A decade or two ago, the idea of a cat walking on a leash was laughable. Most people would consider the concept outrageous. But animal care is evolving fast. More than ever before, companion animals are seen as valued members of the family. That means keeping them safe from the dangers of free-roaming outdoors.
At the same time, nomadic lifestyles are becoming highly popular. So what do you get when you combine the two concepts?
Adventure cats! The adventure cat leads an exciting lifestyle, traveling from place to place, and enjoying constantly changing scenery. He leads a safer life than the outdoor cat and a far more exciting one than the indoor cat.
Our adventure cat, Iggy, always draws plenty of attention from strangers wherever we take him. But rather than simply laughing at him or admiring him, many people want to know: how is it that we trained him? How can their cats learn to do the same?
Soft eyes, forward whiskers, tail high in a “question mark” formation: all signs of a confident, happy cat. Learning to read your pet’s body language is essential.
Reinforcement-based training: your key to success!
Positive reinforcement-based training is your foundation for creating a relationship with an animal. Extensive behavioral evidence shows us that animals (and humans!) learn best through the use of rewards over punishment. Positive reinforcement training is an opportunity to bond with your pet, learning to communicate with each other through body language, words, phrases, and hand signals.
For dogs, types of reinforcers vary: toys, activities, games, off-leash time, and even praise can work, depending on the individual. Cats tend to largely prefer high-value treats. The stinkier, meatier, and grosser the treats, odds are, the higher value they are to the cat. What’s downright disgusting to you is (unfortunately) what your cat is likely to enjoy the most. Freeze-dried whitefish treats, as well as whole sardines, are Iggy’s favorite. Nasty!
To begin training, you’ll want to find 2 to 3 treats that the cat simply goes nuts for. Variety is key. The high-value treats should be used only for training, given mostly in tiny morsels. Occasionally, throw in a large treat as a random “jackpot” to keep interest high. There is nothing our cat, Iggy, won’t do for a treat!
Training will require the use of a marker in addition to a reward. A marker is what we use to mark a desired behavior. It can come in the form of a training clicker, a simple phrase such as “yes!” or a sound of your choice.
Walking on a non-pet-friendly trail in Lassen National Park, Iggy respects the rules by snoozing in his backpack.
Kitty’s travel container: a safe space
Feeling safe in a travel container is a key aspect of feline safety on the road. A well-trained cat can join you for a hike, but what happens when an off-leash dog approaches? What if the cat becomes spooked, and starts to behave out of control? Frightened cats can be difficult to restrain without being scratched or bitten, and almost no harness is completely escape-proof.
This is why having a travel container, such as a backpack or soft carrier, can be a lifesaver. The container should be large enough for the cat to stand up and turn around, and should only be used for limited amounts of time.
Start by leaving the container open in the house with a blanket of your cat’s inside. You can feed treats inside of the container to create a positive association. Once the cat is completely confident with the container, begin closing them in for only a second at a time. Mark and reward! Extend the time slowly, and eventually progress to carrying the cat around the house in the container. Mark, reward!
Next, you can experiment with walking outdoors with the cat in the container, paying careful attention to their body language. Stay within the cat’s comfort zone, always providing plenty of rewards. Feeling safe in their familiar container will begin to boost the cat’s confidence in new environments, and help them view their container as a safe place.
Exploring scary triggers on his own: Iggy shows his bravery at the Ohanapecosh River in Mount Rainier.
Expanding kitty’s comfort zone: harmful training myths, and how to do it right
Domestic cats descended from small, African felids. Effective hunters as they are, cats are not apex predators. By nature, these animals are both predator and prey animals. This means that cats are naturally skittish around loud noises, unfamiliar animals, and new environments.
Every cat is an individual with different triggers that feel overwhelming or frightening. Our adventure cat, Iggy, has worked through his triggers all of his life: large dogs, joggers, runners, and trucks with loud engines. Scary stuff!
A deeply harmful training myth that applies to both dogs and cats is the idea that animals must be pushed out of their comfort zone. This is entirely unscientific and downright false. Plus, it’s highly likely to backfire. In reality, a good trainer should work very hard to absolutely never push an animal out of his or her comfort zone. So how, you might ask, do they learn? Instead of pushing an animal beyond their comfort zone, you can expand the comfort zone.
Counterconditioning: the antidote to fear
As an aspiring animal trainer and animal behavior geek, I love being armed with a plethora of behavioral terminology. Understandably, not everyone has the time or resources to do the same.
But if you want to learn one extraordinarily useful term, learn about counterconditioning.
Counterconditioning is the process of taking a stimulus- whether it’s a frightening one, or a neutral one- and pairing it with positive stimuli in order to change the subject’s emotions around it. If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, think of Pavlov’s dogs. These hungry canines learned to associate the sound of a dinner bell with a tasty meal, and would salivate at the sound of the bell alone.
You can use counterconditioning in endless ways with your pets at home. One method is to use this to prepare them for the outside world. Get your treats ready! You can start with low-volume audio of car sounds, ambulances, dogs barking- anything that might be frightening to a cat. Mark, reward. Given that the cat remains unphased and comfortable, you can gradually increase the audio, continuing to mark and reward.
If your cat is comfortable in the car, you can use this tactic to expose kitty to the sights of dogs, joggers, cars, and more from a safe vantage point. It’s always better to over-prepare and have a positive first adventure experience than to under-prepare and have kitty’s first adventure end poorly.
Never force an animal to move towards something frightening- even if it seems like a silly fear to you. Yes, that plastic bag flapping in the wind is a very real and serious threat in kitty’s mind! Instead, boost your cat’s confidence by showing them that you respect their desire to feel safe. Use counterconditioning out on walks, rewarding the cat for looking towards new objects. The more positive experiences your cat has, the more their confidence is going to improve, and the more likely they will be to investigate “scary” things on their own.
One of baby Iggy’s first adventures fully harnessed up.
Introducing the leash and harness
Nina, my girlfriend, began desensitization training with Iggy when he was just an infant. She was lucky enough to have fostered his orphaned litter from four weeks of age, so she had plenty of time to work with him.
Iggy began harness training at just ten weeks old, which gave him a massive advantage. That doesn’t mean that an older cat can’t be trained for adventuring- it just might take more time, and things might progress a bit more slowly. That’s okay!
Little kitten, big world! Iggy learns to associate the leash and harness with treats, fun, and visiting new places.
So, here’s your first counterconditioning homework. Your neutral stimulus is your cat’s new harness. Your positive stimulus, as always, is tasty, stinky treats.
Start by holding the new harness in the air. Naturally, your cat should look at the novel new object. Mark and reward, and place the harness back behind your back. Repeat.
Suddenly, this boring object is beginning to look quite exciting; a magical harbinger of treats. Advance to petting the cat with the harness, and eventually, laying the harness on the cat’s back for a brief second. Mark, reward. Mark, reward. Make his or her first time wearing the harness extremely brief. Never force anything over an animal’s head.
Using treats to lure the cat’s head through the harness is ideal. If they’re uncertain at first, you can start by training them to stick their head through a large loop (a leash works fine) and gradually decreasing in size. Iggy has a special cue for this: “Saddle up!”
When the cat is comfortable putting his or her head through the harness, and has worn it a few times, try leaving it on for a few minutes while feeding tasty treats. Try some gentle feather wand play to help the cat adjust their gait in the strange new outfit.
There’s no one-size-fits-all formula to this. Some bold kittens might progress to wearing the harness in 48 hours; some skeptical, older cats may take several weeks. Be patient, and pay attention to your cat’s body language. Move at a pace that feels comfortable to them.
Kitty’s first adventure
Hi! Iggy performs his “wave” trick on BLM land in rural Oregon.
You’ve reached the point where you’ve done everything to prepare for your cat’s first adventure. You’ve used counterconditioning to expand your cat’s comfort zone, and to introduce the harness. You’ve created a safe space with a backpack, soft carrier, and ideally, with your vehicle as well. It’s time to get outside!
A fenced yard or quiet garden are ideal places for a first walk. If you’re living on the road with your cat, try to find a quiet spot with plenty of tree and brush cover, little to no traffic, and no off-leash dogs. Forests are highly ideal. Cats tend to feel unsafe when exposed, so a beach is just about the worst possible place to start with.
Have your cat harnessed and leashed up prior to opening your soft carrier or backpack. Unzip, and let kitty step out into the world on his or her own terms. Mark, reward. This is not a time to skimp on the treats! Follow the cat where he or she wants to go, never putting pressure or tension on the leash. The cat should feel like they’re in control.
If you have a friend or partner who can join you, this is a boost to the cat’s safety. One can care for the cat, and the other can scout for dogs, wildlife, and other potential threats.
Even if the cat is having fun, it’s best to keep this first walk short and sweet, ending on a good note. The longer you’re walking, the higher your odds of running into something spooky. Leave them yearning for more!
You can use a consistent location to build your cat’s confidence, sprinkling in new adventure sites as they continue to learn and improve. Have strangers offer your cat treats to create a positive association with new people. We often bring Iggy to pet stores and ask for the staff to feed him sample treats- it’s made him into a much friendlier cat!
Living on the road with us for six months now, Iggy has never been more confident in new places. With practice and patience, your cat can do the same!
Chelsea Pinkham is a traveler, writer, and aspiring animal trainer currently road-tripping across North America with her partner, Nina, and their adventure cat, Iggy. Chelsea lives full-time in a solar-powered 1991 Chevy Horizon. She is passionate about educating and inspiring others to pursue a nomadic lifestyle in an affordable, sustainable manner- and to include their companion animals in their travels!