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March 8, 2012 2:19 PM   Subscribe

How do I harness/leash train my cats?

I have two cats. They are between 1.5 and 2 years old. I want to buy a harness and leash for them so I can take them for walks. Right now, they have a yard to play in (supervised), but I'm hopefully moving to a city soon and they likely won't have a yard, hence the walking idea.

Main questions: What is the best way to train them? They've never even worn a collar before. What is the best harness for a cat? Is this a totally insane idea?

(I'll post pictures of them when I get home, I swear.)
posted by Fister Roboto to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Mars and Ember.
posted by Fister Roboto at 2:20 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I trained my cat by putting a harness on him he couldn't get out of and taking him outside at different times of the day to see which time of day he preferred. He totally liked it best at dusk when there weren't so many people around. After a few weeks, he was walking all over the place and loving it.
posted by patheral at 2:24 PM on March 8, 2012

I hit post too soon. I tried many cat harnesses, and this is the one Mr. Mister liked best. There are others, but he liked this one, and could not get out of it. Believe me, he tried.

Other people recommended these, but I never got around to trying them because Mr. Mister was so big.
posted by patheral at 2:28 PM on March 8, 2012

We just started leash training our cats and they are not really into it. Well, one is...but the other just lays down like he's been killed and will not get up once he is harnessed. We're working on it!

We purchased two small dog harnesses since the woman at the pet store said that they are the same as the ones in the cat aisle, just marketing made it called a different thing. I wish I would have seen the cat jacket deal since I think our cats would find that to be more comfortable.

Be patient and kind with them and their training. The last thing you want to do is to make your kitties scared to have their harnesses on!
posted by beloveddoll at 2:37 PM on March 8, 2012

Best answer: Harness Trial 1 with my cat: He immediately ran under my deck, got caught on something, and started freaking out. It's a bit hard to drag a spastic cat out that you can't see, so I let go, he made a loop around the yard and headed right back into the house.

Harness Trial 2: He fell over and started wailing. I took it off.

I wish you better luck.
posted by sawdustbear at 2:40 PM on March 8, 2012 [26 favorites]

I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to harness train my cat for months.

According to the reading I did, you first need to put the harness next to the cat every day at the same time for a month, and give treats. Then you need to put the harness on the cat's back every day for a month, at the same time, and give treats. But you don't actually fasten the harness until you've gotten the kitty fully accustomed, and then you do that every day for a month. Supposedly, you wait until your cat has gotten comfortable in the harness and being attached to the lead before you go anywhere near Outdoors.

My cat did not, at any point ever, get "used" to the harness. And though I'd work my way up to fastening it on her, she'd just get totally freaked out once it was actually on. She wouldn't even walk around, but just lie in the middle of the floor. Or she'd run off after I'd snapped the lower half in place, around her waist.

The thing I wasn't that my cat really needed me to be was consistent. She's gotten used to a lot of things by doing them daily, and I think she would have gotten used to the harness if I'd been more religious about training every day.

(Ultimately, my experiments in harness-training had to take a backseat to my experiment in alleviating gingivitis through daily tooth-brushing. I figure she'll have enough trust issues as a result of my sticking my hand in her mouth without the added stress of kitty bondage.)
posted by brina at 2:42 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I managed to leash train HRH Miss Lady Qu'Appelle, sort of. It went slowly.

I did these things:

1. Put collar on her, and have her get used to that. Lots of praise, treats, and promises of my soul when she tolerated that for a while.

2. Put harness on her, for small periods of time, and let her walk around the apartment with that on. Lots of praise, treats, and promises of my soul when she tolerated that for a while. I did that for a week or so, and I'd always take the harness off after a couple of hours.

3. Put the leash on her, and let her walk around with the harness and leash on, but me not holding it. Lots of praise, treats, and promises of my soul when she tolerated that for a while. Again, I'd take it off afterwards, because I didn't want her getting caught on these.

Eventually, we did outside. She would do well when she led me, and was only outside for a short time. But, she loved chewing on grass and rolling in the dust. Sunbeams were a special treat. She'd get sick of it after a few minutes and want to go back inside. Where she'd get lots of praise and treats.

It got to where, when I'd take down the leash and harness, she'd run excitedly to the door, not being able to wait until she took me out for a walk.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:48 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This article in the New York Times inspired me to buy a walking jacket for my cat... I just ordered it a few days ago and haven't received it yet.
posted by Safiya at 2:48 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've only had one cat take to wearing a harness and lead despite trying it out on legions of cats. My one success had a very food-reward oriented and generally non-cat-like personality so my advice is:

1) only buy one harness until you determine if both cats will tolerate it
2) keep your receipt
3) have a camera handy so you can contribute to The World's Heaviest Harness" Flickr pool
posted by jamaro at 2:50 PM on March 8, 2012 [14 favorites]

I have no idea how I did it. I think we just went out and I let her walk when she wanted to and as she became comfortable with the idea, I slowly switched to me leading.

She was already trained to come to me and that certainly helped.

No treats because cats don't insta-snarf treats the way dogs do and I didn't want to slow us down.

One thing about walking in the city - cats are reasonably skittish so be careful about putting the kitteh in a situation where something might freak her out and she hits the end of the leash. Also, idiots with dogs on flexi leashes - watch out for them.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:57 PM on March 8, 2012

would it be ok to chime in with a snarky "with lots and lots and lots of Band-aids"?
posted by sexyrobot at 3:03 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: would it be ok to chime in with a snarky "with lots and lots and lots of Band-aids"?

Absolutely. I'm really considering investing in leather pants to reduce the bleeding when a frightened cat claws his/her way up my legs and back.
posted by Fister Roboto at 3:06 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. We have a "walking jacket" sort of harness for our cat. The first part of it goes around his head onto his shoulders, he steps the left paw through, and then the other part passes under his belly and gets clipped together. It's not foolproof, because he's gotten out of it before, but it's much better than other possibilities.

2. Only a few of the cats I've had have taken to being out in a harness and taken outside. Out of the three we have now, only one likes it, and he now demands his walk at least once a day by going to meow at where his leash is and pawing the door. Yes, he thinks he's a dog. Be prepared for this.

3. We don't walk him, he walks us. We just follow him around the yard. He doesn't really like to go on the sidewalks - he will, but he seems to be most comfortable in what he considers his territory.

4. Dogs. Be careful of this. He (being a 14 lb black cat, very much like yours) has been known to puff up and start sideways stalking a dog intruder. At other times, when he likes the look of the dog, he tries to dart right up to them. Kind of startling for the dog AND both owners.

5. Clawing up you like a tree - you'll know when your kitties are scared, and they'll be much more likely to dart away at top speed, possibly "dolphining" out of their walking coat in the process. Be alert to everything in the area.

6. We didn't have to do any prep work like putting the harness next to him for a month, or whatever. He just wanted to do it - I guess he thought it might be a new and exciting game. He also fetches paperwads, so maybe that's further proof of his dog-like tendencies.
posted by HopperFan at 3:10 PM on March 8, 2012

My cats have Lupine harnesses. They are quick to get in and out of with clips because you can adjust the size before you put it on them.

They don't really like the harnesses. The key for them is that they are so excited about going out that they will tolerate them for the duration of a short trip out but they just wander the building hallway or the patio.
posted by oneear at 3:16 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband's childhood cat was harness trained. He says they didn't used to "take the cat for walks" on it so much as find a patch of grass (in a park or bushland area) and sit down holding the end of a long leash attached to the harness. The cat would then explore, roll around on the grass, lie down, etc.

He said the cat always tolerated the harness right from the start, but I think they started him on it a bit younger than yours, and he was a very dog-like Siamese, which helped.

If I were you, I'd look at clicker training for working on trust and behaviour control in other areas too. It might transfer to some extent to the harness training, even if you don't use clickers in that directly.
posted by lollusc at 3:26 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

lol...maybe also iodine wipes and lidocaine would be prudent.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:44 PM on March 8, 2012

I have the Kitty Holster and found the company easy to work with. I used it for airline travel instead of outdoor walking (I thought kitty might get a bit too wiggly going through security and wanted something she couldn't get out of). I left it on the floor for a few nights. Sometimes treats would magically appear on it and sometimes it would be smothered with catnip for kitty's rolling pleasure. So after a week or so, I put it on and I totally wish I'd had a video of her first attempts to walk in it. It looked like she was drunk and nearly incapable of going in any direction but reverse. Then I didn't put it on for another few days (treats and catnip abounded, though), and eventually she kind of got the hang of it.

I know I shouldn't have laughed at her, but I couldn't help it. Sorry, kitty...
posted by BlooPen at 4:33 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a firm believer that you can teach basically any cat to walk on a leash. You just can't go about it thinking it'll work like walking a dog, for starters.

You definitely do NOT want a "harness" (meaning: a thin nylon strap-like configuration with buckles and/or clasps originally designed for, and intended for use on small dogs). For a cat's unique anatomy (floating collarbones) you need a specifically designed walking jacket.

plz to forgive the 1999-o-riffic web design there, this place really is legit

The reason you don't want a figure 8 or strap type harness is that cats, unlike dogs, have floating collarbones. Meaning, they can both escape from (via backing out of), and be easily injured by (airway constriction), a harness that is not properly configured for their body.

Our cat loves his walking jacket, but it took us about a month to really get him used to it. He ***hated*** his old strap harness and would not sit still for it to be fastened (it was fiddly and slow and required snapping little parachute hooks which caught in his long fur). He also refused to walk on the old harness and would do the "flop" routine.

The walking jacket was a much better success simply from the standpoint of logistics. The lady who's site I linked you to really understands this stuff - not only is the jacket escape-proof (the leash dee is on the back at the girth, so there's no leverage for the cat to back out of it), but it is far more comfortable and easy to put on / take off owing to the huge, wide velcro bands. Rip and stick, it takes less than 2 seconds to shove it on him, even back when he wasn't all that sure of it.

Of all the various "cat holsters" and walking jackets out there, she is by far the best and cheapest, even shipping from the UK to Colorado, USA. Plus she custom builds each jacket to the measurements of the cat it's intended for, which is fantastic. Also she uses the best safety system (big strong fat velcro tabs) that are basically impossible for the cat to remove or escape from.

We left the harness by his bed for a couple of days to let him acclimate, then we just stuck it on him and let him flop / roll / meow piteously, then figure out that it wasn't the end of the world (took all of 5 minutes) and soon he was wandering about the house en-jacketed.

Once he was used to that, we snapped on the leash while he was sitting in the livingroom with us and let him learn about boundaries. Mostly he led us around. Every time we wanted him to stop, we gently let him come against resistance on the leash, said "Wait", and clicked and gave him a treat when he calmly laid down and stayed there without freaking out.

Now this is pure laziness on our part, since for the most part the default cat reaction to hitting restraint on the leash is to lie down. All cats do this (I've leash trained several). The key to getting a cat to "walk" on a leash is to do 2 things: One, always pretty much let them lead you, and two, don't try to do too much "lead training" at first because they'll just lie there. It's really counter intuitive.

Now he goes for walks pretty much all around the neighborhood because over time we've worked with him enough that he figures out that when we walk, he walks - but because he's a cat, he basically always walks or jogs along in front of us. He will still lie down if he comes up against the leash. This is intentional - we want to reinforce his natural instinct to crouch when he hits the leash, mainly so that if he sees a car or a dog or something, he doesn't panic and try to bolt.

We **always** reward him for doing what we ask. Clicker training has been a godsend for leash training - I've leash trained this cat something like four times faster than my old cat I leash trained as a teenager (she was skittish and 10 years old when I took her to the city and had to leash train her to get her out of the apartment, but she eventually took to it). It's a bit too involved to go into here, but a combo of leash and clicker training has ensured that the couple of times he has escaped the yard, he comes instantly back on command.

Now he will actually go up to the shoe / glove rack by the door, and bat at his harness when he wants to go for walks! I'm not even exaggerating. And it's not like this is his only outdoor option, either. We put one of those special fancy escape-proof cat fences around our 100X200' back yard, that he has free access to when we're at home. However pretty much every morning just after cat food has been presented and disdainfully sniffed at, he asks to go for a "neighborhood" walk. If that's not enjoying the concept of walks, I'm not sure what is.

DISCLAIMER: This is a Ragdoll cat, so he's a fairly laid back, food motivated cat, however he was initially terrified of strangers, neighbors, cars and dogs, so the leash training has really calmed him down about that stuff.
posted by lonefrontranger at 5:00 PM on March 8, 2012 [10 favorites]

Whichever harness you get, I recommend getting one with a leash that has some sort of stretch in it. When I first put my cat on a leash, she did fine for a minute (no doubt distracted by her new freedom), then seemed to suddenly realize that a snake must have a hold or her and so she took of running at full speed. Cats get up to speed pretty quick- I thought she was going to break her neck when the slack ran out.
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 7:18 PM on March 8, 2012

Yeah, I tried to harness my cat once.

*stares for a long time at the horizon and becomes unresponsive*
posted by tumid dahlia at 7:52 PM on March 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

There are claw marks in our wallpaper up to about shoulder height on a human about as far up the stairs as our cat could get on the lead. She ignored the great outdoors where she'd been trying to escape to for months (door was wide open) and literally climbed the walls. I wish you all the lik in the world, but be prepared for your cat turning Exorcist on you.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:29 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Having one cat that has been on a harness for about 8 years and most recently put a harness on a 12 year old cat I would recommend this Harness and make sure it's tight around the stomach and less tight around the neck, easier to put on since most cats hate to have it go over their heads. spinifex23 has the right idea for getting the cat used to the harness. The walking jacket that lonefrontranger recommends looks really good. I also have a retractable leash so they have some freedom and also use this so that you can just reel in the cat when done ;-). Don't be surprised if the cat loses all his bones when putting on the harness. I had one cat just fall over. He did get over it.
posted by Ferrari328 at 6:27 AM on March 9, 2012

"Whichever harness you get, I recommend getting one with a leash that has some sort of stretch in it"

omg yes, this. If you have a "bolter" (a cat that panics from either the leash/harness or outside stimuli; cars, dogs, whatever) then a bungee leash is a real asset, if you can find something that's both lightweight enough for a cat, and strong enough to take a solid hit (yes, indeed, cats are incredibly fast and strong for their size). I wish to hell I'd known about bungee leads (if they were even available) back when I was a kid trying to leash train my tuxedo cat. She was skittish, a bolter, and 8 pounds of furry neurotic insane muscle. She had previously been a farm / indoor/outdoor cat prior to me taking her to the city. You want to talk about claw marks? I had claw marks all up and down my tiny 250sf studio apartment from our harness training progress. I used to wear my big black leather goth motorcycle jacket when we'd leash train to keep from losing too much skin. My solution for her panic attacks when I started leash training her was just to let the leash go and let her wear herself out. She would tear around and eventually wind up under the bed. Obviously this was an "inside the apartment only" solution, but she finally acclimated enough to the concept of being "chased" by the leash to settle down and look for treats and listen to me. It really only took like a week, maybe less, for her to realize the leash was a non-hostile object, but it sure seemed like longer. I never just left her wander around with the leash dangling because of worrying she'd get snagged on something. When she'd go under the bed, I'd haul her out (yay hardwood floors!) thus making that a non-optimal solution to avoiding the issue. I know this sounds mean but really it was the only way to get through to her. She forgave me and didn't pee on my socks or anything but of course cats are all different so ymmv. Once she finally made the connection that leash + harness = OUTSIDE!!! omg!!! she *really* settled down and behaved. Cats are really, really fucking smart, which is also why they're so bloody difficult to train.

I also wish I'd had a better harness then but at the time they didn't make them, or at least I didn't know about them (and the internet as we know it did not exist in 1987). My mom gave me some old cat harnesses of hers that she macramed out of heavy cotton twine. In hindsight they were very well designed for the time, as they had the leash dee at the back (girth) which transfers the pull safely to the sternum rather than the neck, which is a critical feature. Cats can indeed hurt themselves if the harness is designed such that they pull on the neck rather than the girth/sternum area. Also it's easier for them to wriggle/back out of a neck-pull or dog-designed harness. Same goes for the thinner strap designs - they are much easier for a cat to hook a paw under and "skin" the harness off, just like you'd remove a tshirt or tank top.

The thing I like most about the Mynwood jackets is that, because they are custom made for the individual cat, and have those wide, strong velcro closures, they are also much, much more difficult for the cat to either get a paw under, or to catch on anything. They basically fit like a second skin. Thus they're also safer to do stuff like leave on for a bit so the cat can roam around the house and acclimate, since they're not likely to get snagged on anything.

Our current cat is more of a "sulker" than a "bolter" so after the intial harness-installation hilarity (he tore around like a superfurry mini bucking bronco), he did the classic boneless Ragdoll "flop" and refused to move. The solution to getting him to "go" was to use a toy he reallyreally wanted (in our case it was a big goose feather he is obsessed with) as a "leading" cue. A bunch of clicks and treats later, he "got" it.

Cats do not respond well to discipline, ever. They are not dogs, and thus they will not do something merely to please you - only if it also benefits them. They only respond well to positive reinforcement and reward stimuli. They also, if they are well socialized and well attached to you, will respond to praise, tho it might not seem like it at first. They really do enjoy "working" once they get the hang of it - all cats love to have "jobs" to do. It's their primary motivation as hunters - to have a purpose. So you just have to stick with it, be patient, and if your cat is spooky, you need to really stretch out the acclimatization process.

Again, clicker training is an absolute GODSEND. I recommend looking at Karen Pryor's site - there's enough info there that you don't really have to buy the books, and really any cheap pet shop clicker (or a finger snap) works, so you don't have to buy into "the system". It works because it establishes a clear line of communication and trust from trainer to animal. I wish I'd known about it years ago when I was living with my mom's cats, most of which were farm cats with their own quirks, but a couple of whom were adopted "hard cases" out of abusive homes, like my tuxedo girl.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:00 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Both Oliver and Abigail love their harnesses and going outside. Oliver walks much better than Abigail by directing him a bit and is happy to walk for hours; Abigail is content to hang around outside for 20 minutes or so and she's done.

They were eight months or so when I trained them. It didn't take but a couple times of wrangling them into the harnesses and they were hooked on going outside. Even when it's been months or years since I've put their harnesses on them, they come running when they hear the little bells.

The harness are two circles connected by a strap. One circle goes around the neck and the other around their belly. They connect by clips and are very quick to get on the cat. Neither cat has ever escaped from their harness.

I think the main thing about harnessing a cat is that it depends on the cat. Some cats will take to it quickly, some will need some time and some will never, ever be happy in a harness.

Good luck!
posted by deborah at 4:43 PM on March 9, 2012

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