I’ve had quite a few enquiries over the years about how to correctly harness train a cat. In fact, I was even on Adelaide radio earlier this year giving listeners a run down and answering questions on this very subject! Many councils all over Australia are beginning to ban free-roaming cats which has triggered a lot of interest in this subject.
So, before we jump in to how to harness train a cat, we should really answer the questions, why and should you harness train your cat?
Look, I’m an indoor-cat guy. I’ve even written a popular ebook about keeping indoor cats happy. Though I do understand and accept that cats are outdoor creatures, so I make every effort to suggest safe and restrained outdoor time where it’s possible. Sometimes it’s just not possible or would be more stressful for the cat, but we’ll get into that shortly.
For guardians that don’t have a safe, enclosable yard or balcony, harness walks may really be a fantastic addition to their cat’s overall enrichment. The outdoors provides a huge amount of smells, movement, sunshine and other enriching factors. Harness walks can be done in your backyard, or even along the street (but be careful and work up to this, cars, people and dogs can be scary!).
This is an important question and the answer is, ‘it depends’. Some cats will take to harness training like a fish to water. Others, especially the scaredy-cats who have been raised indoors, may find the outside world (or even the physical restriction of the harness) overwhelming and extremely stress-inducing. For these latter type of cats, it’s probably best not to force them into an outdoor situation.
A good indicator of cats who would probably benefit from some outside harness time, are those who try to escape when you open the door. These are what Jackson Galaxy would call “door dashers”. They are a good candidate for providing restrained outside enrichment since they clearly want to be out there!
Another factor to consider, is that will you be able to make ‘outside-time’ a consistent part of the routine.
Remember, cats are hugely routine-driven animals. A change in an established routine is a stressor, so once a routine is established, you should try and maintain it as much as possible. It may not be a great idea to harness train a cat if you can only sporadically and randomly take him outside. Cats feel secure when life is predictable. Unpredictability = stress.
Once you’ve decided whether your cat would benefit from harness time outside, we can now get in to the “how”.
First and foremost, you’ll need to decide on a harness. Make sure it’s the right size, and don’t use a small dog harness – cats may be able to get out of them (I have personal experience here!).
Some cats will accept putting on a harness no problems at all. Others may be quite suspicious and/or not like the feel of the harness around their body (initially). The steps I’ll outline below should be used by all cat guardians, but the cat will determine the timeframe (e.g. some cats will only take one session, others a couple of weeks to become comfortable).
Be warned, there are actually quite a few steps to do this properly. Many guardians may think that it’s a simple process and that this is overkill, but this process will ensure success with most cats.
To get a cat used to a harness, we will be using the processes of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Both processes use the concepts of small, non-threatening ‘exposures’ to the harness to begin with, gradually increasing to full exposures over time. These are the exact same concepts used for successful cat to cat introductions.
For the sake of simplicity and to add a bit of character, I’m going to call the imaginary cat in the process, ‘Oliver’.
Cats are naturally inquisitive and sensitive to changes in their surroundings – and this includes new objects. Bringing out the harness will likely spur some curiosity, and we should use this to our advantage by creating some positive associations with the harness.
If Oliver has had a bad experience in the past with a harness, this step is even more important.
Start by just bringing out the harness and putting it on a non-threatening part of the floor (not near any important resources like food, water or litter).
When Oliver shows some curiosity and comes over to the harness, give him a treat. Move the harness half a metre away and if he follows it, give him another treat.
Do this for a couple of days, and only give him treats when the harness is out. Make the association stronger by actually placing treats in and around the harness while it’s on the floor. When Oliver is happy to eat treats and generally show no negative or anxious body language around the harness, you can move on to the next step.
By this stage, if step 1 has been done correctly, Oliver will probably look forward to being around the harness because harness = treats!
For this step, we are going to gradually get Oliver to accept putting the harness over his head, loosely.
Start by loosening the head “loop” as much as possible so it’s easy to stick his head through.
Now hold the harness up at about Oliver’s head height, with the loop open, and treat Oliver when he goes to the harness (not yet putting his head through). We want to reinforce him approaching the harness when it’s in your hand. Keep doing this for as long as it takes for him to be comfortable.
Now, carefully put the harness over his head, and give him a treat, and then remove the harness. We are aiming to pair the process of putting the harness over Oliver’s head with positive things (food), thereby making it a positive process for him. Do this as many times and as for as many sessions as necessary for him to be comfortable. Many cats who aren’t used to harnesses or collars won’t like the feel of it initially, so this may take a while for some cats.
Even better (if possible), would be to get Oliver to put his head inside the loop himself by ‘luring’ him through with a treat.
Once Oliver is totally ok and relaxed with a loose harness over his head, and you done this several times, you can move onto the third step.
This step may need to go slow. Firstly, you’ll need to get Oliver used to the feeling and sounds of the harness being buckled up, loosely around his body. Ideally, after step 2, Oliver will probably be putting his own head through the loop to start with!
So basically, loosen the harness as much as you can, buckle it around Oliver’s body, and give him a treat. Doing this repeatedly will create those positive associations with the harness being loose.
Once Oliver is completely fine with the loose harness on for short periods, you can begin to tighten it (though don’t do the tightening when he’s wearing it) bit by bit. When it’s adequately tight, make sure to keep rewarding him after putting it on to maintain the positive associations.
By this stage, Oliver should be ok with you putting on the harness. Now it’s time for him to get used to wearing it for short periods. Start with 1 minute and build up from there.
These “harness times” should be an amazing part of Oliver’s day. This is when to play with him, give him treats, even give him his normal meal. Basically, harness time = awesome time!
Once Oliver is completely relaxed with having a harness on his body for periods of time (not all the time though), you can introduce the leash.
Leash introductions can go one of two ways. Some cats may be totally fine with a leash from day one. However, other cats may find the leash being attached to them, and the “drag” it creates, disconcerting.
Ultimately, if Oliver is one of the latter cats, we would need to introduce the leash using the same concept we used for the harness – starting with low stimulus and gradually increase it, all the while pairing it with treats to create positive associations.
When Oliver can confidently walk around the house with a harness on, and a leash attached, pat yourself on the back for successfully training him to use a harness!
You may have successfully trained Oliver to handle a harness, but how do you introduce him to the outdoors? Here’s a few quick tips and tricks
There you go! The tried and tested process to harness train your cat.
Thanks for reading. Do you have any questions or harness-training stories? Throw them in the comments so everyone can benefit!
Here’s to happy and healthy cats.