Indoor cats need exercise and sources of enrichment to prevent obesity, boredom and the development of unwanted behaviours. Some people believe that walking their cat on a lead will provide this, particularly when they have no other access to the outdoors. There are a range of cat harnesses and leads readily available and some animal behaviourists provide advice about how to train cats to be walked using these.
Although RSPCA policy is that a leash and harness may be used to walk cats outside the owner’s property under direct supervision and despite some owners successfully training their cat to walk on a lead, in general the RSPCA does not recommend it. This is because walking outdoors exposes cats to unfamiliar scents they may find threatening, and to potentially frightening experiences, including dogs, strange people, loud noises and cars. When alarmed, cats typically attempt to hide somewhere or to escape by climbing whatever is available, such as a tree or even up onto their owner. Most cats like to be in control – therefore, new environments can cause stress and agitation. Any cat who is easily stressed is best provided with other opportunities for outdoor exercise and enrichment, such as an escape-proof enclosure.
If you do decide to walk your cat on a lead, it is crucial that you attach this to a harness rather than a collar. Cats can easily slip out of collars or may choke if they escape and become entangled. Also, a proper cat harness rather than a dog harness should be used as these are more comfortable and secure. Ideally, training to walk on a lead and harness should start as a kitten. A good approach is to begin indoors and use treats and praise to slowly introduce the sensation of being restrained. Outdoor excursions should be limited to the safety of a back yard. Public parks are unsuitable for cats.
Before being walked outdoors, cats must be up to date with routine vaccinations against infectious diseases and with cat-specific treatments to prevent parasites such as fleas, ticks and worms. They must also be identified by a microchip, in case of escape.
Unlike dogs, cats do not have the same desire to socialise with others but they do enjoy smelling and exploring their surroundings. Also, cats do not behave the same as dogs on a lead. Rather than responding to cues such as sit or heel, you will tend to follow your cat’s lead as they wander around. Walks should be kept brief. Rather than using a harness and lead to provide access to the outdoors, the RSPCA recommends providing your cat with a cat-proof enclosure or enclosed yard with cat-proof fencing. This allows your cat to enjoy the outdoors in a safe and secure setting, without the risks involved with walking your cat on a lead.