On a cool, partly cloudy day in October 2017, Malaya Fletcher was about to go hiking near a cabin in Pennsylvania. The only thing left to do was to get her cat, Copurrnicus, into his harness. When Fletcher secured the harness, the feline went immobile, and thudded on the ground.
Fletcher had recently adopted the confident and curious Copurrnicus. He seemed to have the perfect combination of traits for enjoying outdoor adventures.
He grew accustomed to the harness and leash indoors, but when Fletcher tested the waters in the wild for the first time, it seemed that Copurrnicus forgot how to be a free-roaming cat.
Fletcher is among many cat owners recently inspired to train their cats to go on adventures, including hiking, canoeing or climbing. More than 285,000 posts on Instagram carry the #adventurecat tag — another sign that many felines, accustomed to prowling indoors, are being led on leashed walks outside by their owners.
The trend of re-wilding house cats into adventure cats and outdoor cats in general, “shakes you out of your sense that cats are just at-home pets and perfectly thrilled with it, because they aren’t,” said Frank McMillan, a cat behavior researcher at Best Friends Animal Society.
“Cats are more capable than you think,” added Laura Moss, who wrote “Adventure Cats: Living Nine Lives to the Fullest,” a guide to training felines for adventure that some owners of leashed cats say inspired them to bring their pets into the great outdoors.
But is it a good idea to put a feline on a leash and harness when they are accustomed to moving around according to their own agenda? Can imposing our desires for a cat to take on a role similar to that of a dog possibly be harmful to the animal?
The literature is scant on whether taking a cat on a walk or for a more intensive outdoor activity is a good experience for either the cat or human. “We have to rely on what we know about the housecat’s development, socialization and territoriality to help inform whether or not this is a good idea,” said Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior researcher at University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Each cat has its own interests, personality and background — all of which adds up to either wanting to be outside or not, McMillan said.
One cat owner in Portland, Oregon — who asked not to be identified to preserve her privacy from patients she works with — has tried for a year to walk her “bad boys.” She’s been able to take her cats out on leashes, but has hardly made it past her driveway without one of them running up a tree and the other wanting to go back inside.
Ollie, a well-socialized 2-year-old rescue cat in Washington was happy to wander outside on the open patio of her owner, Laurel Hamers, after it had snowed. But when Hamers put a harness on her later the same day, Ollie acted as if she had no interest in going outside, and even seemed freaked out by the snow.
Cats have a reputation of being independent. They are believed to have domesticated themselves thousands of years ago, instead of being purposefully domesticated by humans. So putting them in harnesses for a walk can be especially challenging if it’s something they don’t want to do.
Some cats seem more likely to take to being on a harness, Delgado said. They are usually well socialized and able to withstand changes in their environment without making much of a fuss toward strangers. When they are very young, between 2 and 9 weeks old, cats can most easily be socialized to be more open to new people and experiences. Cats beyond this age can still be socialized, but it may be more difficult and require more time.
Felines are also territorial and like routine. So “the idea of taking cats to different territories at different times” — whether it’s different spots within your neighborhood or out in the mountains — “is counterintuitive to what we know about cats,” Delgado said.
All told, this means that cat owners should be attuned to signs of stress. But cats, can be difficult to read. Some stressed cats might retreat to a hiding place and stay absolutely quiet. Others might swing toward the other extreme and act hyperactive. When people don’t know that there are different ways for a cat to express feelings of distress, signs of excitement might be misread, and that could damage the cat, said Dennis Turner, a cat psychologist.
A 2013 study showed that stressors — such as unfamiliar caretakers, feeding delays or less play time — can cause medical and behavioral issues in cats. Even healthy cats started vomiting, changed their eating habits or stopped using their litter box when stressed.
If you do try to train your cat, experts suggest attaching a leash to a harness because pulling directly on the neck of a cat can be damaging for the animal. It’s important to start slowly, Delgado said. Put the harness on the floor so the cat can sniff it, and leave treats nearby. Drape it over the cat’s body, so he can get used to the weight of it. Cats might initially associate the harness with being grabbed. Take it off, and give them some treats to desensitize them to the weight of the harness. Then walk them around indoors with it on, before taking them outside.
Training may fail. Some vets and researchers say it may take time and persistence. If your cat never adapts, owners can create a more stimulating environment indoors by building vertical space or playing games.
Despite the initial misgivings, Copurrnicus has grown accustomed to the harness. Since the cat’s first hike, Fletcher has brought him camping, kayaking and rock climbing.
She says it’s not only about the companionship.
On one rainy camping trip, she watched Copurrnicus watch the rain slide down the tent for what seemed like an hour.
“It was cool to notice small things like that, and see the world through his perspective,” she said. “But I could also tell he was really comfortable: He thinks the tent is home.”