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Is walking a cat on a leash wrong? A vet's view

Cat outside wearing harness and leash
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You may have noticed other pet owners walking a cat on a leash and wondered if it’s a good idea for your cat. 

Many vets and charities, including RSPCA Australia and Cats Protection, believe that even if you have one of the best cat harnesses in the world, it’s not a good idea. 

While cats do like to explore, they do so in a very different way from dogs. Others believe it should be decided on a case-by-case (or rather, a cat-by-cat) basis. As with anything, there are pros and cons to walking a cat on a leash. 

Let’s explore these and look at some safety tips if you do decide to give it a try. 

Is it cruel to walk a cat on a leash?

Opinions are divided on this one! There are some situations where it could be considered cruel. For example, you should never force your cat to go for a walk if they seem stressed by it. In fact, you should never force a cat to do anything outside of their comfort zone. If your cat enjoys being walked on a leash, and you are walking them in a safe and responsible manner, then it would not be considered cruel.

Are there any reasons why you shouldn't walk a cat? Well, a cat’s natural instinct when stressed is to flee, and by walking them on a leash you are depriving them of the ability to do so. Walking your cat in the garden is likely to be pretty stress-free and safeif done correctly. However, walking them at a local park is likely to present many stressors, such as roaming dogs and traffic noise, so is not advisable.

Can you take an indoor cat for a walk?

Some indoor cats can become accustomed to, and enjoy, going for a walk, while others would find it very stressful. In part this will depend on age; older cats who have never been outside may find the experience too overwhelming, whereas kittens are more likely to enjoy the adventure. 

It’s important to note that outdoor cats who usually have the freedom to roam may also find the experience stressful. Cats tend to like to explore at their own pace and on their own terms, in areas where they feel safe.

Should you walk your cat on a leash?

There are many people, some vets and animal charities included, who think you shouldn’t walk your cat on a leash. Others, such as adventure cat owners, thinks it’s a great idea. Then there are many in between, including some vets, who believe it has its benefits in certain situations. So, let’s look at the pros and cons.

Benefits of walking your cat on a leash

Cat outside on leash

(Image credit: Getty Images)
  • Leash walking could have potential benefits for indoor cats who would otherwise have no outdoor access, people traveling with their cats, getting your cat accustomed to a new area following a house move, or cats in rescue centres. 
  • It can provide mental stimulation and prevent boredom. 
  • It provides exercise.
  • If your cat enjoys it, it can be a great bonding exercise.

Cons of walking your cat on a leash

  • You are exposing them to potential dangers, such as off-lead dogs.
  • There is a risk of your cat slipping their harness, in which case they will likely flee or hide.
  • There is a risk that they may become scared and try to use you as a means of escape, much like a tree, resulting in injury to you.
  • Cats are territorial. If you take them somewhere unfamiliar outside, they may feel vulnerable and stressed. 
  • Many cats do not like wearing a harness and feel restrained, causing stress.

Whether you walk your cat on a leash comes down to personal preference and your individual cat’s personality. Cats who walk on a leash as a kitten are more likely to tolerate and enjoy the experience than older cats being walked for the first time. If you do decide to try taking your cat for a walk, there are a few rules to follow and safety issues to consider first. 

How to walk your cat on a leash correctly

Firstly, you need to make sure your cat will be as safe as possible outside. This means ensuring they are up to date with their vaccines, as well as their flea and worm preventatives. Your cat needs to be microchipped if you are taking them out, in case they manage to escape.

You should never take a nervous or timid cat for a walk. Never force your cat to go for a walk. If they show signs of stress such as a rigid body, ears back, hissing or lying down, stop and take them home. 

Make sure you know your dangers outdoors. For example, research toxic plants to avoid, such as lilies. You should never use a collar with a lead, since this puts too much pressure on the cat’s throat and there is a high risk that your cat could slip out of it. 

So, if you’ve decided you’d like to give it a try and are wondering “how do I take my cat for a walk?”, here are our top tips:

  • Choose a comfortable, safely fitting harness that your cat can’t slip out of.
  • Never use a retractable leash. If a dog approached, for example, you may be too far away to intervene. There is also the risk that your cat may become tangled around something if they try to flee.
  • Start slowly. Allow your cat to see and smell the harness, while giving them treats. Gradually start putting it on, giving them their favourite treats at the same time. Once they are used to it being put on, allow them to wear it in the house for periods of time. Next, attach the leash, follow your cat a few steps, offer them a treat and then remove the leash. Gradually increase the time doing this indoors. Only venture outside when you both feel confident.
  • Consider using cat pheromone sprays or plug-ins while teaching indoors.
  • If your cat seems stressed or distressed at any point, stop straight away.
  • Keep the walks short and sweet.
  • We don’t advise walking your cat in busy, built up, or public areas. Best to stick to the garden.

If you decide that walking on a leash is not for you and your cat, there are plenty of other options available to you. You could use an escape-proof enclosure to allow your cat space to explore outdoors, or escape-proof your garden. There are plenty of indoor activities and games to provide exercise and stimulation to your cat too.

Final thoughts

Walking a cat on a leash is not without risk. Some cats love it, others hate it, so be guided by your cat. If your cat isn’t keen, or you decide against it, there are other ways of ensuring they have plenty of mental and physical activity!

Sarah-Jane Molier BVM&S MRCVS

Dr Sarah-Jane Molier wanted to be a veterinarian from the age of ten. She realised her dream and now works in a small animal clinic in the Oxfordshire countryside.