Mind of the Cat: 09/04

Dr. Lindell explains the reasons why it can be beneficial to leash-train your cat.

During the past month, I have received several letters from readers who wished to share stories about the advantages of having a leash-trained cat. Indeed, there are many reasons to consider teaching a cat to tolerate or even enjoy a leash. In this column, I will review some of these reasons.

Access to the Outdoors
Although a leash is often called a tether, for many cats it actually affords an opportunity for increased freedom. For many reasons – including safety of cats and wildlife – many people do not permit their cats to roam free outdoors. In some locations, cat fences may be installed. But in many cases, this is simply not an option. A leash and harness offer a cat the opportunity for safe, supervised outdoor activity. While outdoors, the harnessed cat can watch but not injure wildlife.

There are precautions that must be taken if a cat is to be allowed to venture outdoors.

First, a cat should never be tied and left outdoors unsupervised. A tethered cat could become an easy target to another animal. Furthermore, a cat left on a tether might attempt to leap up and actually strangle himself. Your cats leash must always be held by a responsible person.

Second, if your cat tends to respond to other cats or wildlife in an aggressive or fearful manner – hissing, growling or jumping from window to window with a frenzied look – then he should not be taken outside on a leash.

Finally, any cat that goes outdoors must be completely up-to-date on his vaccinations. Flea, tick and heartworm control may be needed in certain areas. Be sure to inform your veterinarian if your cat spends any time outdoors.

Another reason to leash-train a cat is in anticipation of the arrival of a new pet, a baby, or even a new adult family member. Some cats are overly assertive and may frighten a newcomer. By using the leash, the cat may be held at a safe distance. Introductions can be carefully controlled until both parties exhibit appropriate behavior.

Other cats are very fearful and may choose to flee upon the arrival of the new addition. Whenever a cat runs in terror, his fear is actually reinforced. By using the leash, you may gradually teach your cat to feel safe with the newcomer nearby. This gradual process is called desensitization. At no time would the leash be used to force a frightened cat to remain in an utterly unbearable position.

Rather, a relatively safe starting distance would be established. At this safe point, an individual cat might be a little nervous but would not be actively pulling or thrashing in an attempt to escape. Instead, the leash would provide support while the cat learned to appreciate that there is no danger. Over a series of sessions, the cat would be permitted to get closer to the newcomer.

General and Emergency Handling
There are other advantages to teaching a cat to wear a leash. Once a cat has been leash-trained, he has accepted that, in some situations, his people simply need to take charge. As part of the training process, the cat will learn that he is about to be handled and that the outcome will more than likely be pleasant.

Leash-training can also pay off in an emergency situation when a rapid departure is essential. Although the safest way for a cat to travel is inside a carrier, a situation may arise in which seconds count. If a carrier is not accessible, the leash-trained cat will allow you to quickly fasten the leash, which should be left hanging by the door for just such an emergency.

Next month, I will offer some strategies for teaching your cat to wear a leash and harness.