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How to Leash Train a Cat – The 7-Step Process You Need To Know

How to Leash Train a Cat – The 7-Step Process You Need To Know

✔ This article was reviewed for accuracy by a licensed veterinarian.

We have put together an extensive guide on how to leash train a cat. This article will cover the steps you should follow for training your cat, recommended tips for success, a guide on how to find the right harness for your cat, and many more valuable points.

I’ve spent the better part of the last two months working on leash training my cats. I read articles on the topic for a few days, then purchased my gear, and finally – explored the great outdoors with my little pals in recent weeks. I’ve learned many lessons that I am going to share with you!

The debate on whether cats should be indoors or outdoors has evolved in the last century. Kitty litter wasn’t even invented until 1947, and it was found by a “happy accident.” Cats were rarely brought indoors until that point – largely due to the smells associated with indoor cats.

Fast forward about 75 years and many now keep their cats indoors to keep them safe. The New York Times wrote a piece in 2018 with a thought-provoking point: “Today’s indoor cat is a tiger robbed of his dominion, a Lamborghini left idling in the garage.”

There are four fundamental themes that lead to success in leash training a cat. Be consistent. Be patient. Use positive reinforcement. Be vigilant. Below is an overview of every topic we cover in this extensive guide.

How to Leash Train a Cat
#1. Acquire the Harness and Leash for Your Cat
#2. Introduce Your Cat to their New Harness
#3. Put the Harness on Your Cat
#4. Attach the Leash to the Cat Harness
#5. Walk Your Cat in Your Home – Getting Used to Leash Tension
#6. Take Your Cat Outside to Walk on the Leash
#7. Monitor and Control the Environment
Benefits and Risks of Walking Your Cat on a Leash
How to Find the Right Harness for Your Cat
How to Find the Right Leash for Your Cat
Which Cats Can Be Leash Trained?
Alternate Options – If Your Cat Doesn’t Take to the Harness
Recommendations for Success in Leash Training A Cat

Now it’s time for you to learn how to get your little guy on a leash and living their best life!

How to Leash Train a Cat

A man squatted next to his cat. How to leash train a cat.
This is my cat, Gomez. He used to cry every time we put the harness on. Now he just cries at the end of Titanic. (He’s a big Leo fan!)

#1. Acquire the Harness and Leash for Your Cat

This may seem like an obvious step, but I want to reinforce the importance of it. Buy a harness made for cats! Ignore the items that claim to work for both dogs and cats.

Dogs and cats are built differently and cats are known to be escape artists. Find a harness that fits your cat based on the measurements you take. We will cover how to find the right fit in the below section How to Find the Right Harness for Your Cat.

Finding the correct leash is much more simple. We cover what you will need to know in the below section How to Find the Right Leash for Your Cat.

#2. Introduce Your Cat to their New Harness

You must make the harness a positive experience for your cat so you can eventually walk them. There are a few tried and tested techniques that help accomplish this goal. But before reading them – remember one word – patience! 

And remember: the more often you use the following techniques, the better chance you have at success. 

The recommended techniques include:

  • Leave the harness next to your cat’s food dish for a week or two.
  • Allow your cat to sniff the harness, and then reward him with treats. (Once you start doing this, we recommend only providing treats during harness training.)
  • Allow your cat to sniff the harness, and then begin playing with them.
  • Put the harness on their cat tree, cat bed, or their go-to spot on the couch.

There is no silver bullet – so you can mix and match the above items. In my opinion – the more positive experiences with the harness, the better. So don’t limit yourself!

Note: New noises can scare your little guy. We recommend practicing snapping or velcroing the harness together during this period. This can assist in familiarizing your cat with the noise.

#3. Put the Harness on Your Cat

Get ready for Oscar season. Your cat will likely strut its best Meryl Streep impression the first time you put the harness on. I watched my cats tumble over as I had just tied them to a moving vehicle. I heard them cry like I hadn’t fed them in days. I saw their Dobby-like body language while looking at me like I was a Malfoy. (Harry Potter fans will get this one!)

That’s all a fun way to say: your cat will be extremely dramatic early and often. Power through it!

Follow the below steps when first putting the harness on:

  • Slip the harness onto your cat. Don’t fasten it the first time. Have treats ready to distract them. You can put the harness on before meals so they’re not focusing on it.
  • After a few times with the harness on – begin to tighten it to fit your cat. You should be able to fit two fingers beneath the harness at both the neck and the chest/stomach areas. You want it tight, but not too tight.
  • Don’t make them keep the harness on for too long at first. After small intervals (e.g., 5 minutes) – take the harness off and reward them with treats and play. You can gradually increase the time in the harness as long as your cat seems to be okay with it.

Allow for some expected growing pains. Your cat likely doesn’t like to be touched, let alone kept in a well-fitted harness. Continue to use positive reinforcement and be consistent.

#4. Attach the Leash to the Cat Harness

After a week or two of getting used to the harness, it’s time to bring out the leash. At this point, your cat should be walking normally in the harness and be rewarded often for doing so.

Attach the leash to the harness and allow for your cat to walk around freely with the leash dragging behind them. If he begins to grow concerned with the tailing leash – feel free to pick it up and follow your cat wherever they go.

After a few days of the free leash, you can move on to walking your cat indoors.

#5. Walk Your Cat in Your Home – Getting Used to Leash Tension

Your cat should now be pretty comfortable with the harness and leash, so you can work on walking them indoors. This is an important step as you begin to familiarize your cat with some leash tension – which will be necessary at times once we get outside.

Positive reinforcement is key – as always – during this stage. When you need to use leash tension and redirect your cat, you should reward them with treats and toys. Everything down to the tone of your voice helps make the leash a rewarding experience.

Practice on this step is vital. Once you get outside you will need to use tension to ensure your cat stays out of harm’s way. You will also need it to protect smaller animals from your little hunter.

#6. Take Your Cat Outside to Walk on the Leash

First and foremost, recognize that the outdoors may be extremely overwhelming for your cat early on. Take your time and focus on your cat’s body language. 

There can be a lot to digest in the early stages of walking outside with your cat, so use the below tips to make the most of it.

  • Wait for a nice day to try it out. You want as much sunshine and mild weather as possible to kick things off.
  • Carry your cat outside. They need to recognize that they go out when you take them out. Not when they want to. Carry them back in as well. The more you create some invisible barrier to exiting and entering, the better chance they won’t try and run away when the opportunity presents itself. 
  • Start small and local. Go right outside your house, or as close to your apartment, condo, or townhouse as possible. You want the ability to get home quickly if the experience starts to go south. 
  • Pick a quiet area. You want to minimize any distractions and scary noises early on. If you’re in the city – this may require some creativity, but do your best to find the least noisy area around.
  • Follow, don’t lead. This may sound weird, but do your best to follow your cat. Stand next to them and be flexible. The only exceptions should be if the cat is going to potentially put itself in danger (e.g., too close to a road, a pet nearby, or a tree it may try to climb). If you start trying to leash train them like a dog, your chances of success will be much lower.
  • Provide treats for the smallest feats. Right when they get outside, when they sniff some new things, and when they respond to you calling them. Then give them treats when you get back inside – cementing a positive experience.
  • If they seem scared and disheveled – go back inside. Rome wasn’t built in a day and you’ve worked too hard to this point to turn this into a negative experience.
  • Keep a time limit. Your cat will likely have their time limit, but it is good practice to manage the time outside. Start with 5 to 10 minutes if your cat seems to be doing well. If they want out fast, be flexible and take them home!
  • Have an escape plan. This isn’t as dramatic as it sounds, but be ready to head home swiftly if your cat seems distressed. If you’re in your backyard, this is easy. If you’re a bit further away from home, you may want to have a towel or blanket ready to wrap the little guy up and carry him back if he needs to go back home. The towel or blanket will help protect you from cuts if your cat is panicking.
  • Use positive reinforcement! Especially when you get home – you want to continue a positive association with walking your cat on a leash. If they have a favorite toy – get ready to play.

This may seem like a lot, but it isn’t. It just takes a few moments to plan it all out. Once you get out there, your instincts to protect that little guy will kick in and you’ll be ready!

#7. Monitor and Control the Environment

There are both real and perceived threats to your cats once you step outside. This means you should stay off social media and be without headphones – just be there in the moment for your cat.

  • Real threats include larger animals, busy roads, and parasites (fleas and ticks).
  • Perceived threats include loud noises, barking animals, and children playing.

Real or perceived – these threats can harm your cat or at least their association with the experience. You can protect them from most real threats, and they will likely get past the perceived threats as time passes.

But you should always be focused on your cat outside. When you focus more, you can better control the environment and increase the chances of success. 

Benefits and Risks of Walking Your Cat on a Leash

A man walking two cats on their leashes. How to leash train a cat.
The biggest risk I face is when my cats want to go in two different directions.

While there are many benefits to leash training your cat, there are some risks to be aware of as well. We call out some examples below.

Benefits of Walking Your Cat on a Leash

  • Increases exercise for both your cat and yourself. Kittens are plenty active, but older cats can use extra exercise, and this gives them something to look forward to.
  • Stimulates your cat, allowing him to experience new things. You allow your cat to explore a new world – the great outdoors.
  • Enhances the bond between you and your cat. If your cat begins to enjoy the outdoors, they recognize you are always there with them. This can improve your relationship. 
  • Boosts confidence and socialization skills. Your cat will experience new things like different sounds, smells, people, and weather. These experiences can lead to less stress around common occurrences like guests in the home or going to the vet.

Risks of Walking Your Cat on a Leash

  • Wild animals and loose pets. You should be able to mitigate this risk as long as you’re familiar with the area and know what to expect.
  • Parasites like ticks and fleas and diseases from feral cats (if present).
  • Cars. Cats aren’t as good at avoiding them as you may hope.
  • Trees can pose a risk to your cat if he gets free or can climb with the leash attached. Cats can easily climb trees, but getting down is the issue. Cats often jump down from elevated spaces (e.g., the couch, the counter, etc.). But it is much more difficult and scary for them to jump down from a tree.
  • Your cat’s prey drive. Loose cats kill millions of birds a year, in addition to other small animals. 
  • Random acts of animal cruelty. This is sad to think about, but these do occur. 

How can we mitigate the risks and take advantage of the benefits? Make sure your cat has its immunizations from the vet, be vigilant when outside with your cat, and ensure the harness is well-fitted. Don’t let the risks scare you from improving your cat’s quality of life!

How to Find the Right Harness for Your Cat

A man holding a leash in the air. How to leash train a cat.
Even after finding the right harness – your cat can still slip out. Mo was able to back out of the harness and continue her search for a more attractive family to take pictures with.

When measuring your cat (steps 1 and 2) – use whatever process you see fit to keep them from maneuvering around and causing an incorrect measurement. Treats are always a good distraction!

  1. Measure your cat’s chest. The measurement should be as tight as possible. We didn’t have a flexible measuring tape, so I used a thin piece of rope, tied it around my cat’s chest, and then measured the rope.
  2. Measure your cat’s neck. The same advice as above, but on the neck. 
  3. Review your measurements against the details provided by harness sellers to find a harness that will fit your cat well.
  4. Buy a harness that you like.
  5. Refer to step 3 above, Put the Harness on Your Cat.

All cats are unique and, as you know, have their preferences. I say this as you may need to try a few harnesses out before you find one your cat can work with. The good news is that these harnesses are generally very affordable and trialing them isn’t extremely costly. (Most are between $10 and $25.)

Most harness sellers on the web post images explaining how your measurements fit into their sizing. We created the below image to show you everything you need to know!

A guide on how to leash train a cat.
This guide will assist in obtaining an accurate measurement.

Tip: If your cat is in between sizes based on the harness you are looking at: 

  • For a growing cat: Select the bigger size.
  • For a fully grown cat: Select the smaller size. 

How to Find the Right Leash for Your Cat

The easiest part of this process is finding a great leash to use. Your cat’s leash should be:

  • Lightweight.
  • 4 to 6 feet long. (A little longer is okay, but you should keep it closer to this range.)
  • Made of nylon or cloth materials.

Chain leashes are not cat-friendly as they’re too inflexible. Avoid retractable (Flexi) leashes. They provide too much slack and can allow your cat to get entangled, in a tree, and other risky situations. Retractable leashes also make more noise and may scare your cat during training – causing a negative association with the experience.

Which Cats Can Be Leash Trained?

Most cats can be leash trained as long as the proper steps are followed and you are patient in your approach. Remember that this can take weeks to months to get it down.

However, some cats will never take to the leash. And that is okay! It’s nothing you’ve done wrong – cats are particular animals and some would prefer not to be in a harness, or potentially just don’t like to be outside.

The younger you start, the better your chances. But you can leash train older cats too – it just might take a bit longer as they’re likely set in their ways.

Alternate Options – If Your Cat Doesn’t Take to the Harness

A cat in a backpack. How to leash train a cat.
Please walk faster. I heard something in the woods that sounded just like my ex-girlfriend.

If you’ve had trouble leash training your cat, or feel your circumstances make it difficult to do so, there are options for you as well. 

In my personal experience with two cats: one cat loves it, and the other cat plans my funeral every time the harness goes on. You are not alone!

If you’d like to allow your cats to enjoy the outdoors, you can:

  • Buy a cat backpack and do the walking while they observe. Please be sure to review the measurements of each bag to ensure your cat will fit comfortably.
  • Buy a cat stroller and walk your cat. You’ll catch some looks doing this, but frankly, who cares. It’s not for you or the person looking. It’s for your cat.
  • Buy or create an enclosure outside to let your cat run freely in a controlled space. These generally get more expensive the larger you go, but can be extremely rewarding for your cat. 

If you’d prefer your cat remains inside, or the cat has shown it prefers the indoors, you can:

  • Play! It’s simple but effective. Use their current toys, or buy new ones. Laser pointers, feather wands, a cat dancer, or any other toy that gets your cat moving. USA Today provides a list of the most popular toys here.
  • Train your cat. This seems impossible to some, but it can be done. Cats are smart and motivated, especially by treats. You can take up clicker training and use positive reinforcement to train good habits.
  • Catify your home. This means taking the steps to make the home friendly for both you and your cat. Examples include scratching posts, cat trees, games that stimulate your cat, cat bridges, and other furniture. Cats like to jump, hunt, wrestle and exhaust their energy. Provide a space to allow them to do so and put the effort into play daily.

Recommendations for Success in Leash Training a Cat

A cat eating a treat from the hand of a person. How to leash train a cat.
If you feed me more treats, it will be harder for me to escape the harness. It’s a win-win, my friend!

There are tips layered throughout this guide, but we thought you’d enjoy a streamlined list of recommendations for success. We’ve used most of these in my house and they have worked very well!

  • Positive reinforcement is vital. Treats, love, and play for every step they take closer to getting outside on the leash and continue once they’re outside and walking.
  • The younger you start, the easier it can be. This is not a guarantee, but younger cats are more adaptable and may be willing to try things without as much of a fight. Older cats can and will still learn too!
  • Warm and mild weather is the best time to start. It’s best to avoid starting during a rainy or snowy season. Your cat won’t enjoy the weather, and neither will you. You’re more likely to stick to it when the weather is nicer. 
  • You walk a dog, but a cat walks you. Remember to treat a cat like a cat when it’s on the leash. Don’t yell commands or tug on the leash to redirect, unless needed. All you will do is create a negative experience for the cat and hurt the chances of long-term success. Be flexible, and follow your little guy’s lead.
  • Never pull on the leash if your cat begins to walk backward. Your cat is trying to get loose, and your pulling won’t bring them closer, it will allow them to use that tension to try and break free. If your cat walks backward, walk towards them and reposition. If they continue to do so – it’s time to go inside because they’re done for today.
  • Never use a collar and a leash. Most collars break away in case an animal needs to get free. Always harnesses, never collars.
  • Always carry your cat in and outside. They need to know that you allow them in and out, and they can’t walk freely when they want to.
  • Don’t reward crying with a walk. If your cat begins to feel they can dictate walks – they will! If they get used to walking and begin to cry whenever they want to go out, ignore it. Wait until they’re calm and then take them out. 
  • Never leave your cat outside without you. Cats can and will get into trouble if left unsupervised. Always be outside with your cat, focused on what they’re doing and where they are.
  • Never tie your leash to an object and leave your cat. This isn’t just for 5 minutes, this is even for 15 seconds. Cats can get into trouble fast by accidentally tangling their leash, and you’ve also put them at risk of wild or loose animals cornering them. 
  • [Personal Preference] Use loud-colored harnesses. We use a hot pink harness for one cat, and a blood-red harness for our other. This isn’t something we found in our research, this is a Cat Insider recommendation as cats can get free, and it’s easier to spot a hot pink cat in some bushes than it is to spot navy blue or black.
  • [Personal Preference] Velcro harnesses can sometimes be easier to adjust on a cat. This is another Cat Insider recommendation. We have tried multiple harnesses, and the type that fastens can get a little stuck and require more time adjusting on your cat. With velcro, we slap it on quickly and make minor adjustments if it’s too loose or tight. It’s much easier for us.

Final Thoughts

Cats are fickle beasts and training them to do just about anything can be quite difficult. However, leash training a cat can be extremely rewarding, for both you and your cat. It can lead to a stronger bond between you two, as well as a healthier life for your cat!