Sarah Benson is quite attached to her cat Marvin — both literally and figuratively.
Benson first encountered the friendly feline in the summer of 2007, when Marvin, who was a stray, started jumping a fence to play in her backyard with her corgi, Miakoda. When temperatures dropped before a snowy Colorado winter, Marvin began asking to come inside with the dog each evening.
After posting “found cat” flyers and learning from an animal shelter that Marvin wasn’t microchipped, the former veterinary technician got Marvin vaccinated and opened the door to let him in.
He immediately made himself at home.
“Marvin is very confident, wise and super relaxed — friends with everyone he meets,” Benson, 42, tells TODAY.com. “He likes the little things in life.”
When Benson moved into an apartment three years ago, she worried that Marvin would miss spending time outdoors. So she bought a cat harness and let Marvin get used to it by wearing it inside for several hours at a time and creating positive associations by offering him treats.
“At first he didn’t know how to walk in it,” she recalls. “It was a little funny watching him try to figure it out.”
After several days, he seemed more comfortable, so she attached a leash onto the harness, opened the door and followed him outside. He walked stiffly at first, but quickly adjusted.
“As soon as we got to the grass, he fell over and started rolling around,” she says with a laugh. “He loves just rolling around and touching the grass.”
Now whenever Benson reaches for her dog Willow’s leash, Marvin rushes over to the door and asks to go outside, too. Sometimes she walks both of her pets together.
Benson says it’s fun to watch Marvin’s reactions to his surroundings as well as the reactions he garners from passersby — typically smiles and laughs from humans, and confused looks from dogs.
While Benson realizes not all cats will enjoy walking on a leash — her late cat, Charney, would have been too fearful, she believes — she’s grateful to have found an activity that Marvin loves so much.
“It’s very important to me to make sure that he’s always living his best life,” she says.
Walking a cat on a leash can be an excellent way to strengthen the human-feline bond while offering mental stimulation, says Dr. Jane Brunt, veterinarian and owner of Cat Hospital At Towson in Baltimore, Maryland.
“Cats are stimulated by movement, so being outside and having exposure to the environment keeps their minds going,” she tells TODAY.com.
Since most experts like Dr. Brunt, who is also the former president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners and executive director of the nonprofit CATalyst Council, recommend that cats live indoors to help keep them safe — a leash offers a way to explore outdoors with less risk of injury or getting lost. It also helps indoor cats get used to traveling, which helps when visiting friends, family or their veterinarian.
“Having them on a leash is a good way for them to feel free, but you still have some control,” she says.
Before taking a cat on a leashed walk, Dr. Brunt recommends taking precautions to protect their health, happiness and safety. Here are some important tips to remember:
- Ensure they’re current on all vaccines and taking prescription parasite preventives for fleas, ticks and heartworms.
- Microchip your cat and make sure your contact information is up-to-date with the pet registry.
- Even in a harness — which will reduce their risk of neck injury or escape — have them wear a snug collar with an ID tag that includes your cat’s name and your cell phone number. You can also clip on a GPS tracking device for extra security.
- Let them get used to wearing the harness inside for short periods of time. The younger they are, the better.
- Don’t force a cat to go outside if they don’t seem comfortable or interested. “Make sure they’re ready,” Dr. Brunt cautions. “Not every cat loves it, so keep that in mind.”
The first time you plan to use a leash to go outside, open your door and see if your cat is curious. If so, pay attention to their movements on your walk, she says. Keep hold of the leash even if they are moving slowly in case they suddenly bolt — a lesson Dr. Brunt learned on a walk with her orange tabby, Stanley. (Stanley made it home and is living the good life with Dr. Brunt's toothless black cat, Fred.)
“If you have them on a leash, make sure your hand is on the other end,” she quips.
While some of her clients enjoy taking walks with their leashed cats, others prefer a cat-friendly backpack for outdoor excursions. One recommendation is a backpack with a clear dome that allows cats to peer out of them. It’s a good option for winter months, she notes.
Dr. Brunt recommends getting cats used to a backpack (or even a harness) just like a cat carrier: Keep it out and accessible to your cat in a warm area of your home, sometimes with treats or toys inside. Reward them for investigating it.
Ultimately, she hopes cat lovers will consider activities like taking their cats out for leashed walks, whether it's for their cat's benefit or their own.
“It is a win-win because your life is enriched because their life is enriched,” she says. “That promotes the bond between you and your cat and increases the enjoyment when you spend time together.”