Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Cat Walking

While I may look like the crazy cat lady while I'm out walking Ticky, it's more than worth it to give him some mental exercise while still keeping him safe from the busy road at the end of our parking lot. I wouldn't worry quite so much about it if Ticky wasn't obsessively fascinated by squirrels. He's busted through a screen door to get to one (he didn't catch it, and was surprised to suddenly be outside), so needless to say he would mindlessly chase one into traffic if he had the chance. However, most of the cats in my life have been indoor/outdoor and I think it's healthy for a cat to be outside at least sometimes- so cat walking it is.

If you want to train your cat to a harness you have to have something super alluring as a reward for the indignity of having a thing strapped around your cat's chest. For most indoor cats, if they are only allowed outdoors when they have the harness on that's reward enough for them to put up with it once they connect the dots. However, getting a cat that has never been outdoors (or has been indoors for years) to want to explore outside is its own struggle. When Ticky first arrived he'd run and hide even if we opened the windows! The sound of cars and the breeze frightened him, but eventually he was curious enough to want to escape onto the porch and out into the hallway of our apartment building so that was a good start.
Ticky's biggest draw to the outdoors is getting to eat cat grass

Step 1: Getting your cat to wear a harness. 

There's a pretty common reaction when you first try to put a harness on a cat. It will immediately forget that it has legs. This is totally ok at this stage- if Ticky wanted to sit on the floor and look grumpy while refusing to move that was fine. We'd just put it on him, give him a few treats or play with his favorite toy for a minute or two and then take it back off. He was still only 6 months old at the time, so this stage didn't take very long- he would be more interested in playing with the toy and forget he had the harness on until we stopped. For older cats it might take longer. I'm currently trying to train Ticky to not hate riding in his carrier in the car, and we have taken a month to get him to "we are outside of the apartment and going immediately back in and that's ok." Cats learn on cat time. Your cat might even regress and hide every time you bring the harness out. The easy way to deal with this is to leave the harness on the floor somewhere and pick it up when you walk by it, then do absolutely nothing with it for a couple of days or weeks. Then move up to petting the cat with the harness without trying to put it on them, etc. until you can get back to having the harness on the cat for short periods of time.
Ticky's very first harness training where he forgot he had legs

A note on harness fitting: 

Another thing that might be the problem is if the harness is an uncomfortable fit for your cat. Ticky has gone through three harnesses as he's grown, and as I've learned to identify discomforts. His first harness was far too loose for him, and he could easily slip out of it. Harnesses that are too tight or too loose can sometimes be adjusted with the harness's buckles. Other harnesses would need to be hand-modified to fit. Ticky's current harness has been modified with a small elastic stretchy piece and a big loop instead of a small loop to attach the neck part to the body part. That way I don't have to fiddle with it as much when I need to buckle it and it fits his gargantuan shoulders. Be wary of harnesses that are too thin on the neck piece. This can choke a cat if the cat pulls frantically (or even just stubbornly) on the leash. I switched Ticky back to a wide, cushy necked harness after getting him one that was meant for a dog (big beefy shoulders, remember) but he'd spend two minutes hacking under the porch after pulling hard on it. I could probably lift Ticky off the ground by his current harness if I really wanted to and he wouldn't choke. The force is more evenly distributed across his chest and neck.

Ticky's narrow harness (bottom) vs wide harness (top). He's much more comfortable in the wide harness, especially now that I've modified it by adding the little elastic section and the giant loop in back.

Step 2: Getting a leash on the harness

I think Ticky was more upset with the fact that I had control of his movement than anything else associated with the harness. Understandable. Cats are very independent and having someone else tell them where to go is probably super offensive. But- I need to be able to communicate that he can't go certain places like under the porch where I can't get to him or into the road. Start off having your cat drag the leash around, then pick it up and walk after them when they move. Do this all indoors first. Outdoors I learned that Ticky immediately forgot everything I'd ever taught him, ignored treats, and mostly stared in terror at the world around him, not knowing where he was. This faded after awhile, but at first indoors is where the learning happens and outdoors is where it all falls apart.
"Nooo! I want to go sit in the Begonias!"

Step 3: Going outdoors

The fun part! Your cat may be very eager to get outside, or they might be super shy about the outdoors at first, as it's outside of their territory. Other animals and people, cars, lawn mowers, etc can cause a cat to panic and flee back indoors or to the nearest shrub. If this happens try to hang on to the leash if possible, even if your cat is up on their two back legs trying to get away. (This is the reason to get a nice cushy harness! No sense in panicking them more by choking them.) Walk quickly but quietly in the direction they're fleeing until they reach their hiding spot. Then, when they have calmed down, pick them up and walk back towards your door. When they struggle too much to hold on, put them down until they calm down again, then pick them back up, always continuing in the direction of home. Eventually they'll learn to dart for home when frightened. Now I can drop the lead when he freaks out and know Ticky will head directly inside but this is two years after he started harness training. For a long time he didn't remember where home was when he was afraid, so this has also proved to be a good way to get Ticky to remember where home is if he ever escapes.
"Shrubs! My favorite!"

Step 4: Walking your cat

Walking a cat is nothing like walking a dog. Dogs will follow you because they want to be with you or will pull you around to get to the next exciting thing. Cats just want to relax in the great outdoors and you happen to be there. Some cats may be more affectionate and follow you around, but the majority seem to sit endlessly in shrubbery or leisurely stroll (or slink) around and wait for the tug of the leash before responding and going in a different direction. So- let your cat explore at their own pace. If you are pushed for time and need to get your cat indoors, first try saying something like "inside!" and gently pulling on the leash. When your cat digs in and doesn't move, go over and push them or try to pick them up until they move forward, then praise them and let the leash go slack. Eventually when you gently tug on the leash and say "inside!" they will start moving before you bother them. If you don't want them to go somewhere just stand in one spot and don't let them move forward any more on the leash. Don't pull on them- just let the leash go slack whenever they move in the direction you want them to go, and let the leash go taunt when they move in the direction you don't want them to go. Eventually, IF you are consistent with the places that are off-limits they will automatically avoid those areas. If you aren't consistent...well...Ticky has figured out a sneaky way to get underneath of the neighbor's porch because he wrapped the leash around the porch support a few too many times and got under there enough to consider it "his." Now he tries it every time. But it's not too much of a problem. He's just stubborn about it.

That's all I have for today's obsession! Remember that cats will have good and bad days and one day they might go all the way to the edge of the yard and be super adventurous, and the next day may not even make it three feet out the door. No worries. Ticky is super happy to have his outside time! I'm glad he's able to enjoy it. :)