Updated: Mar 10
As many of you may already know from Tomo’s “MEET ME-OW” post, Cat Dad and I adopted Tomo when she was 3-years old from a local shelter. Before that, from what we know, she had solely been an indoor kitty who did not have prior exposure to the outdoors or harness/leash training.
Beginning her training as an adult cat, I hope this article can share some insight into what it was like starting harness training outside of kittenhood, as well as the many real successes and accomplishments we've had!
So, when did her adventuring journey all begin?
About a month after she came to our home and we felt that she was relatively adjusted to her new environment, we began her harness training.
Before we even began harness training however, we did some collar training (always use breakaway style ones for cats). I believe this step can be really helpful for cats that are especially unused to wearing things around their neck. We were lucky that Tomo did not mind wearing a collar much, and so this process only took a few days. If your cat is very averse to wearing something around their neck, I would advise that you follow pretty much the same steps listed out below for harness training, but collar training version.
Concurrently, we had to prepare a harness for Tomo to train with. I had seen some generally good feedback about the RC Pets Adventure Kitty Harness and saw that it was a popular harness for many kitties, so we purchased this one.
Reflecting back on this, I would not recommend this style of harness as a first training harness, the reason being that it does not have a neck opening (however, this harness was updated in 2020 to include a buckle opening at the neck!), as well as not being very lightweight. Many cats do not like things going over their heads, so I would recommend something that works with a large head opening, or has a neck buckle (see end of blog for harness types and further recommendations).
After reading multiple guides and looking through advice from other established adventure kitties, we learned that the best way to harness train a cat was through these gradual, progressive steps:
1. Introduction: “Hello, I am harness” We introduced the harness to Tomo by laying it on the ground near her, allowing her to sniff, letting her learn that the harness is a harmless object. She lost interest after a few minutes, which is a good thing. She was very neutral towards the harness, which is exactly what we wanted to proceed to the next stage.
2. Positive Association: When harness is here, treats are here At first, we would take out the harness, put it beside her, and give her treats just for being near the harness. Then we progressed to having the harness touch her in some way and giving more treats. This was repeated multiple times a day.
3. Coaxing: Move treat a little further into the harness opening every day Due to the type of harness we initially purchased, the neck opening was unable to open up, so what we did was hold the harness neck opening up (think like a hoop) and hold a treat on the other side of the opening. At first, the treat would be very close to the opening, and we progressively moved the treat farther back to encourage Tomo to put her face through a little more each time (you can still do this coaxing exercise with your cat, even if you have a harness that allows for neck opening, as you’ll just have an easier time with the next step).
4. First Try-On: Break the ice When Tomo was sticking her head through the neck opening more than halfway, we pulled the harness over her head the rest of the way and pushed past that hurdle. At this point, we had been training 2-3 times daily for about 1 week. Cats are known to back/shrink away when something unpleasant like this happens, so if you aren’t able to get it over your cat’s head the first time, don’t worry, just try again after a short reset, and make sure you’re encouraging, not forcing, your cat to stick their head through the opening as much as possible before you try to pull it on. Tomo did back away a bit when we first did this, and was somewhat stunned for a moment. Afterwards, she looked a little angry, so we kept it on for less than a minute, and took it off. The entire time she wore the harness, as well as immediately afterwards, she received plentiful treats!
5. Wear Practice: 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes… Using the coaxing method each time, we encouraged Tomo to put her head through the opening, and pulled the harness on. We let her wear the harness for a little bit longer each time, and of course, gave her praises and treats as rewards the whole time. Probably after the third time we successfully put the harness over Tomo’s head, we buckled up the chest portion of the harness. This did make Tomo freeze and become a stiff statue, but she became slightly more relaxed with each wear. We repeated this step until Tomo looked relatively comfortable and unbothered with wearing the harness while stationary.
6. Walking Practice: One step at a time Throughout walking practice, we would encourage her with treats to take a few steps, then a few more, and progressing to longer distances. Then, practicing with stepping up/down (small platform, stairs) and jumping increasing distances (to the couch, to the chair, then to the table, etc.).
7. Leash Practice: Pressure and angles After Tomo was very used to wearing the harness, for at least half an hour or more (about 2 weeks in at this point), I attached the leash to her harness and began walking her inside. It took some getting used to for Tomo to understand leash pressure and being gently guided towards certain directions. As her human, I also needed to learn how firmly to pull to not hurt or drag her, but keep her going the right way.
It’s important to know that cats are escape artists, and that many styles of harnesses slip over their heads easily, especially if your leash is at angle where it is in front of the cat! For Tomo, she has slipped her harness once, but we tried to remain calm, didn’t chase after her, and managed to get her back before she got too far. See the graphic from Supakit as an example.
Quick note on leash types: we prefer a simple webbing-style leash. We’ve used retractable leashes in the past but depending on the type, many of these are designed for dogs, and require a bit more force to pull out the leash. As well, if the leash handle ever slips out of your hand and falls to the floor, the clattering sound can startle your cat and cause them to run off (happened to us once). I would recommend using a back-up wrist strap with the retraceable leash as much as possible.
9. Outside Practice: Anywhere not at home!
Outside practice for us actually began on our balcony. Especially if a cat is an indoor cat, they might be very unused to the idea of being outdoors in the first place. A good place to start is an enclosed, small area like a balcony for them to become familiar with being outside. We alternated balcony exposure with outside hallway exposure (we live in an apartment). Each time, I would take Tomo further down the hallway and closer to the exit.
10. For Real Outside Practice
When we finally made it outside for real (about 3 weeks in), like everything else we’d done, we would spend a few minutes outside, and go back in. Tomo was definitely overwhelmed by the new environment, sounds, smells, and open space (would recommend letting your cat explore a quieter, smaller space at first if possible).
During many of our first walks, Tomo would try to hide under bushes or just refuse to walk for long periods of time (sometimes she still does this, haha). I find it helped when I would take her to areas in our courtyard that weren’t as open and had a well-defined path. This served as a guide for the route she was meant to follow, and resulted in less overall aimless wandering. It also helped when someone she knew, like Cat Dad, would walk in front of us on the path so that Tomo would have someone to “follow”.
10. Where Are We Now? 1 year plus into her training, overall, I would say Tomo is pretty confident wearing her harness and exploring outside, especially if we are just out on our regular courtyard walks. However, she can still have her off days of being too lazy/tired, too cold, or perhaps something unexpected happens (off-leash dogs, too many humans, landscaping in the courtyard) that causes her to not want to walk much, or makes her scared. Recognizing her body language is therefore crucial for seeing if I need to make adjustments to what we’re doing, or if I may need to divert our plans to another day altogether!
Above video shows a somewhat unsettled Tomo when
there was construction in our courtyard, just last week
I’ve also been making a real effort in taking Tomo out more this autumn, despite the weather getting quite cold. The year prior, we had been mostly doing summer adventuring, and staying home throughout the colder months. This year, with all the extra time we’ve spent outside, I’ve really seen a dramatic improvement in Tomo’s confidence and comfort level while adventuring. Practice and consistency are key in building up and maintaining your kitty’s adventuring abilities!
For some extra encouragement in going outside regularly, you might consider doing what we've been doing, participating in the KittyCatGo Adventure Challenges (we did the Fall one, now the Winter one as well) to progressively challenge yourself and your kitty to complete tasks together as part of your adventure training.
To circle back to how our training journey progressed, I would advise that any of the timing you see here, is not a be all end all by any means. For example, starting training 1 month after your kitty comes to their forever home is not a one size fits all! Some cats might adjust very quickly to their environment, or need a much longer period to adjust, and that’s okay!
A part of success is also dependant on the trust and bond you have with your cat. You may have heard/read that cats are creatures of habit who thrive on routine, so that means when you’re out there in an unfamiliar environment, YOU need to be that anchor for your kitty in reassuring them, supporting them, and being that familiar and comforting part of their environment (backpacks also play an important role in serving as a “safe, familiar space”, but more on this in a later topic).
The most important rule of adventure cat training is that you need a boundless well of patience, and accepting that sometimes after taking 1 step forward, you’ll need to take 2, even 3 steps back (literally and figuratively, haha). The biggest mistake you can make going into this is thinking that walking a cat will be like walking a dog, or be like walking other cats that you see on the internet. For most cats, it takes countless hours of practice and dedication to get to a place where they're exploring confidently.
Best of luck to all you kitty adventurers out there, and please know that I'd be happy to discuss this topic further if you leave a comment below, or connect with us through Tomo's Instagram @tomo.mittens. Happy adventuring ☺️!
EXTRA INFO - HARNESS TYPES
Very simple, beginner friendly harness. Still our favorite type of harness for everyday, short walks. Could include a chest strap or not, although Tomo prefers one without the chest strap as she doesn’t walk as naturally with something against her chest.
PROS: Lightweight, easy to put on as practice for harness training.
CONS: Doesn’t distribute force very well on the cat, can be choky if your cat pulls a lot, suddenly tries to run off, or is in position where they've fallen/are dangling off something (happens accidentally more often than you think).
Tips: Try to use the kind that has a neck buckle opening for easy on/off. Recommended for shorter walks or if your cat isn’t prone to pulling as much on the harness.
Similar to the H-style harness, but straps go in a Y-formation to better distribute the force across their chest instead of neck.
PROS: Lightweight, also easy to wear as a practice harness. Large head openings that are easy to slip on (usually no neck buckle).
CONS: Usually made with a webbing or strap-like material, and this isn’t super comfortable for some cats on longer trips. For Tomo, a con would be that she doesn’t walk as well with chest straps.
Tips: A super popular Y-style harness is the Come With Me Kitty™ Cat Harness. If you go with this one, add an extra “stopper” (I put a thick hair tie) as the one it comes with loosens easily if the cat is trying to back out. This harness is great as it tightens and applies force only as the cat pulls on it.
Vest/Chest Panel Harness
These come in a variety of styles, including the popular RC Pets Adventure Kitty Harness, Supakit, and The OutBound Cat Harness™ (we have not tried the latter 2 products ourselves, but are keen to try The OutBound as this is highly rated to be virtually escape proof).
PROS: Chest piece helps distribute the force, and for many cats, this is a very comfortable option for longer trips
CONS: Some cats, like Tomo, don’t like the chest piece. This style of harness is also generally not the most escape proof, as we’ve found it easier to back out from compared to H-style harness.
Full disclosure, Tomo has never used a jacket harness before. These come in a variety of designs, usually having the harness go over the cat’s head, extending halfway down their body, and tightened via Velcro or straps.
PROS: Distributes force very evenly, known to be very comfortable to wear for many cats for long durations once they are used to it.
CONS: One of the most restricting types of harnesses, especially if your cat doesn’t like to wear “clothes”.
Technically, a martingale harness is any harness designed to tighten when force is applied, so this would include the Come With Me Kitty™ Cat Harness. Another harness we’ve been eyeing is the Sleepypod Martingale Cat Harness (yet to try but really like the design).
PROS: Tightens when cat is pulling, more loose and comfortable when cat is relaxed.
CONS: Depending on the design, make sure this tightening function does not choke your cat (eg. dog martingale collars should not be used for cats!).
DISCLAIMER: We are not sponsored in any way by any of these companies, this is just our personal, honest feedback on these products!