Should you train your kitten to walk with a harness and lead?

Do your living arrangements mean that the only way your cat can explore the outdoors is with a lead and harness? We look at reasons why you might want to introduce a cat to a harness, how to do it safely, and alternatives if your kitten’s not keen.

In recent years, there has been a surge in interest among cat owners wanting to take their pet outside, but their current living conditions make this difficult. Maybe it’s because fewer people have gardens, but many are doubtless also inspired by feline influencers on social media.

Instagram has hundreds of thousands of photos of cats in colourful harnesses exploring parks, woods and city streets, with exciting hashtags like #adventurecat and #catexplorer. But what about looking at it from the cat’s perspective?

The reality is that few cats genuinely enjoy being walked. Cats are highly territorial, and being taken away from the familiar scents, sounds and sights of their own domain can be stressful for them.

Advocates of cat-walking claim it enriches cats’ lives by providing exercise and mental stimulation. But most UK pet welfare organisations discourage owners from walking their cat, saying it causes distress and could result in injury if the cat struggles in their harness or tries to run away while wearing a lead and harness.

Cats need to feel in control and have choice. When cats venture outside, they like complete freedom over where they roam and how long they stay. They want to be able to hide, climb or run away if they feel threatened. Most also hate the restricting feeling of wearing a harness and lead.

There are, however, a few rare cats who seem to enjoy going for a walk. Confident, sociable breeds such as Siamese, Bengal, Abyssinian and Maine Coon kittens may be easier to train to walk with a kitten harness and lead – but there are no guarantees!

A lead and harness might be worth trying if you have an outdoor-loving cat who can no longer venture out safely alone – perhaps because you’ve moved to an upstairs flat or beside a busy road. Another possible reason to try a cat harness and lead is if a medical condition means you can’t risk your pet roaming freely – blindness or deafness, for example – or if you don’t have a safe, enclosed garden.

You don’t need a harness and lead for a kitten who’s going outside for the first time. They’ll much prefer freedom of movement. Before you let your kitten explore outdoors, get them used to coming to your call (or a bell) for treats. Supervise their early excursions and leave a door open so they can return home whenever they choose.

If you’re determined to try to lead-train a kitten, these tips should make it easier and less stressful for both of you.

1. Start young

A cat is more likely to be willing to go for walks with a harness if they’re used to it from kittenhood. You can start to familiarise your kitten with wearing a harness from a few months old.

2. Pick the best kitten harness

Choose a kitten harness and lead set that’s lightweight, comfortable and fits snugly without being too tight. Ensure your kitten can move freely and you can fit two fingers between their body and the harness. Don’t attach a lead directly to your kitten’s collar, as this increases the risk of injury or escape.

3. Introduce your cat to the harness

Leave the harness near your kitten’s bed or bowl for several days so they get used to it before you try it on them. Never leave a lead lying around though, as it’s a strangulation hazard. Encourage your kitten to investigate the harness and reward the kitten for choosing to approach the harness. Repeat this step many times!

4. Practise indoors first

Start by trying the harness indoors for a few seconds and then remove it and immediately reward with a treat. If your kitten tries to struggle or flop on one side, then the process is going too quickly. Use treats and affection consistently so they develop positive associations with the harness and gradually build up to wearing it for longer periods.

5. Be patient

It may take your kitten weeks or even months to get used to a harness, and many will never tolerate one. Don’t rush the process and allow your kitten to set the pace.

6. Be prepared

Even if on a lead, your kitten should be vaccinated, microchipped and neutered before you take them outside, in case they escape or encounter other cats.

7. Choose the right spot

Pick a quiet outdoor space with plenty of hiding places, where your kitten won’t be startled by cars, dogs or other cats. A private garden with no other pets is preferable to a public park or street.

8. Carry your kitten

Carry your kitten to wherever you want to walk them. If you let them walk from the front door, they may be more likely to dash out when you don’t want them to in the future.

9. Don’t expect dog-like behaviour from a cat

Walking a kitten is very different to walking a dog. A kitten won’t walk to heel or necessarily go where you want to, and they won’t go to the toilet while on a lead. It’s more a case of the cat walking you – if they want to chew grass or lie in the sun, you’ll just have to wait for them!

10.Don’t force it

Never force your kitten to wear a harness or go for a walk – you run the risk of them (and you!) being traumatised or injured. If your pet shows any sign of discomfort or distress, stop and head home.

Cat walking not for you? Or maybe your kitten won’t take to it, no matter how hard you try? Don’t worry – you can give your kitten exercise and stimulation, even if they can’t go outside.

A variety of toys, hiding places and climbing platforms will keep your kitten active and stimulated indoors – especially if you make time to play each day. You could also try feeding enrichment, providing puzzle feeders, licky mats or hiding kibble around the home, so your kitten has to work for their food.

If you have outdoor space but it’s not safe for your kitten to roam freely, consider building an enclosed cat run or ‘catio’, or invest in fencing with an inward-facing overhang to keep your kitten safely inside and neighbouring cats out. These options may not be cheap, but most cats will far prefer them to walking on a lead.

Does your kitten love to walk with a harness and lead? Or are they starting to explore the outdoors on their own? Use our #PethoodStories tag to share some photos – we’d love to see them.

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