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Leash Training Your Indoor Cat

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Leash training your cat for walks outside is possible. Take Bongo, for example.

Bongo playfully rolled on his side as a cocker spaniel approached him, waiting only a second before exchanging sniffs with the dog as their leashes crossed. But as Bongo's owner warned the spaniel's owner, Bongo swatted at his new friend, reminding onlookers that they were in fact watching a cat. Bongo represents a growing number of cats who experience the outdoors in similar fashion to their canine counterparts - six to eight feet in front of their owner's watchful eye. While your cat may stare longingly out the window, getting him accustomed to a controlled outdoor environment takes hard work, dedication, and above all, patience.

Getting ready

The first step toward leash-training your cat is to purchase a fitted harness. Collars are not safe for an agile cat, and the harness allows you to control the cat without choking it. This new restraint, however, will be foreign to your cat and it will take days, if not weeks, for it to feel comfortable.

"When the kitten flops on its side, I start wiggling a feather toy to distract it from the feel of the harness,'' said Konnie Surmann, a Pixie-bob breeder who has successfully leash-trained numerous cats. "Almost always the kitten will start paying attention to the toy and get up to play with it. After a few minutes, the kitten forgets about the harness, and I stop play and allow it to walk around for an hour or so each day.''

Repeating such a routine and awarding praise as the cat complies with its new accessory will make wearing the harness a comfortable and enjoyable experience.

Once your cat is at ease wearing the harness, attach a light-weight leash and encourage your cat to wander inside your home. In his book, "How to Get Your Cat to Do What You Want,'' Warren Eckstein advises following the cat to acclimate it to the motions of a walk. "Keep these daily training sessions short and positive,'' he said. If the cat is undaunted, pick up the leash and follow as he walks without pulling or directing him.

Stepping outside

Finally, you are ready to go outdoors. "It may be best to simply sit with the cat on the stoop outside for the first few jaunts,'' Eckstein said. Once your cat shows an interest in exploring, repeat the same routine as your indoor walks in a quiet, safe area. "The first time I took PK outside, she went back into her carrier,'' recalls Alana Rosenthal. "But after that we stuck near our house.''

Your cat will let you know if it's ready to hit the sidewalks, at which point you should still expect a slow, leisurely stroll. With reinforcement and praise, your cat can become a conditioned pedestrian, but he will likely never heel or follow direction like a dog.

Healthy, happy cats

Bongo was an outdoor cat when Cathryn Swan adopted him, and she began leash-training so that he could safely return to his old environment. While experts acknowledge that training is easiest with kittens, the activity can be taught to cats of all ages who hanker to explore their instincts. "I started walking Hairiette when she was 11 years old,'' said Dana Gilbert. "She was thrilled to go outside.'' Like people or dogs, cats require mental stimulation and exercise to stay healthy, and outdoor walks provide the perfect outlet for both.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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