May-June 2019

The Leash Life

Why some people walk their cats

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Illustration by Goodloe Byron.

When Kate McConnell adopted her Siamese cats, Pearl and Auggie, two years ago, she promised the rescue group that she wouldn’t let them roam free outside.

“I did so very reluctantly. I think animals should have freedom,” says McConnell, an artist who lives in Upper Northwest D.C. Still, she realized that the bird population suffers because of outdoor cats, and she welcomed the notion of avoiding cat fights that could lead to costly vet bills.

Her solution: She walks Pearl and Auggie on a leash every day.

“It takes a lot of patience,” says McConnell, who follows the cats around the yard one at a time as they sniff their favorite spots and occasionally climb a tree. The next-door neighbor’s dog loves Pearl and goes nose to nose to greet her. People stop and say, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” To pass the time, McConnell sometimes brings a book or meditates, reminding herself that the somewhat annoying ritual is good for her cats’ well-being. “When they come in from the fresh air, they seem really content,” she says.

It takes time, but experts say cats can be trained to walk on a leash and that it’s beneficial for their health. With the growing trend to keep cats indoors for safety, many are overweight. The exercise outdoors helps, and the environmental stimulation prevents them from going stir-crazy. The key is to get a properly fitted harness, ease them into the routine, and, for owners who are used to walking dogs, lower the expectations. A walk with a cat isn’t much of a workout. “Cats are not used to being obedient and restrained,” says veterinarian Nicholas Albano, who owns Balance Veterinary Center in Rockville. “They have less of a desire to please than dogs.”

It’s best to start when cats are young, but it’s never too late, Albano says. Try a few minutes at a time—indoors at first. Then go out on a porch and move into the yard. Eventually, some cats can go for a block or two in the neighborhood before they call it quits. “It takes a couple of months to get acclimated to the process,” says Albano, who estimates that more than half of the cats that go through these steps should be able to walk on a leash. (About 5 to 10 percent of his cat-owning clients take their cats for a walk.)

Cole Paff gets lots of questions from passersby when she walks her orange tabby, Leonardo di Catrio. They want to know how she got “Leo” on a leash. “People love to stop and pet him, take pictures and talk to me about their own cats,” says Paff, who learned to walk Leo by watching videos online and easing him into it.

Paff has a long leash and follows Leo from bush to bush. “He definitely thinks he’s leading,” says Paff, who lives in an apartment in Chevy Chase and was motivated to get Leo exercise and fend off boredom. “When he started walking, he lost weight and seemed happier,” Paff says. “It really perks him up, and he’s less needy and meow-y.” Like many cats, Leo is scared of loud noises and is easily distracted. Paff often listens to a podcast while following Leo, but she knows to stay alert in case he darts after a squirrel or recoils at the sound of a passing car.

Walking cats outside can improve their mental health and keep them from engaging in destructive behavior, such as urine marking outside their litter box, Albano says. He warns owners to stay away from busy streets or dog parks with too much activity, and to tug cats away from eating things they find outside. Cats’ paw pads aren’t as thick as the pads on dogs, and cats tend to lick, so it’s important to wipe their paws when they’re back inside, he adds. Be sure cats are up to date on rabies and distemper shots—a task owners may let lapse if the animals are usually inside.

Some cats only like the outdoors on their terms. When the weather is warm, Sarah Manipady’s 9-year-old Russian Blue cat, Jake, enjoys relaxing on her deck and in the yard on a leash. She’s noticed that he’s calmer after being outside, less likely to bolt for the door. She has tried walking Jake in her Gaithersburg neighborhood, but he wants no part of it: “He just sort of rolls over.”