En español | When Janet Chan and her wife, Suzanne Cohen, showed up at a brewery with their leashed cat, Sushi, along with three friends and their cats, “People were freaking out,” says Chan.
Before COVID-19 shut down social gatherings, the Westchester, New York-based couple would regularly take outings with Sushi and fellow feline adventure enthusiasts.
Chan, 59, and Cohen, 55, have been kayaking with a group of five cats and four humans in Newtown, Connecticut. They've hosted a Central Park meetup with more than 30 harnessed house cats. Wherever they go, they attract a lot of attention.
"I know what Justin Bieber's mom must've felt like,” says Cohen, of what she calls the “caterrazi'’ who stop to chat and snap photos. “Most people are amazed and excited."
More than 42 million American households contain a cat, and as people are quarantined at home, they're looking for new and interesting ways to interact with their pets.
Cats naturally want to go outside, but it can be unsafe with predators, cars and other dangers lurking. To bridge the gap between enrichment and protection, an increasing number of cat owners are training their cats to take a leash — typically by using a specialized cat harness that fits over the front legs and the chest.
Getting a cat used to a harness and leash may also be beneficial for travel, if owners are asked to take their pet out of a carrier. Last year, a cat escaped from a TSA checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport after being removed from her carrier. The cat, Muji, was discovered 11 days later hiding in the airport ceiling.
5 Tips for Walking a Cat
1. Start slowly with steady, gradual exposure to the harness and leash. For example, try placing the harness in the cat's sleeping area for a few days.
2. Keep a loose leash while remaining behind and to the side of the cat. “If there's no tension, the cat can't back out,” says Tobi Kosanke, owner of Crazy K Farm Pet and Poultry Products.
3. Don't expect a cat meetup to be like dogs playing. “It's already socially distanced because otherwise it's a hiss fest,” says cat owner Suzanne Cohen. “It's a chance for [cat owners] to meet each other."
4. Bring a safe space on excursions. If your cat gets spooked by a dog or a strange sound, she needs a protected place to relax, like a stroller or backpack.
5. If outside excursions are too much for your cat, bring the outdoors in with an outdoor cat enclosure (or “catio"), window seat or even cat grass — an assortment of nutrient-rich grasses designed for cats to smell and snack on.
Find the right harness
While leash-training may make some cats happier and healthier, others may object. A bold, social cat like Sushi, who greets strangers at the door, is more likely to enjoy time outdoors than a timid cat who hides under the bed when visitors are in the home.
Getting a cat used to leash-time requires the right equipment and gradual exposure at home.
There are two kinds of harnesses for cats. The thinner and lighter figure-eight style harness that loops around a feline's necks and shoulders may be a good starting point for getting a cat accustomed to something on its body. However, these types of harnesses are far less secure than the wider, vest-style versions that tightly Velcro around the back and chest.
Similar to dogs, cats have a floating collarbone, which allows them to push their entire body through any space wide enough for their head. That means no feline harness is 100 percent escape-proof, so take precautions if you have a cat that might try to wriggle free.
However, when the Velcro wrap vests are tightly secured — meaning you can fit no more than a finger underneath — cats are far less likely to pop out.
When purchasing a leash look for something that feels comfortable in your grip. Some cat owners like stretchable, bungee-style leashes to lessen pulling while others prefer a regular old dog leash.
A slow introduction to leashed outings
Start getting your cat used to the harness by leaving it in the same room and then gently placing it on his neck, before attempting to snap or Velcro it on.
"If it takes months, it's OK,” says Bell. “You want it to be seen as a positive experience for them. The whole thing should be surrounded by treats and love and a happy high-pitched voice."
After indoor desensitization, when your pet will tolerate the harness and leash, take the cat to a quiet, peaceful place outside — no city streets — on a loose leash and let your cat guide the walk. You may initially want to stay in an enclosed space, like a fenced backyard, in case your cat gets loose.
"The successful cat walker is a cat owner who doesn't expect their cat to be a dog,” says Tobi Kosanke, owner of Crazy K Farm Pet and Poultry Products. “Your cat might … go trotting down the driveway or it might just want to lay down and sniff the flowers."
Keep a close eye on both the harness and the leash to ensure there's never enough tension to allow an escape.
Even adventurous Sushi, who loves to sit in his backpack as his moms bike across the Brooklyn Bridge, swim in Wampus Pond and who will walk the third of a mile from the train station in town to his apartment, sometimes just wants to sit and take in the smells and sights of the water — even if it is on the edge of Niagara Falls. For those times, Sushi has his own stroller for a break.
Chan says it's worth it — for both humans and pets — to teach your cat to walk on a leash if you can.
"It's enriching for all of us,” says Chan. “Not just him."
Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer who covers pets, health and home design. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The New York Times, Food & Wine, NPR, Eating and BBC Travel.