WHEN A LEASH MEANS FREEDOM
FAIR WARNING: This is a seriously detailed and long article on ‘Leash Training Cats’ but is filled with personal anecdotes that may be of no interest to you. In which case, I highly recommend you get to this wikihow link which gives you the basic facts with images.
For the rest of you, do read on and thank you for choosing to respect the effort I put into sharing this article. I hope you find it entertaining and more so, helpful.
Being a cat lover and pet parent seems mostly like fun and games. And judging from cat videos that rule the internet, one would think it’s all about living with cuteness overload from morning to night.
Unfortunately, this is not the case, at all.
As a cat-crazy girl, I was never allowed to keep pets and I craved nothing more. Despite being threatened with dire consequences, I never ceased to play with random kittens on the road and try to befriend even the surliest street Toms, no matter how filthy, battle scar-crusted or mean-looking they might appear.
And finally, I became the proud mama to two beautiful furballs at the ripe old age of 22. Cut to 18 years later, and I have loved and lost some kitties and have been blest with some more.
BACK STORY: The latest to join the Pussy Wagon is Laurie aka Bobdyaa aka Gundoos (lil thug). A feisty little ginger who loves heights, stealing & stashing hair ties, drinking water from bathroom mugs, and going out.
Now ‘out’ could be anywhere, everything outside the house calls to his little soul and he feels confined easily. Restless and hyper-energetic as only a kitten can be, he can’t stand to be faced with a door he cannot open. After mastering the art of opening any straight-handled door in the house and demanding that doors with round door knobs be opened for him (he won’t stop meowing until some minion does exactly that for his highness), he is only flummoxed by the front door; a contraption with locks he cannot fathom and double doors that seem too solid to scratch through.
So, he plonks himself in front of it and yowls. And Laurie is one heck of a yowler. Don’t know what a yowl is? Imagine a lonely wolf’s haunting howl and a drunken yodeller from the honkiest bar in Texas performing a terrible duet, non-stop for hours. That, combined with large sad puppy-eyes looking at you and making you feel like the world’s most hard-hearted criminal was enough for me to start looking for an outlet to sate Laurie’s wanderlust.
And the answer was simple but soooo not easy: a leash.
CAT ON A LEASH SEEMED HILARIOUS & IMPOSSIBLE: I’d always thought of cats walking on a leash as some sort of cosmic joke, a metaphor for the unthinkable, an allegory for the futility of chaining an indomitable spirit.
And I simply presumed that it was a rare phenomenon, like dogs who rock at ping pong or poker playing pigs. But the more I looked online and asked people, it seemed like a perfectly natural thing and seemed like the ideal solution to keeping Laurie safe and happy at the same time. Who’da thunk?
As I ventured down this delightful and fascinating path I could never have imagined going on before, I learned a few things along the way that might help those of you considering leash training your kitty.
TIPS & GUIDANCE ON LEASH TRAINING YOUR CAT:
1. You Are NOT Leash Training Your Kitty: Don’t be confused, I simply am referring to the fact that you are not training your kitty to walk on a leash like you would train a dog. Dogs require a kind of obedience training and learn to gradually resist the temptation to react to impulses such as bolting, jumping on things, other animals or people, and of course, just staying put either out of fear or fatigue.
With cats, you have a hope in hell of getting them to obey you. What you can do is to help your kitty learn that it is in his or her best interests to cooperate with you when on a leash.
2. You Need Truckloads Of Patience, And Then Some: This you must know from being around cats for even five minutes, they are the epitome of patience-testers.
If you have one last nerve, they will find it and get on it with surgical precision and the graceful force of a velvet-wrapped sledgehammer. Think you can force them to do anything they don’t want to? Think again, puny hoomin. To get a cat interested in even attempting leash training, you must act like you don’t care.
For instructions on how to choose a harness, please check out this wonderful article.
Step 1) Start by leaving the harness lying around till kitty comes investigating. Let them smell, play with it or bat it around, pretend like you don’t see this.
Step 2) Pretend to hide it from them in an obvious manner, let them retrieve it. They need to start ‘owning’ the harness and seeing it as theirs and not yours.
Step 3) When they’re in a lazy, drowsy mood, gently slip on the harness after about a week of playing Ignore, Tease, Hide with it. They may or may not freak out. Ignore them. Take tons of videos because they will do the most hilarious things like writhing on the floor trying to rub it off, scraping against the walls trying to scrape it off, going through the cat door or any small opening trying to push it off, tumbling around trying to shake it off, you get the idea. Some cats, like my kitten, will even refuse to cooperate initially and just play dead, like they’re saying, “If you want me on a leash you’re going to have to drag my limp body.”
WARNING: While most cats tend to stop freaking out after a while, especially if distracted by mealtimes, naptimes, catnip/lemongrass and toys, not all cats are cool with being harnessed.
3. Personality Is A Very Important Factor: When trying anything new with a cat and if he or she is absolutely hating it, please stop torturing them and just calm them down enough to take the harness off. This is not a kitty you can walk on a leash. Absorb that, make peace with it and learn to live with this. You could try again later but if the results don’t vary, please have a good cry and get it out of your system. Some things are just not meant to be. But let’s continue.
Step 4) When they have forgotten that they even have a harness on, take it off for 24 hours and repeat the process. Around the third or fourth time, depending on your kitty’s moods and temperament, skip steps 1 and 2 and just slip on the harness like it’s no big deal.
Step 5) Once they seem to not mind the harness so much, attach the leash to the harness. Tug lightly but firmly a couple of times so that kitty makes the connection between leash and his or her body, and then leave it slack while tempting him or her to get from point A to B for a treat. Gradually increase the distance between point A and B but keep the treats the same. The idea is to create a positive association for kitty to want to cooperate with you and stay on the leash without pulling or falling prone on the ground. And slowly you will want to shift the positive association with food to the opportunity for kitty to explore what’s ‘out’ beyond the doors of your home.
4. Start Young For Best Results.
It’s not a fact but a factor to keep in mind, the younger the kitty the higher your chances of success at leash training. Gender doesn’t usually seem to be an issue but male cats tend to take to leash training more readily than female cats (something about the indomitable spirit, huh?). Older cats are not a complete no-no but then you simply will need to raise your patience levels to an unheard of height; it depends how badly you want this.
5. Safety First, Always.
· Begin your outdoor forays in a safe space that will have no interruptions from unwanted visitors or curious onlookers. Start someplace smallish with enough stuff to engage your kitty’s curiosity without overwhelming them with noise or movement. Move to a slightly bigger space when kitty starts to show signs of wanting to explore more.
· Choose a time of day or night when there is the least amount of external distractions. Figure when kitty is not too sleepy or hungry; I prefer to take my #orangemonkey out late at night for 3 reasons: he’s less likely to be startled by people, vehicles or dogs; he’s more alert because cats tend to be nocturnal; and he is still full from his dinner but doesn’t need to use the litter box until morning.
· Harness and leash your kitty BEFORE you leave the house or even open your door. I do both and then take my kitty out in his carrier because that is his safe space and he can always run and hide in it if he feels threatened or doesn’t want to hang around outside anymore. In fact, the moment he sees the carrier, he runs to it happily because he knows it means we’re going out. This has a nice side effect of making vet visits a breeze; no more ‘chasing the cat’ games when I need to take him to the doctor.
· Be alert, ALL the time. This means no texting or talking on the phone if possible, no headphones, no video chats or FaceTime because a single second of you being distracted could mean kitty will never want to walk on a leash again. I confess that I learned this the hard way when I committed the double crime of listening to music on my noise-cancelling headphones while also texting. The fact that I couldn’t hear anything over the music, and the brightness of the phone blinded my peripheral vision, meant that I had no clue a dog was standing less than 6 feet away from us. I only realized something was up when the leash began vibrating like crazy in my hand. I dumbly stared at it, then at my kitty and then looked at what he was staring at…that’s when I saw the dog.
Luckily the dog was so confused at what he was witnessing (a cat on a leash?!!! WTF are these crazy hoomins up to?) that he didn’t have time to react before I scooped up Laurie in my arms and put him in the carrier, which I always made sure was nearby. The reason the leash was vibrating though, was not because Laurie was shaking with fear. Oh no. My feisty #orangemonkey was actually, oh get ready for this, growling at the dog. Yeah, go figure. I guess he never received the memos informing him that cats are supposed to be terrified of dogs, that he was a tiny kitten, and that if the dog had attacked him, he’d be a goner in the time it takes me to gobble a single mini Oreo. Which is a nanosecond or less.
· Enjoy the experience as much as your kitty does. Ever wondered what the world seems like to a curious kitty? Yeah, you’ll never really know because the smells, sounds and sheer glut of data that your kitty gleans from sniffing a single leaf or gum wrapper is unimaginable on a human scale. Our heads would probably explode from this information overload but for a kitty, this is a sensory smorgasbord that only adds to the encyclopedia of his or her feline brain.
· This also means colossal amounts of patience are required once again. Walking a cat on a leash is nothing like walking a dog on one, there’s no companionable running and definitely none of that ‘heel’ or ‘sit’ or ‘roll over and play dead’ business. There will be moments your cat will have you struggling to keep up as they start racing ahead like a heat-seeking missile because they spotted a bug 20 feet away, which is of course, invisible to your naked eye. Then there will be moments that will feel like hours, because kitty needs to stop at a bush where he will proceed to observe the specimen, collect samples, analyse the data, log it into the system, cross reference with all existing data and then send it into storage with the correct labeling in the Dewey Decimal System before being able to move two feet and do the same thing all over again. Doesn’t matter though, kitty is happy means I am happy. I make up stories in my head of what he must be reading from that bushectomy, perhaps a feral cat sprayed that bush earlier tonight; maybe some bird droppings are telling him of a certain fruit tree in the next suburb near a mall where crows feast on McDonald’s scraps; perhaps a dried footprint is redolent because morning-walk-auntie’s sneakers stepped in some soapy run off from the cars being washed at dawn in the building complex on her way to the garden where we now stand.
6. Set Clear Boundaries:
· Let kitty know what’s off limits. This can be easily accomplished by using a certain tone of voice and one or two words that tells kitty something is a no-no. They are going to be super curious about everything and of course, will be most attracted to that which is dangerous or dirty. If kitty starts to strain at the leash, you shouldn’t yank them back or yell at them as this disorients and scares them. Instead, simply hold the leash straight up so they feel the pressure but are not being pulled, and say “No” in a firm voice, a couple of times. If they continue to strain, try and indicate that you are starting to walk away and they should follow along. If this doesn’t work either, simply scoop them up and walk a few steps away before putting them down again. Just as your kitty is learning what is and isn’t negotiable, you too should try to learn what fascinates them and respect their need to linger or go just that little bit further before gently but firmly distracting or dissuading them from exploring any further.
· Watch that mouth. Your kitty is a sensory junkie at this point and will want to explore his or her environment with all senses, and this includes wanting to taste things. From toxic plants to stale food to little bugs, everything is a buffet just begging to be sampled and kitty will often have trouble resisting. Same rules apply, say a firm “No” when they start to investigate with more than their nose and if they persist, move them away from the object. Sometimes you will need to be hyper vigilant and even move at lightning speed before they ingest the offending item or helpless creature.
· Cats are curious by nature and wild at heart, so while it is important that they get familiar with their ‘territory,’ they also need some newness within limits. Go a little outside their comfort zone each alternate visit to the outside world and be alert for lurking hazards.
7. Ensure Essential After Care:
· Either with or without your knowledge, kitty is going to be bringing home dirt & dust, small leaves or grit that’s stuck between their toes, even tiny burrs clinging to their fur. Especially if like my kitten, Laurie, your kitty enjoys a good rolling around in the dust.
· Once they’re inside the house, and out of the carrier, brush them off gently in a balcony or bathroom, and wipe their paws with a damp sterile cloth.
· Inspect the insides of their ears and wipe those too with a quick swipe of a soft tissue wrapped around your little finger. Don’t push the dirt inside but swipe in a circular motion from the inside-out. Do a quick check of nose and eyes for sticky gobs and wipe those away, too.
· After they return, give them clean water to drink and a small treat, then let them nap or play as they wish.
Congratulations! You have successfully walked your cat on a leash. Enjoy the experience and revel in the knowledge that one lucky kitty gets to experience both, the safety of a forever home as well as the great outdoors. Who says one can’t have the best of both worlds?