LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Karen Nichols wanted a life unchained to the monotony of twice-daily dog walks, so she got herself three cats. But she still strolls the neighbourhood on nice days — with her cat Skeezix.
Nichols took part in a program recently that encouraged finding ways to bring out the wild nature in her cat. Some cat behaviour problems stem from boredom, which can be stymied by enriching their environment and involving them in activities, experts told the class.
So Nichols started training Skeezix to walk with a leash before he turned 1. It took a couple of weeks to get him used to a leash and a stroller. (Skeezix goes into the stroller when a dog approaches.)
"You must be patient and devote time to the training every day, but if it's apparent after a week or so that your cat detests it, you need to give it up," said Nichols, who lives in Castro Valley near San Francisco and is the managing editor of Mousebreath Media and mousebreath.com, an online cat lifestyle magazine.
The United States is home to more than 74 million pet cats, according to the American Pet Products Association. Although the overwhelming majority of domestic cats likely have never been on a leash, every cat should be comfortable on a leash, in a carrier and travelling in a car, Nichols said.
Training a cat involves patience, repetition and food or treats while getting it used to wearing a snug harness, being leashed and walking. The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have instructions on their websites.
Whether a cat is ready for a walk depends on its personality. Friendly, curious, mellow and confident cats are good candidates, while scaredy-cats are usually indoor lurkers and prefer to stay that way, said Nancy Peterson, the humane society's cat programs manager and a registered veterinarian technician.
Disabled cats, including ones that are declawed, deaf or blind, should not be walked, because if they get loose, they cannot defend themselves, she added.
Unlike dogs, cats should be kept on a tight leash. With a longer lead — anything more than 6 feet — a frightened cat might shimmy under a car, jump over a fence or dive around a corner.
"You always want your cat in sight and within grabbing distance," Peterson said.
When Peterson and her four cats moved from San Diego to Washington 15 years ago, she could only take two of them to put under the airplane seat. Friends went ahead of her with the other two. They warned her she'd have to take the cats out of their carriers to get through security.
"I had harnesses on both cats and two leashes with me," she said, but she still demanded a closed room before she opened the carriers.
JaneA Kelley, a cat owner in Portland, Maine, said she gave her cat Siouxsie leash training because she wanted to see if the cat would be interested.
"I was surprised to find out that she was actually pretty into it," said the webmaster for the cat blog Paws-and-Effect.com.
She cautioned, however, that a cat walk might not be for every feline: "If your cat is shy, I'd recommend against traumatizing her by forcing her to do something that scares her."
Cat-walkers should watch out for poisonous plants, chemicals and insecticides and protect their feline charges against fleas, ticks, heartworm and other parasites, Peterson said. Winter walks mean looking out for antifreeze or salt products on the ground, while owners of white cats should be mindful of skin cancer in excessive summer heat, she said.
Whether or not a cat can go for a walk, teaching it to wear a harness is a good idea, said Lisa-Maria Padilla, whose cat Twyla Mooner won the Cat Fanciers Association first national agility award a few years ago.
"It's not just to go to the vet. It increases the cat's sensory experiences and enriches the cat. It makes it safer when we have company and easier to get the cat in case of emergency. The cat becomes more portable," said the cat trainer from Reston, Va.
Every cat she breeds is trained to wear a harness, she said.
Ultimately, though, the decision to walk a cat is up to the owner. Peterson, who trained three of her cats to walk with leashes, said she no longer takes out the one cat who liked the walks.
"Toby enjoyed it but I didn't feel it improved the quality of his life," she said.
So she has resumed her couch potato ways, and Toby and her other cats get their exercise chasing the toy wand she waves as she watches TV or reads a book.