Leash and Harness Training Your Cat - Cat Info Detective

Leash and Harness Training Your Cat

Skye Blake looking left through magnifying glass

Hey feline lovers, Skye Blake here, with some fascinating info on leash and harness training for your cat.

Have you seen those cool videos of cats going for walks and having outdoor adventures with their people?

Bet you noticed they’re wearing a harness and leash. Mind blown, eh!?

Yes, traveling and going on adventures with a cat is becoming more popular.

But before you grab your cat and try to force him into a harness, find out how to safely train her. You’ll be glad you did!

paw prints coming in from a distance

Keep in mind that taking a walk with your cat is not at all like walking a dog (perish the thought!).

We felines don’t trot by your side down the street like dogs do.

We explore and meander according to whatever sights, smells and sounds are interesting to us.

Still, it’s important to help us stay safe, so experts recommend using a leash attached to a harness when outside.

Be sure your cat is fully vaccinated and up-to-date on flea, tick and heartworm prevention treatments.

She also should be microchipped and be wearing an ID tag with your name, phone # and/or address.

Find out more at “Preparing For a Trip

Should I Walk My Cat On a Leash?

bengal cat walking-harness, leash

Before we get started, there’s been some recent opposition to the idea of walking your cat on a leash because it’s “too dangerous”.

Even some shelters are writing into their contracts that you won’t walk your cat!

I say balderdash!

Yes, there are risks, but if you’re responsible, use the right equipment, and train your cat, you should be fine.

There’s a difference between enjoying an activity thoughtfully, being prepared for problems, and living in a prison of fear, never taking a risk.

Would you keep your children from riding a bike simply because there’s risk of injury?

No, you make sure the bike is working properly, put a helmet and pads on your kids, and teach them how to ride.

Check out Jackson Galaxy’s sensible video “Is Training Your Cat to Walk On a Leash a Bad Idea?!?, Jun 26, 2021

What Is Leash/Harness Training?

tabby cat wearing harness

Ok, let’s get started!

Training is simply the process of getting your cat to do something by motivating her to want to do it.

We felines do things because we want to, not to please anyone else!

Leash and harness training is simply a way to let your cat get used to the harness and leash.

She’ll associate wearing the harness and leash with good things… like food and your attention!

The three basic types of training for any cat are…

kitten emerging from front of hard cat carrier

These three are helpful for many situations, particularly in an emergency or getting to the vet. It sounds like a lot, but training your cat isn’t as hard as you think.

You’re just working with your cat’s normal instincts and interests. It’s all about time, patience, and positive association… treats and calm praise.

Start with training her to come when you call her name. Find out how at “Teach a Cat to Come When Called“.

Once you have determined your “Jackpot!” treat, you can work on anything you want to teach her.

boat in harbor; cat walking on wall

If you plan to travel with your cat, you’ll be taking her in a carrier, so it’s important for her to be comfortable in it.

Find out about carrier training at “Cat Carrier Wars – How to Get Yours to Love It!

Is My Cat a Candidate for Training?

Kitten peeking out from under blanket

Almost any cat can be trained, although some take much more time, patience and dedication than others.

Shy, nervous cats and those who are aggressive toward other cats are two types that need extra help.

Training is also helpful for dealing with behavior problems.

If you’re having trouble with a cat who’s aggressive toward other cats, leash/harness training can help create a distraction and keep her at a safe distance.

The the other cats can relax, which will help her as well.

paw prints coming in from a distance

Buy the Right Harness & Leash

tabby cat near lake

Before starting training, buy the right type of harness and leash for your cat. Always use a harness rather than a collar for walking with your cat.

Attaching a leash to a cat’s collar can be dangerous. Our throats are soft and we can easily choke if you pull hard on it. We’re not little dogs!

Some people do put a leash on the collar but it’s a risk experts don’t recommend taking, especially if you end up dealing with an emergency situation or panicky cat.

Three Harness Styles

There are three basic harness styles available for use with cats… H-Harness, vest, and jacket.

A harness has to fit comfortably and be snug enough that your kitty can’t wiggle out of it. You’d be surprised at how well we cats can wiggle!

H-Harness (Lead)

cat wearing H-harness & leash

The H-Harness (a.k.a., lead) is made from straps that fit around both the throat and back at the top of the front legs.

This distributes pressure when the leash is pulled taut. Many cats like them because they’re comfortable and cover less of the body.

The one drawback to these is they’re easier for cats to wiggle out of and have to be fitted correctly. If your cat’s an escape artist, it’s best to use the vest style.

H-Harnesses come in various sizes and colors. A good example is the PetSafe Gentle Leader. This example shows how to measure your cat to get the right size.

Vest Harness

cat wearing plaid vest harness

The second type of harness is a vest that wraps around the body with a clip on the back for attaching the leash.

They cover more of a cat’s body and distribute pressure better than the H-Harness. They’re made of cloth or mesh and designed to be comfortable.

Mesh allows for more air circulation. Some have reflective bindings and/or LED lights attached, which are a great feature for locating your cat, especially at dusk or nighttime.

Some people use vests made for small dogs and their cats do well in them. The key is getting the right fit.

Some cats don’t like having a vest go over their head and prefer ones that clip around the body and neck.

Vests are recommended for cats who pull a lot on the leash or try to wiggle out of the harness.

An example of a vest harness is the Mesh Padded Soft Cat Harness. This example also shows how to measure your cat to get the right size.

(This link is for your information only…I make no money from it)

Jacket Harness

cat wearing blue jacket harness

The third type of harness is a jacket that wraps more fully around the body than a vest. It also has a clip on the back for the leash.

It fits better on some cats and provides more security when the leash is taut.

Some cats find the jacket harnesses more comfortable than other types. They’re also more secure than H-Harnesses.

These harnesses usually use Velcro® to close them around the cat’s body and some cats don’t like that sound.

If that’s the case with your cat, you can desensitize her using treats, patience and praise. Once she associates the sound with good things, she’ll be more accepting of it.

An example of a jacket harness is the Mynwood Walking Jacket Harness. It comes in lots of colors and styles.

You can use the vest example to find out how to measure for the right size.

(This link is for your information only…I make no money from it)

Life Vests for Water Adventures

canoeing into sunset - man

An important harness is the life vest for water adventures… a must when boating or swimming with your cat. Yes, there are some cats who love the water!

If your cat hates water but you’d like him to go canoeing with you, it might not work.

Try training him just as you do anything else… with time, patience, treats, and lots of attention!

He just might realize water brings treats and love and decide it’s not that bad. But don’t push it too far too fast.

Some cats will never take to water and are better off at home.

Know your cat… if she loves water, swimming, boating, you’re golden, just be sure she’s wearing the life vest at all times.

bull terrier running through water wearing life jacket

Get your cat used to wearing the life vest slowly, just as you do a regular harness.

Test it in the bathtub or kiddie pool so he can get used to what it feels like in the water. Work slowly and carefully watch his reactions along the way.

If you can’t find a life jacket specifically made for cats, try a small dog size.

Here are a couple examples… ZippyPaws Adventure Dog Life Jacket and Outward Hound PupSaver Ripstop Life Jacket, along with a cat sizing chart

Find out more about boating with your cat at “What Mode of Transportation Are You Using?

Leashes

cat leash regular orange

Use only a lightweight leash (nylon is a good option). Chains or leather are too heavy for cats.

A lightweight leash is easier for you to use and will be accepted by your cat much faster than something heavier.

Most harnesses come with a leash, but they’re also available separately. An example of a harness and leash set is PetSafe Gentle Leader

retractable leash - black

Some people prefer using the small size retractable leashes made for dogs, such as Frisco Nylon Tape Reflective Retractable Dog Leash.

A Word About Treats

cat reaching for food bowl, treats

From a training perspective, treats have to be what Jackson Galaxy calls “The Jackpot! Effect”.

It’s that one food where you see your cat’s eyes open wide and his nose flare out, sniffing with great interest. “What is this yummy smelling thing?? Jackpot!

It could be wet cat food, kibble, or human food such as turkey slices, hot dogs, salmon, chicken, tuna, or liver.

It’s not just taste, but also smell and texture that cats like. Chicken, for example, comes in many different textures, such as chunks, smooth paste, crunchy nuggets, shredded, etc.

You might hit on the “Jackpot!” food right away, but if not, try combining tastes and textures until you find it.

Avoid grains like in crackers, bread, and some kibbles. It quickly fills up your cat and he’ll stop being interested in learning.

It can also add on pounds, which we all know is a problem.

cat being fed treat-closeup

Jackson Galaxy recommends using freeze-dried meat treats, but work with whatever you find gets that “Jackpot!” reaction.

Break the food up into tiny bits to use ONLY as rewards when training… never any other time!

You’ll confuse him and make it harder for him to understand the training sessions. Remember you’re not feeding him, just motivating him with a small treat.

Train him when he’s hungry and you’ll have his full attention.

Putting On the Harness

Tabby wearing vest harness

Start by leaving the harness and leash out in a favorite place where he can investigate it.

When he sniffs and touches it with his nose or paw, calmly praise him and give him a treat or other reward.

It’s particularly important during training not to free-feed your cat. It’s better for his health anyway to only feed at certain times a day.

Then try putting the harness over his head and give him a treat.

Praise him when he accepts the harness and take it off, repeating the same process with lots of praise and treats as he gets comfortable.

Don’t say anything when you put it on and off… only when you praise him.

Be calm and matter-of-fact.

Your cat can feel your energy so if you’re nervous, he’ll think something bad will happen and resist or run away. Do the same with leg straps, one at a time if necessary.

bengal cat wearing harness, leash walking on wall

When fastening the harness, your cat might be scared by the clicking sound of a buckle or ripping sound of Velcro®.

Work slowly until he’s calm when you fasten the harness. This process can take a few weeks for some cats.

Too often people rush it, their cat refuses, and they proclaim their cat won’t cooperate.

Once you’re able to get him to wear the harness, play with him until he’s tired and then feed him.

Leave it on around 5-15 minutes at a time while you play before meals.

If your cat accepts it after a reasonable amount of work, you’re on your way!

What To Do If Your Cat Doesn’t Want the Harness On

cat yawning, angry or in pain

If your buddy wiggles around and doesn’t want to let you put on the harness, just get it on as best you can and don’t buckle or fasten it.

Do it calmly and don’t stress him. Immediately distract him with his favorite toy and play, play, play!

Make it fun and he’ll associate the harness with something he enjoys.

If your cat gets dramatic about it by freezing up or falling over, as if you’ve killed him when you put on the harness, don’t say anything.

Try using a treat to get him to stand up. If it doesn’t work, just quietly take the harness off and leave it there.

Let him get more used to it in his own time.

Burmese cat lying down

When you want to try again, use the treats as a distraction or if he loves to play, put it on while showing him toys and get him to immediately play.

He’ll forget about the harness and focus on playtime. It’ll help him realize the harness means good things happen.

The more he accepts the harness, the longer you should leave it on him. Always divert him with play, treats or a meal when he starts to fight it.

Only have it on him when you’re supervising, never on his own, in case he gets freaked out. Do this for a week before starting to add the leash.

Always remember to keep training times short, fun, and positive. Don’t ever end on a negative note. Watch his reactions and stop when he’s done.

Training Your Cat to Walk on a Leash

Attach the Leash

cat wearing plaid vest harness & leash

Once you’ve gotten your cat used to wearing a harness, start working with him indoors on the leash.

Simply attach it at first and don’t pull on it. Let her walk around with it dragging behind. Just be sure it doesn’t catch on anything and pull.

You might want to work on this in a closed room (bedrooms are good) in case she tries to run away.

That way you can stay in control of the situation and be sure she doesn’t catch the leash on something and scare or hurt herself (stairways can be a real problem).

Hold the Leash

tuxedo cat pulling on leash

Make sure she’s completely comfortable with the leash being attached before moving on to the next step.

Pick up the handle of the leash and let her get an idea how that feels. If she doesn’t like it, ignore her and sit calmly and quietly. When she stops fighting it, give her praise and a treat.

Walk Around In the House

living room furniture

Once that’s acceptable to him, start walking around inside the house holding the leash loosely. Reward him every time he walks with you and he’ll get the idea.

The point is to be sure your cat is very comfortable with the harness and leash indoors before attempting to go out with him.

Then begin slowly and watch his reactions each step of the way. Back up if he gets nervous or upset at any point.

Some cats will be very interested in checking out the great outdoors. Others may want to carefully sniff the doorway and go back inside.

It all depends on your cat’s comfort levels.

Taking Your Cat Outside

woman walking cat on retractable leash/harness

Something to consider when training… once your cat gets a taste of the great outdoors, he might start demanding to go out or door dash and escape.

You might be able to avoid this by having a catio where he can be outside but protected.

Some experts recommend you always pick up your cat when you go out or back in the house.

This will give him the idea that you’re in charge of when he goes out. It helps keep him from thinking he can run out the door whenever it’s open.

How Indoor Cats See the Outside World

cat looking out a window

Before taking your cat outside, think about it from his perspective. He knows the inside of your home… it’s his territory, his world.

Scent is a very important part of that territory.

Cats’ noses are much more sensitive than humans’ and scents mean different things to us felines.

Your buddy can smell his scent and yours in all the important places that reassure him he owns everything and is safe.

When you go outside, all of sudden he’s on sensory overload! New scents everywhere… dogs, other cats, strange animals, flowers.

Strange noises assault his ears… cars, motorcycles, trucks, bird calls, and people!

If your cat finds any of these new scents, sounds, or sights threatening, he’ll be easily frightened and can panic.

Just try to pick up a terrified cat and get him back to the house! That’s a very dangerous situation for your both.

You’ll both likely be hurt and/or your cat will run away. There’s no controlling a freaked out cat!

Walk In Your Backyard

Tuxedo cat on a sidewalk wearing a collar

At home, it’s best to do the first outdoor walks around your yard.

This will keep him from thinking it’s ok to go beyond the yard if he ever escapes the house.

The yard will be his familiar territory and he’ll more likely stay in it. If it’s fenced in, all the better!

When you want to try going out with him, have a thick towel or small blanket with you (wrap it around your waist or over your shoulder) in case he panics.

Throwing a towel over a panicky cat will help him calm down. Wrap him up like a burrito and take him back in the house to calm down.

Carry him outside a few steps and put him down.

If your cat’s not a fan of being picked up, have somebody walk in front of you and offer treats as you go out.

This will help him get the idea of walking with you.

Tidbits to Remember When Leash Walking Outdoors

tuxedo cat pulling on leash

Always hold the leash firmly without pulling.

Do short walks, a few steps at a time, giving treats and praising him when he does what you want.

Gradual changes work well with cats, while sudden dramatic changes can easily frighten them. If that happens he won’t want to do it again and you’ll have to regain his trust.

Keep the training time short, positive and calm.

Do outdoor sessions when it’s quiet, not during rush hour on a busy road, when the kids come home from school, or dogs are going by the house.

Walking with a cat isn’t like walking a dog. He’s not going to trot beside you at your pace.

Expect your cat to do something unexpected. He might suddenly freeze, bolt, run up the nearest tree (or you), hide under the nearest bush, or take off after a squirrel or bird.

The Cat Who Won’t Walk On-Leash

tabby kitten sleeping

There are some cats who won’t ever want to walk on a harness and leash.

If, after you’ve worked patiently to get her interested, your cat just won’t have anything to do with it, respect that and let her curl up happily in the house.

If she doesn’t do well with the harness and leash but loves the outdoors, you can find other ways for her to enjoy it.

Build a catio, create a cat-escape-proof backyard area where you can both be outside, or use outdoor cat enclosures like mesh tunnels, tents, or playpens.

That will provide all the adventure she wants and you can enjoy being outdoors together. Just leave her home with a pet sitter when you travel.

Videos About Leash/Harness Training

video cameras

Videos are helpful for learning how to train your cat. Here are a few…

Should You Walk Your Cat?, Jackson Galaxy, September 7, 2019

TRAIN YOUR CAT TO WALK ON A LEASH Using Positive Reinforcement, Albert & Mia, the Adventure Bengal Cat, November 19, 2020

If You’re Walking Your Cat DON’T MAKE THESE 10 MISTAKES, Albert & Mia, the Adventure Bengal Cat, January 25, 2021


Related Pages of Interest

You & Your Traveling CatPreparing For a Trip
Moving With a Cat…An Adventure!What Mode of Transportation Are You Using?
Air Travel With a CatWhat Is Your Travel Destination?
Teach a Cat to Come When CalledCamping With a Cat
Cat Carrier Wars – How to Get Yours to Love It!What Are the Best Cat Carriers?
Biking With Your CatFirst Aid for Cats

Sources

Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary. Primary are always preferable and have the most reliable information because primary sources are original and directly referenced. Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own. However, sometimes they refer to primary sources. Thus, when I use secondary sources most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.

List of Sources

(Links given here are for your information only… I make no money from them.)

“77 Things to Know Before Getting a Cat”, by Susan M. Ewing, Companion House Books, Fox Chapel Publishers International, Ltd., 2018, pp. 153-6

BEST CAT HARNESS: HOW TO FIND THE ‘PURRFECT’ FIT“, by China Despain, Adventure Cats™, Gear & Safety, April 17, 2021

“Cat Speak”, by Bash Dibra with Elizabeth Randolph, New American Library, Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, NY, 2001, pp. 160-3

“CatWise”, by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016, pp. 265-7

“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting & Owning a Cat”, by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D., Alpha Books, Penguin Group (USA), Inc., New York, NY, 2005, pp. 193-4

“Think Like a Cat, How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat – Not a Sour Puss”, by Pam Johnson-Bennett, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Penguin Books, Penguin Group (USA) Inc, New York, NY, 2000, 2011, pp. 92-4

“Total Cat Mojo”, by Jackson Galaxy with Mikel Delgado, PhD, Tarcher Perigree, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2017, pp. 251-253

What Kind of Harness Does Your Cat Need?“, by China Despain, Adventure Cats™, October 17, 2015