Should I take my cat for a walk?
Just like humans and other animals, it’s important to make sure cats partake in enjoyable and engaging activities. And with pet weights increasing during the pandemic, cat walking could potentially be a good way for your cat to get the exercise and mental enrichment they need — as long as your pet is on board with the activity.
“Cats who love walking will associate the harness with getting to go out, and will enjoy the experience,” Mikel Delgado, an animal behaviorist at Feline Minds, tells Inverse.
Should you take your cat for a walk?
Molly DeVoss, a certified feline training and behavior specialist who runs the nonprofit Cat Behavior Solutions, tells Inverse the mental benefits cats get from daily exercise are even more important than physical exertion.
“Cats have an evolutionary advantage of a high metabolism that even burns calories as they are lounging around, but they do need daily activity,” DeVoss says.
In general, experts recommend taking your cat for a walk, so long as your pet is okay with the activity and you can safely take them outdoors without causing stress or discomfort. All the experts Inverse spoke with emphasize you shouldn’t force your cat to do anything that makes them uncomfortable. If you try getting them to take a walk and they’re clearly expressing discomfort, don’t push them further.
“It’s sometimes very hard to encourage a cat to exercise as you would a dog, so if you have a cat that’s willing to go for walks, do it,” Chyrle Bonk, a veterinarian at Excitedcats.com, tells Inverse.
However, DeVoss notes that “if a cat is stressed by going outdoors, then that mental anguish is far more detrimental than any activity they might be getting.”
Delgado suggests walking your felines in their own backyard or another quiet area to lessen the chances of stressing the animal out.
How can you help your cat take a walk?
If your cat seems open to the idea, start with buying a leash and harness designed specifically for cats. Do not simply attach a leash to your cat’s collar, Delgado notes.
There are plenty of cat harnesses on the market from heavy, secure Velcro vests to lightweight ones that require more compliance from cats. Try different leashes and harnesses to see which one your kitty prefers, but make sure you get one that fits your pet properly.
Next, work on getting your pet acclimated to the harness for short periods in a safe indoor environment.
“Cats are master escape artists; it’s very important they be secure in a harness and leash system,” DeVoss says.
It’s also a good idea to “introduce the cat to the sight, smell, and…feel of wearing the harness,” Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, tells Inverse.
You can also try pairing treats with harness training to help your cat associate the harness with a positive activity.
“As they get more comfortable, you can take them out for short periods in your yard or in your hallway if you live in an apartment building,” Delgado says.
When you’re outside, let your cat determine where they want to go — within reason. Bonk suggests avoiding the sidewalks or places with potentially frightening traffic or animals. Instead, try walking in a secure enclosed outdoor area, such as a backyard.
“Use gentle pressure to stop them or encourage them to walk,” Bonk advises.
Above all else: Exercise patience when acclimating your cat to this new activity.
“The key to getting your cat to walk on a harness and leash is to start young, or if your cat is already grown, you may need to have a great deal of patience with them getting used to it,” DeVoss says.
Can cats be let outside to exercise by themselves?
In general, there’s no one cat breed that likes playing outdoors more than another. Though more active Siamese breeds may have a fondness for the outdoors, according to Bonk.
“Cats of all breeds may find this beneficial,” Pankratz says, though she cautions that “every cat is an individual and some of them may prefer other forms of exercise that may or may not involve outdoors.”
But there are also risks associated with letting cats exercise outdoors — especially if you leave them unattended.
“I don't recommend allowing cats to roam freely for various reasons — including dangers such as being hit by a car, [fights with other cats], poisons, and the risks that cats can pose to wildlife,” Delgado says.
“Free-roaming cats live much shorter lives,” DeVoss cautions.
Similarly, Bonk recommends only letting cats exercise outdoors if you have a secure enclosure to keep them from wandering out of your sight.
“This means a covered balcony or cat area that has mesh fencing all around and on top,” Bonk says.
How can I get my cat to exercise?
So, if your cat won’t indulge your desires for a walk and you can’t safely leave them outside, you’re left with only one option: Help your feline get the exercise they need indoors. Reports vary, but one 2020 study found 43 percent of pet cats that veterinarians surveyed are overweight or obese.
DeVoss puts it bluntly: “You need to inspire activity in your cats, or they can become lazy and obese.”
But it’s less about exercise and more the need to provide cats with stimulating, enriching activities that engage their minds as well as their bodies by nurturing the cat’s hunting instincts. Pankratz recommends cat owners brush up on the five pillars of a healthy feline environment— one of which includes “opportunity for play and predatory behavior.”
“There are plenty of ways to enrich a cat's life indoors,” Delgado says.
Some of the expert-recommended methods include:
- Food puzzles
- Cat trees and shelving
- Interactive and solo playtime with toys
- Catnip or silver vine
- Cat exercise wheels
If you’re using a toy attached to a string, it’s recommended you supervise your cat to make sure they don’t accidentally ingest it. Also, each cat has their own personality, and not all methods of play will work for every cat.
“Some cats like specific types of exercise such as playing independently with solo toys or playing interactively with people such as fishing pole toys,” Pankratz says.
If you’re worried that your cat is only playing in short bursts and not getting the enrichment or exercise they need, don’t fret.
“It may appear to people that a cat is bored after a few minutes but if you rotate the toys every few minutes, this can help re-engage a cat in the activity,” Pankratz says.