Gentle Care Animal Hospital

Gentle Care Animal Hospital

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cat on a leash: We'll walk you through it

Back in the late 1950s when I was a wee one in small-town Maine, we all — kids and grown-ups alike — snickered relentlessly at the lady who lived across Benton Avenue from my grandparents. Every afternoon she'd carry her massive tiger cat outside and connect a long cable to its harness, and the cat would spend the next several hours sunning herself, scratching at the maple tree and stalking birds.

This was at a time when people had mostly indoor-outdoor cats that roamed at will. Most of those cats had short lives, the result of unfortunate run-ins with cars, foxes, dogs and other cats. The neighbor lady's cat, on the other hand, lived nearly 20 active, sociable years. So much for our derision.

I thought about that old cat recently when on two separate occasions I saw women walking their cats through the park. Yup. Cats in harnesses on leashes strolling about the boulders and pine trees. Acting like it was the most normal thing in the world.

Turns out that in these times when most cat breeders, trainers and shelter personnel implore people to protect their cats by making them indoor-only pets, a few are recommending leash walks for felines as a way to stimulate them, keep them fit and allow them to connect with nature.

There's even a new self-published book, Walk Your Cat, The Complete Guide (Spiraka, $12.99), written by Steven Jacobson and Jean Miller, a married couple who have trained a handful of cats to prowl about confidently at the end of a leash.

"After a tough day," says Miller, a Virginia Tech philosophy instructor, "it's a nice, relaxing thing to come home, get the leash and take the cat out for a long walk."


Even she acknowledges that those words have an odd ring to them.

She hopes that in five or 10 years, though, cat owners the world over will be seen every evening de-stressing with cat walks. For the moment, however, as perhaps the nation's most vocal cat-walk advocate, she's "spending a lot of time trying to overcome the stigma."

The reasons leash walking for cats isn't already part of the American routine, she says, are twofold. First, most people think you can't train cats. More important, anyone who has ever tried to venture into kitty-stroll territory has probably been wildly unsuccessful. And that, Miller says, is "because they've used a dog model of leash training. That's certain to fail."

Miller and Jacobson have developed a step-by-step method that they say ensures success as long as the owner abides by the ever-so-important, can't-be-breached, No. 1 rule: You can't rush the process. It could take months to get a cat accustomed to the harness, confident with the process, no longer struggling against the leash, responsive to such words as "wait" and "no," and willing to return home when it's time.

The authors say that the command-and-control approach often used with dogs never works with cats (and will likely spur them to escape their harness and dash off), so it's important to know how to motivate them, how to reassure them when they get nervous, and how to habituate them to the sometimes-scary sounds and sights of the great outdoors. The couple's training method offers instruction in all these areas.

"Patience," Miller says repeatedly. "Without patience it's not going to work."

In other words, you'll wind up with "a flying furball at the end of a leash."


All this to give your indoor cat a few minutes to stalk a bird and roll in the grass?

"Cats have a very real need to go outdoors," she says. And though she advocates that cats be inside-only for their own safety if they're not attached to a human hand, she believes owners can accommodate a feline's nature needs with leash walks that allow them "the incomparable variety and intensity of sights, sounds and smells," not to mention the significant "behavioral stimulation."

Phooey, many cat experts say. You can give an indoors-only cat sufficient stimulation, you've just got to work at it — playing games with them, providing enrichment toys and climbing stands, and keeping plugged into the things they like, like dripping water, wadded-up paper or chase games.

"I'm totally against walking cats … for a lot of reasons," says Redwood City, Calif., cat behavior consultant Marilyn Krieger, columnist for Cat Fancy magazine. First and foremost, she says, "you can't control the environment" when you're outdoors, and if a cat freaks out because a truck drives by or a dog trots up out of nowhere, bad things will probably happen.

Moreover, she says, once they catch that love-the-outdoors bug, "they'll want to go out all the time" and are likely to become "door darters" that seize every chance to escape, or spend hours "howling at the windows." (Miller offers instruction in her book that she says will prevent those things.)

Still, for all her reservations about the concept, Krieger says "there are some cats that do fine with leash walking" especially "if they're started very early, like show cats."

Change happens. And maybe Miller's dream will come true. I've known a parrot that allowed himself to be hauled through the neighborhood in a little red wagon, and a massive pet pig that slept in a bathtub and led the family's goat around the yard by a rope, so I guess cats on leashes may not be all that extraordinary.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment - we love hearing from our readers!

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home