Harness training a rescue cat
April 27, 2020 4:11 AM   Subscribe

We rescued a gorgeous boy last year, who's about 1.5-2 years old and was living wild in a garden. He's naturally skittish but has become very cuddly and gentle with us. We'd like to get him comfortable with a harness and leash so that we can all spend time in our small garden during the summer, but even though he's very food-motivated, I'm not sure we've been making progress. Have you done this successfully?

We got a harness a few weeks ago, and have been trying to desensitize him to it slowly with treats and praise. He will now sit beside it without panic, but seems stuck there.

We brought him out in our arms a few times and he was totally fascinated by it, and (not really intentionally) another time he walked out with us and was sniffing and pawing the trees. The garden is decked and maybe 10sqm, with neighbours to each side and a sports field behind us. We couldn't readily cat-proof without removing some trees, and he could definitely jump the walls if he really tried. We don't have space for a catio.

I got desperate and put him in the harness at the weekend and brought him out. He was a bit belly-to-the-ground but very into sniffing and exploring. I eventually had to pick him up to go in as he was ignoring me and the treats.

We don't want an indoor/outdoor cat as we are in the city beside heavy port traffic, and a bunch of things about his behaviour make me think he didn't get his full survival training as a kitten.

He is neutered, chipped, and vaccinated, and he has shown an ability to learn (we only get 'soft paw' now instead of claw when he plays with us).

Have you successfully leash-trained a very skittish cat? How do I make his garden dreams come true very safely?
posted by carbide to Pets & Animals (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Cat tax
posted by carbide at 4:16 AM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Put the harness on inside and let him be until he's comfortable with it. Attach the leash and let him get used to being restrained. Then let him walk outside at his own pace. The trick is to do everything in very small steps. Don't rush is. Not sure why you are concerned about him ignoring you? With the outside to explore, you are way down on his interest list.
posted by Ferrari328 at 4:20 AM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

With cats I've known, it's not like "walking the dog" but more like "following the cat".

It sounds like the initial outdoors with harness exposure went well. Keep putting on the harness inside and then takung him out for brief forays until you both develop some confidence.
posted by mightshould at 4:45 AM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think your progress has been very good so far! It is normal for the cat to slink down at first while they are getting used to the harness. Getting him used to wearing it inside is a good suggestion. As mightshould said, you are more following his lead and not walking him like a dog (although some cats do act like that). I had a cat once who when she saw the harness she would run over and roll around frantically, so excited for me to put it on her. She loved her outdoor visits.
posted by ceithern at 4:50 AM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

We use a harness on our cat. Here is my experience:
- The one we have is a lot less material. I don’t know if it makes a huge difference but my cat took a while to get used to it and I think the amount of material “hugging” her was an issue. It’s not a specific cat harness, just one for small animals.
- we put the harness on her, without a leash, everyday indoors for a week. When she had the harness on, I threw treats around for her to chase down. She is very food motivated so the idea was to get her so excited about the treats she would forget about the harness and just move naturally. Otherwise she did what you describe. A weird low to the ground crawling, like she was trying to get away from the harness.
- Then I attached the leash, still inside. It’s a retractable leash. I wouldn’t get one for a dog, but it works for her. I let her walk around and do her cat business inside the house. Not for long, like 15 minutes.
- Then the grand day we went to the backyard. The first day she made it about 3 feet before turning back. I think it took about another 3-4 outings before she explored the whole backyard.
- All our outdoor time is “cat-led”. I let the leash loose for as long as I’m comfortable with. I hold back the length as soon as she starts to get close to something unsafe. I don’t pull back, I just let it come to a natural stop.

Belly to the ground sniffing and exploring sounds like a good start! Just be patient. Also you need to be flexible with your goals.

I have resigned to the fact that my cat is not going to just “hang out” with us in the garden. She doesn’t like being out there when there are other people besides the two of us. As soon as she hears a loud noise or neighbours being loud she goes back in. This is fine. We stay out as long as she likes. Sometimes she just sits in the sun and that’s okay too. I just sit next to her and look at my phone. I just think of it as a chance for her to see the sky, smell the air, nibble on some grass, general sensory stimulation. She’s not gonna be like a dog that chills in the yard but that’s okay, she’s our cat and I wouldn’t have her be any other way.
posted by like_neon at 5:45 AM on April 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

We have a similar harness for our rescue cat that we take hiking and camping! We use that in chillier weather and a thinner harness in summer.

You are doing the right thing... if he isn't fighting you or actively trying to escape the harness then keep doing what you are doing. I suggest putting the harness on and going right outside so he clearly associates the harness with getting to explore. Then just be excruciatingly patient as he gets used to exploring and being comfortable out there. Bring a book or your phone to occupy out time.

If something startles him, but it is still safe to be outside don't let him run inside. Get down on the ground with him and tell him he is brave and safe.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 10:07 AM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

My cat’s reaction to being outside is pretty similar (crouched a little with the harness on, totally ignoring me) and she meows at the door and wraps around my legs when I show her the leash, so she really likes it in her cat way. I think the sensation of the harness is strange to them but they still like being outside. I will say that my cat does not seem especially interested in exploring or going on a walk in the dog kind of way; she is quite happy sniffing and laying on the warm stone outside the back door, and once she gets all hot from that she wants to go back in. (I just bring a book to read.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:09 AM on April 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

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