Over the years I’ve successfully leash trained four cats. It has come very naturally. One strength that I have when it comes to cat training and communication actually comes from having autism and from being an identical twin. I developed my own language as a child that only me and my twin sister could understand. It included nicknames, words that I invented, and phrases that were very specific to people, places, things, or behaviors. Over time my sister and I’s language developed and our friends began to pick up on some of our wording and phrases. This happened up until we split ways in college, but a lot of our friends that we grew up with still understand our unique language. It is not uncommon for twins to develop languages like this, and people with autism and ADHD have a tendency to develop unique languages as well.
I decided to train my cats Patrick and Lucifer when they were kittens. The process of training actually came quite naturally to me coupled with some information that I found online. The first thing that I did was to develop a language that is unique to me and my cats and to use that language consistently with them at home. This language has grown and evolved over time. Another thing that I did was attune them to my voice by simply talking to them and using their names a lot. I also trained them to follow me around the house, to come, and even to play fetch.
Before you take a cat on a walk, it is important to get them used to be in a harness. It is important to use a cat harness rather than a collar while walking a cat because it is more secure and it puts less strain on their joints and their back. So, I helped Patrick and Lucy get used to their harnesses by letting them wear them around the house on and off for a week or so. Once they were comfortable, I took them for their first walk. They were about four months old at the time.
We went to the Whatcom Falls Park in Bellingham, Washington. There, I translated what I had learned as a swim instructor, coach, and in psychology to help the cats learn to walk on a leash. I would use conditioning techniques and encouraging phrases such as “Good Job (Lucifer or Patrick)!” “Keep it up” “Keep Going”, and praise them with “You’re doing a great job!” I attuned them to my voice and commands. I also made sure to keep a connection with them and keep a consistent feeling of positivity while doing this. I learned while being a swim instructor that it is important to keep connections like these while showing confidence. So remember that if you walk your cats, even if it is frustrating or scary, that you need to keep this connection positive, which will reinforce the experience as a pleasant experience with you. Communicate with them consistently and with confidence plus assertiveness while being gentle at the same time. It is important that you connect with them in this way and so that they understand that they can rely on and trust in you to keep them safe while they walk and so that walks can become a bonding experience between you and your cat.
On our first walk, I made sure to give the cats a lot of breaks. To do this, I usually pick them up and carry them on most in order to keep them in the mindset that this is a walk and also to strengthen the bond between us. While we do take actual breaks, this is another aspect of walking that helps the cats to understand what a walk is. Because cats like to look at things and stop and smell the roses, it is important to condition them that as to what it means to go on a walk.
Leash training cats is also a hands-on experience. They need to learn to walk in a line and follow a trail even though they tend to get distracted by what’s going on around them. In order to do this, I found that reaching down and guiding them with my hands gently can keep them on track. I also say things like “This way” and clap my hands on my leg like you would with a dog (I’m experienced with leash training dogs as well). Be careful, though, about clapping your hands together as this can scare them. Be aware that there are both similarities and differences between walking cats and dogs.
If you plan on walking a cat outdoors, you also need to be vigilant about keeping them safe. If a dog walks by, I will stop and pick them up immediately. If I can’t pick up two at once, I will lean down and stop them while putting my hands on each. I signal to dogs not to approach, but this may not always work, which is why you need to be confident in your ability to protect your cats if you plan to walk in an area where dogs are present. You also need to be able to communicate quickly and effectively with dogs and their owners. This means that you have to feel some level of comfort with dogs and people and recognize that they may approach you and your cats.
In all of my time walking the cats, though, I have only had a dog bound at us in a way that I felt was truly dangerous to my cats. This is because I usually take the cats to on-leash parks and secluded areas in order to avoid off-leash dogs. I’ve also learned about the habits of the dogs in our neighborhood so that I can anticipate their behaviors. The incident that Lucy and I had with a dog was at an on-leash area where an owner had violated the rules by letting the dog run off leash. The dog was a golden lab, and when I saw it bounding out of control towards me and Lucy, he became ready to attack and fight. So despite the fact that I got scratched badly while doing it, I quickly picked Lucy up and held him in order to stop the fight until the owner arrived. You can’t be afraid of some possible cat scratches if you’re planning to walk a cat in an area that includes dogs as I recommend to pick the cat up if need be. Always remember though to bring something to disinfect cat scratches.
Over time, Patrick and Lucy learned to walk a couple of miles at a time on the leash. They continued to be able to do this until they developed arthritis and disc disease as senior cats. Today their walks are shorter, and we take a lot of breaks.
I also trained Marmalade and Tempest, my boyfriend’s cats, after I’d be living with them for about six months. I had known them though for a year and a half and they were very attuned to my voice and to me, so it was very easy to train both. I did have to re-direct them a lot and found that Tempest likes to blaze a trail so to say. We never have walked far though because these two were senior cats when I trained them. Marmalade, in fact, was 13 or 14 years old when he was leash trained.
Today the cats’ walks are very different than they used to be. Due to health problems they take even more rests, and Patrick refuses to walk far due to late-stage arthritis in his knees. He usually just sits in the grass and tries to obsessively eat it, and then David and I will redirect and carry him around the house and neighborhood so that he can still enjoy a walk and time outside without overeating grass.
Due to my health problems over the last year are so, plus medication changes, I haven’t been able to keep up with walking the cats. But, on Saturday David and I decided to take them out. Here are some pictures of their walks. We are also beginning to condition our female cat Perdi to wear a harness. She is very skittish so we have been fearful of taking her out, but have decided to give it a try. I’ve never trained a female cat to walk before, but have trained Perdi to do tricks for treats and to walk on a cat wheel, so I’m guessing that it will work out.
I noticed that Lucy has lost some of his training. I’m not surprised about this because he battled cancer over the spring and summer. During a colonoscopy, the cancerous part of his large intestine burst and had to be removed. He is now cancer-free but is recovering psychologically and emotionally from his ordeal.
David has also learned the language that I developed for the cats over the years, and was able to walk the cats successfully in only a short time. Language and words really do matter when it comes to walking cats.
Here are the pictures of our walks over the weekend:
Thanks for reading! Stay posted for updates on our cats’ continued training! And feel free to send me a message if you’d like more tips about how to train cats effectively.