When my partner and I adopted Charlie last January, we promised him that he would have a similar quality of life to his new sibling, Reggie, our six-year-old Beagle/Terrier mix and maven of the outdoors. Reggie enjoys regular trips to local state parks and forest preserves, and is our trusted hiking companion during our once-or-twice-a-year trips to Colorado. A typical day for her involves at least one 40-minute romp through the former golf course (now well-maintained park) across the street from our house, and she’s as comfortable napping in the grass as she is in her bed.
None of this is particularly out there for a young, healthy dog. And we thought Charlie could handle most of the same things. With one minor difference—he’s a cat.
“We don’t think of cats as animals we can put in harnesses and take outdoors, but I think with most cats we can,” says Laura Moss, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Adventure Cats, a resource for people who want to embark on an adventurous lifestyle with their cats (or who just enjoy looking at images of people who already do). Scrolling through the page you’ll see pictures of cats on top of mountains and on the bows of boats. There are cats in backpacks being carried by their parents up steep rocky walls and lounging blissfully beside waterfalls. It’s enough to make you wonder: can I do this with my own cat?
The makings of an adventure cat
In the pet cat world, there are indoor cats, outdoor cats, and those whose lives incorporate a bit of both. What’s less common is the indoor cat who explores outside safely leashed beside his caregiver. Part of the reason for this is the misguided perception that cats can’t be handled on a leash in the same way that dogs can, an idea that can be traced back to the beginning of the feline/human relationship.
“With dogs, we domesticated them and kind of selected for the traits that we saw as being beneficial to us,” Moss says. “Cats historically domesticated themselves. When we started farming, they moved in to feed off the rodents feeding off our crops, so the relationship evolved very differently.” Cats still share most of their genes with their undomesticated counterparts, and while they often are sweet and loving, they are inherently wild. Life is still dictated very much on their terms. As such, not all cats are going to be amenable to walking on a leash. As Moss explains, it can be a bit of a crapshoot.
“I do think there are certain traits you see in cats [who] are just more valiant or curious or just naturally good in the outside world, but not every cat that seems brave or courageous is going to take to this lifestyle easily.”
A cat’s openness to a more adventurous life depends on a mix of his personality and behavior, but even unflappable felines may still reject wearing a harness. With Charlie, we saw a cat who had a natural curiosity for the outdoors. His foster parents warned us that he was always trying to dash out the door, and from his very first moment in our house he found peace on the windowsills, staring out at the squirrels and birds and trees. When I’d take Reggie out in the backyard I would look to the door and see Charlie staring out at us, seemingly wondering why we’d left him behind.
As experts like Moss recommend, we started Charlie’s harness and leash training indoors. Neither seemed to bother him at all, and within a week, he joined us for the first time in the backyard.
Protecting your cat—and the local wildlife
Cats and dogs are different in many ways, but they require similar preventative measures to be kept safe in the outdoors. Soon after Charlie’s first day in the backyard (which quickly became a daily occurrence, weather permitting) we brought him to the vet so we could discuss proper safety.
The outside world is teeming with parasites and potentially harmful insects. All cats who spend time outdoors need to be up-to-date on their vaccines, as well as flea/tick and heartworm preventatives. They should be kept on a leash at all times, for both their safety and the safety of wildlife around them. As our vet explained, cats’ stomachs are built tough—if they kill and eat a bird or small animal they’ll probably be just fine—but taking your little wild one outside puts the onus on you to protect the creatures around you.
“We see so many studies these days about how cats impact local wildlife populations,” Moss says. “Cats are smart; they’re often smarter than we are. For your cat’s safety and for any wildlife, you want to make sure that you don’t put your cat outside if you’re not also going to be outside watching him.”
Moss recommends also taking care to not actively attract wildlife to areas of your yard where your cat will spend time. If you have a bird feeder or bath, move it to a part of the yard you know your cat won’t frequent.
Any place your cat can catch a bit of fresh air and sunshine is great, but what about those kitties who want to really explore? One of the most addictive qualities about the images on Adventure Cats is they show cats in places you would never expect to see them. If your cat has taken well to the harness and leash and enjoys being outdoors, and if you’ve followed all the recommended safety measures, there’s no reason you can’t venture further out into nature.
We started Charlie out with a trip to the park. He took to it instantly, bounding along the paved trail next to his canine sister. On some subsequent trips, he’s preferred to take his time instead, sniffing flowers and rubbing his cheeks along the scratchy bark of trees. No matter what pace he chooses the rest of us are happy to indulge. Moss says her cats tend to favor going slow, but she doesn’t mind either.
“It’s a really fun way to engage with nature in a different way,” Moss says. “Your cats are calling the shots. We explore at a much slower pace, but it still has its own type of value.”
As we started traveling further with Charlie, there were some lingering questions. For starters: what if he has to go to the
“Many cats that have outdoor access will eliminate outside; however, some cats wait to get back inside to their litterbox to eliminate,” says Colleen Currigan, DVM, founder of Cat Hospital of Chicago. “It’s fine for a cat to wait until home, and many cats will prefer to do so, even if a litterbox is offered in the car or otherwise during travel.” Stubborn cats can hold their urine for 12 hours or more, Currigan notes, but it’s nothing to worry about.
Then there’s the issue of dirt. Currigan says that for minor dirt (say, a roll in the garden), cats are pretty adept at cleaning themselves. For heavier messes, she suggests waterless shampoo, or a cloth soaked in warm water. You could attempt a bath too, if you and your feline are up to the task.
Whether you decide to take up the adventure lifestyle with your cat or not, it’s important that more people are starting to open up to the idea. Those who see Charlie on his leash at the park often respond with happy surprise at the idea that he’s there. Most of them then wonder aloud why they don’t see more cats doing the same. We’re excited for the day he’s ready to show off what cats can do on the trails in Colorado.
“I don’t want to say we want to ‘rebrand’ cats, but it’s sort of the idea,” Moss says about Adventure Cats. “We want to show people that you can have adventures with a dog or with a cat.” The best part so far, she notes, is hearing from people that say they were inspired to adopt a cat after looking through the site.
“I’m glad that we can show that cats aren’t necessarily what you think, and cat [parents] aren’t necessarily what you think. We’re all pretty badass.”
1. Purchase a harness for your cat that fits snugly. Don’t simply attach a leash to your cat’s collar as this could choke or
seriously injure your cat, or even slip off.
2. Remember that it’s normal for your cat to freeze up, refuse to walk, or move strangely the first few times he wears a harness. Your cat has never experienced the sensation of something on his back before, so it may take him some time to adjust.
3. Take it slow. Don’t force your cat to do anything he isn’t ready for, whether it’s putting on a harness or venturing further down the trail. Doing so may not only frighten your cat, but could also harm your relationship with him.
4. Always carry your cat outside. A cat that’s used to walking outside when he’s leashed will also start walking out the door when he’s not leashed, and you don’t want to encourage door dashing.
5. Don’t reward whining. If your kitty loves the sun on his fur and the wind in his whiskers you may find yourself with a cat who’s always whining to go outside. Avoid taking him out when he’s pestering you. If you reward this type of behavior,
it’ll only going to get worse in the future.