As a cat owner living in an apartment building, I often wonder how to best provide a cat with meaningful activities and a good quality of life. Nowadays, there are good books and guides for getting a cat to be active, but taking cats out in a harness in a city seems to be quite rare. You also hear a lot of prejudice against it. The learning can certainly take a lot of time and patience from the owner. In this post, I share my own experiences and tips on this topic.
The easiest way to get a cat used to a harness is to put one on it, pick it up and carry it straight out to a peaceful place. There will then be so many things to investigate that the harness will go unnoticed. It's pointless to have a cat squirm inside with a harness on; often the cat will just freeze or become anxious. Also, don't let a cat walk through the front door on its own, so it doesn't start running off into the stairwell.
Putting the harness on can be difficult at first, but gradually the cat will associate it with nice outdoor activities, and the dressing will get easier. There are a few basic models of harnesses. I myself have favoured a model where there's a strap also under the chest between the front legs (a Y-harness), so that the pressure on the cat's neck is not as strong as in the figure eight shaped harnesses. The harness should be adjusted to be sufficiently tight, so the cat can't easily wriggle out if it's scared. You can also try harnesses made for small dogs (eg. Rukka), which have a wide chest part, but you should make sure the buckles aren't too big so they weigh down on the cat. The fur of a Birman can also easily get caught on the harness if the straps are very narrow. It's worth having a small tag made for the harness with the owner's contact information, just in case. A short leather leash is best at the beginning; with a Flexi you have to stay alert in case the cat decides to climb trees or dash after birds for instance.
Getting used to going out should be started gradually and always on the cat's terms. There are also great differences between individual cats and what kind of outdoor activities they like. Our late Birman, Olli (Zhamanen Ouray SBI b), most enjoyed getting to sit in a safe and warm spot, sniffing the air. Sometimes less than 15 minutes of adventuring was enough, and the cat was very tired after going out. Our current cat Mauno (Pumpulivuori Glorious Snow Lion, SBI c21), on the other hand, is a more animated individual; doesn't really stay still but walks even long distances and happily stays outside for even over an hour. One cat enjoys going round familiar places, another exploring new environments. You should constantly observe how your cat is getting along while outside. A satisfied cat is relaxed, observant, curious, and goes about with its tail up. If for some reason the cat starts to look anxious during a walk, shrinks into a place, shakes, meows or starts to walk at your feet, the outing should be over for that occasion.
A cat in a harness draws attention. Mauno has learned to walk steadily along the side of the pedestrian/bicycle path. When you have a cat at the end of the leash, the dogs you meet show various reactions. Only a few bark, some are openly curious, and some don't know how to take it. Dog owners are sometimes a bit too excited and would like to let their dog have a sniff. A cat might, however, suddenly claw the dog, and their nails can do a lot of damage. You can never be sure of a dog's reaction, either. In the woods you're most likely to run into dogs running loose, which is the greatest cause for worry when going out with a cat. Mauno isn't really interested in dogs, but he also doesn't dodge them. For people, too, a cat on a walk seems to be a rather exotic sight. You certainly see dogs on a daily basis on the city streets, but if there are no cats in your inner circle, you seldom get to meet any, other than in cat cafés for example. You also get to answer many questions about taking your cat out and the breed in general.
Going out makes a cat more active both mentally and physically, and deepens the bond between it and the owner. Mauno seems to greatly enjoy climbing boulders, going through grass and padding along paths. Mauno has developed an understanding of the nearby areas remarkably fast, and can find his way home down to the correct exterior door. While outside, a cat is also exposed to different microbes, which is good for the health of a cat eating sterile, industrial food. If the cat or the owner is not into going out, some hay, branches, leaves, cones etc. can be brought from outside for an indoor cat to sniff and taste. The cat's vaccinations must of course be in order, and the vet should be notified of the outings when the cat is vaccinated. Ticks are a really annoying and nasty nuisance. You can get a solution for cats from pharmacies that's applied onto the skin every few weeks and kills ticks trying to cling onto the cat. It is still worth going over the fur after each visit outside, and the white fur of a Birman is quite convenient in this respect. My cats have let me wash their paws in the sink, which is necessary in the muddy conditions of spring and fall.
Cats differ a lot also in their cold tolerance. Kittens, old cats and cats with weak muscles tolerate cold poorly. A cat that's too cold begins to shiver, shrinks into a spot and lifts its paws. Strong wind can often make cats restless, because observing the environment becomes more difficult. Mauno has gone out through the Southern Finland winter, and doesn't seem bothered by rain, slush or even snow. Mainly he calmly walks across puddles, shaking his paws on the way. Perhaps such weather-resistance stems from the Siberian cat in his ancestry.
Some cats are satisfied with going out just occasionally, while others could go out several times every day. Going out with a cat is nice, but it takes commitment from the owner. If the cat is very active and enjoys being out, it might have a hard time accepting when for some reason it can't get out anymore, and the behaviour indoors may get to be very trying. It's therefore worth carefully considering whether to accustom a cat to going out. For the cat, it is certainly very meaningful, and a peaceful trip outside doesn't hurt a human either; you have much more time to experience the environment and nature when going at a cat's pace.
You can follow Mauno's adventures in the blog: https://daysoffluffiness.wordpress.com/
The articles was originally published in the magazine for members of Saint Birman's Cat in Finland