat

Have you wondered if your cat feels trapped or bored inside? Have you considered taking your cat for a walk? Though we’re more accustomed to seeing dogs on leashes, it isn’t unheard of for domestic cats to get some fresh air and exercise outside the confines of their homes — and there are plenty of benefits, depending on your cat’s temperament, and with the proper precautions. 

Still, the idea of putting a leash on a cat tends to turn heads. If it’s something you’re wondering about, we talked to two experts — one in animal behaviour and another who’s taken her feline friend on many leashed adventures.

A very brief history of domesticated cats

A DNA survey conducted by Nature Ecology & Evolution in 2017 found very little change in the genetic structure of ancient wild cats and the common house cat of today. The study concluded that human and feline encounters began when cats started preying on the vermin that were attracted to precious crops, which proved to be mutually beneficial for humans and cats. Dating back to ancient Egypt, cats were considered demi-deities believed to be the physical embodiment of Bastet, the goddess of protection and good health, who had the head of a cat and the body of a woman. 

Over time, wild cats interacted more closely with people and pretty much domesticated themselves — which is very on-brand for cats.

Should you walk your cat?

Rory O’Neill, animal behaviourist and founder of the Rocky Mountain Animal Rescue in Calgary, said, “They’re just stuck with all this pent-up energy … Let them explore. They just like to be outside and they should be.” She added, however, that “it depends on your cat’s comfort level” and that “you don’t want cats to be left unattended outside, ever.” 

A common fear among cat owners is that once your cat is out, they’ll be looking to escape at all costs unless they’ve been trained to stay, like a dog. O’Neill dispels the myth that cats aren’t bonded with their owners and, therefore, will leave. She said the reason cats don’t come back when they go adventuring alone is “because they can get stuck somewhere on the wrong side of the fence and can’t find their way back … or they get hit by a car.”

O’Neill stresses that you should be aware of other risks that vary depending on where you live. She points out that cats in the country run a greater risk of other wildlife such as coyotes, while city cats must contend with cars, loud noises and more aggressive — or even excessively friendly — dogs. Even if your cat is on a leash, you need to be prepared to pick it up if an aggressive dog comes along. “People should know how to pick up a cat if a cat gets freaked out,” she said. “Pick them up by the scruff of the neck, otherwise they will crawl all over you.”

It’s also important to recognize that going for a leashed walk just might not be for your indoor cat and you shouldn’t force it. “Some cats would freak out, and those cats may or may not be able to be conditioned to like it. If they don’t like it, I would not do it,” added O’Neill. 

Gibson: A seasoned city explorer

A woman and her pet cat, sitting in front of the C.N. Tower in Toronto
Gibson and his owner Sarah enjoy Toronto’s Harbourfront. (Submitted by Sarah Olewski Klassen)

Meet Gibson. Gibson is a grey shorthair tabby and a seasoned city explorer. His owners, Sarah and Pete Klassen, take him on many walks in the bustling concrete jungle of Toronto, where they all live, with Gibson’s harness securely strapped on him and a carrier and car seat in tow. Their many exploits are captured on Instagram, where Gibson’s adventures in the great outdoors naturally made for compelling internet content and introduced Sarah to a wider cat-walking community. 

“I just created an account because I wanted to document our adventures and our progress,” she said. “And when we started, it was great just chatting with other cat lovers. But then we grew as a family in the community that we found.”

She also launched a blog called The Gibson Chronicles, which shares more photos and adventures, plus tips and some product reviews that might help other cat owners in their leash-walking journeys.

A woman crouching down and holding her cat on her lap, in Toronto's distillery district.
Out and about in Toronto’s Distillery District. (Submitted by Sarah Olewski Klassen)

Sarah had a childhood dream of being able to bring her cat wherever she went. Unfortunately, her previous cat, Miso, didn’t share this dream. Sarah admits that there were probably a lot of things they could’ve tried to condition Miso’s comfort level, but they didn’t know enough about it back then. After Miso passed away, she met Gibson. He was only two months old at the time, but his adventurous spirit was something Sarah recognized right away. “We could tell from the very beginning that adventure was in his blood.”

Since then, his treks outside have garnered attention from people who exclaim to Sarah and her husband, “I don’t know how you do what you do in the city!”

From an early age, it seemed like Gibson was at ease with the chaotic sounds of the city. Whenever they find themselves on a quieter trail in the country, Sarah said, Gibson becomes more alert and aware of his surroundings. But eventually, he relaxes, as he becomes more comfortable in the new environment.

Tips for training your cat to walk on a leash

If you and your cat are ready to embrace the outdoors, O’Neill has some recommendations, especially for city cats. Investing in a properly fitted harness is a must-have. She also suggests using a retractable lead, which will allow your cat to explore at their own pace, without venturing too far from your reach.

Every cat and cat owner is different, so it stands to reason that the leash-training journey will look different for everyone as well. According to O’Neill, positive reinforcement, like treats, is a great tactic to condition your cat to be comfortable in the harness as well as for venturing outside.

It’s also important to not assign the same behavioural patterns you see in dogs to your cat. “You don’t wait for [them] to walk out on a leash like you would a dog,” O’Neill said. “Cats are completely different. You should carry [them] out … And then just let [them] sit there and look around … where there’s no traffic noise and no dogs.” This allows your cat to acclimate to their new surroundings and helps them feel comfortable enough to explore further.

Sarah and Gibson’s journey, however, started differently. Sarah introduced Gibson to the noise first, before even attempting to get him into a harness. That often meant putting Gibson in his carrier and taking him outside to enjoy the fresh air while getting used to the cacophony of the city.

Sarah also suggests keeping the carrier nearby or investing in a cat backpack for your walks. That way, you have a safe space that your feline friend can retreat to in case the walk gets too intense for them. It’s important to remember that this adventure should always be on your cat’s terms.

Gibson the cat sitting in his carrier bag at an outdoor table in the city.

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