Can you walk your cat like you would walk a dog? Well in a way. Should you be doing it? Not necessarily. It very much depends on the cat and the situation. Here's how we do it.
More and more people take their cats for a walk on a leash, but perhaps I only know this thanks to Instagram. You don't really see people walking their cats on the streets in Denmark. Perhaps it's because it doesn't feel safe to walk a cat among a lot of people. The cat might get stressed from all the traffic and you could run into dogs. So even though a lot of people practice walking their cats, it's still very new and strange to many. I'm always met with questions and skepticism when people see me with my cat on a leash. So that's why I feel like sharing my two cents on the matter here.
Deaf cat on a leash
Most deaf cats live as indoor cats, as letting a deaf cat roam freely can be very risky. They are at high risk of an unfortunate encounter with a car or other animals, cause they'll never hear them coming. But you still want to activate your indoor cat and walking your cat is one way to let your deaf cat explore the world safely.
It seems like there is two strong sides in the debate of indoor vs outdoor cats. Some think that it's cruel to lock a cat up inside, keeping it from its natural environment. The other's think that it's cruel to let the cat roam outside, because of the risk of cars, other animals and crazy people wanting to harm them. These are of course the extreme versions of both sides, but I've seen them voiced over and over again and these people will never agree with each other.
My take on it all
I grew up with cats and they always had a cat flap, so they could come and go as they'd please. This was very easy for the humans and the cats got to keep their freedom. Win win situation. Even though there was some cars around, we were lucky enough never to loose a cat to the road. A lot of our neighbors weren't as lucky though. But as a kid and a good part into my young adulthood, I was actually against indoor cats.
As I grew up and moved away from home I got a cat myself. We didn't have a cat flap as we lived in an apparent building, but we had our routines and we let him ind and out manually. One day the cat simply never returned and we had him for less than a year. We got a new cat and did the same thing with letting him in and out of the doors as he pleased. However after 7 months we found him dead on the road. We believe our first cat suffered the same fate, we just never found him because there was a lot of snow when he disappeared. We didn't feel like getting another cat and risking loosing it to a car again. And even though we moved many times after that, there always seemed to be a dangerous road near by. 10 years later we decided to get a handicat as an indoor cat. I did not want to take a perfectly healthy cat and make it live inside. Cause I still dream of a world where cats can live like they did when I grew up and as they did briefly, when I was younger. But the world is a risky place. So I found a cat who wouldn't do well outside anyway. This is a way of having an indoor cat that I can live with. But even people who has deaf cats constantly debate whether they should be indoor or outdoor cats. Some people have had great success of letting a deaf cat outside and some has been less fortunate. The shelters always seem to agree though and are selling them as indoor cats.
How my indoor cats get fresh air
I bought myself a screen door which is not normal to have here in Denmark. So I had to get it customized and there's only one firm in Denmark who makes these. You can imagine this was a pricey thing to install. But I'm happy with it, as the cats can draw fresh air and I can too, without the pleasure of having a ton of bugs in my apartment.
We also have a small catio on our balcony, where the cats can spy on birds, the neighbors dog, sheep and horses. You can read all about our KittyWalk catio here.
Last but not least I take Ronja out on walks on a leash. Ronja is a very brave and relaxed cat and doesn't mind too much to be in a harness. Here you can see how calm she is when I put it on.
A nervous cat would not like to be limited by a harness and would likely panic. This is why I don't take Victor out on walks, as he is more tightly wound. You can read all about that right here.
My experiences with cats on a leash
It's definitely an advantage to start training with a leash when the cat is young. I've done this a few times before when introducing a new territory for a cat, before letting it our on its own. They never really got used to the leash, because we didn't spend time looking for the right harness. The point was not to teach them to walk on a leash, but to make sure they knew their territory so they wouldn't get lost. So it was merely meant as a temporary solution.
Ronja was over 2 years old when I started training with her. But she is a very special and pacient cat. I tried 3 different types of harness, before I found one she felt comfortable in. First we simply trained wearing the harness at home. I needed her to associate the harness with something good, so I made sure to play with her and gave her lots of treats. When she seemed confident in it, I took her out on the balcony. Finally I took the last step and went outside. Only short walks at first and then longer and longer as we both gained confidence.
Visiting other places
When I bring her to the vet I usually let her walk in on a leash instead of taking her in her carrier. That way she is in charge and can do it at her own pace. She loves to explore all the smells there. I have also brought her with me to work a few times. My office is only a 2 min drive from our house and she has investigated the perimeters inside and out.
Nothing like walking a dog!
If you have never walked a cat before, you might imagine that it's like walking a dog. Well far from it. When you walk a dog, you are the boss and you choose a route suitable for both of you. You cannot expect this kind of obedience from a cat. Maybe you can be succesful if you start training your cat in a very early age, but don't expect too much in this regard. If you think a cat should walk nicely beside you, you have completely misunderstood the purpose of the walks. They're not for your pleasure, they're for your cats. You are merely tagging along in the back to provide safety. And cats never take the easy roads! (if you insist on trying to teach your cat to walk nicely, I will suggest you use posive reinforcement with clicker training).
When you walk a cat, you don't use regular paths. You have to be ready to go high and low in all sorts of terrain. Sometimes you run and sometimes you stand still for a while, just taking it all in. Thorns are going to rip your clothes and you can pick leaves and pine needles out of your hair afterwards. You could be walking around for an hour and you will still never cover as much ground as you would have walking a dog or walking on your own for just half an hour. Cats walk in circles, so be ready for some repetitive walks.
It can be both exhausting and tedious at the same time, but I get fresh air, cardio and some great bonding time with Ronja. So even though it's not always fun for me, it is beneficial for both of us. Most days I enjoy myself on our walks and even lose track of time. It can be a very zen experience at times. Other times she seems to be calling out the whole time and then it's a bit more stressful.
People often ask me if Ronja pees when she's outside. And yes she does. When we encounter a soft surface she usually digs and pees. She also likes to leave little messages to other cats on trees and bushes.
Should Ronja ever get away from me out there, she is of course chipped and even has ear tattoos, which is how we register out cats here in Denmark (You can read all about that in our FAQ). I also had a small tag made with her name and my number on plus a text explaining she is deaf. By now Ronja is very familiar with the area and always knows her way back home if it starts raining or gets too cold. So if she got away and stayed alive (!), I'm pretty confident she would find her way back, when she got hungry. And I know for a fact that we would hear her loud meows by the door!
It's not risk free to take your indoor cat outside on a leash, as it could get stuck or the cat could get out of the harness. That's why it's important to know your cat and to practise well before going out there. You also have to be on your toes, trying to predict the cats every move, to not get into trouble. I wouldn't trust anybody else to walk her.
And now the weather...
When it's below 5 degrees celsius Ronja doesn't like to go outside. If I take her our she will only spend 10 mins out there and then run back to the front door. So in the winter months we sometimes don't go out at all. You can see Ronja's first time in the snow here.
She doesn't like the rain either of course, so here in Denmark you always have to time the walks carefully. But when the weather is nice, she loves to go outside and can stay there for hours. In the summer time I take her for long walks every day and sometimes even twice a day.
Walking on a leash is definitely not for all cats. But Ronja certainly enjoys it very much and it enriches both our lives.
How to get started
I hope this post gave you a better understanding of why some cat owner choose to walk their cats.
If you're interested in giving this is a go with your cat, here's a thorough guide that tells you how to train your cat to walk on a leash