One of the most common things people say to my human when they see me on my leash is: “I tried putting a harness on my cat once and he fell over and wouldn’t get up!” Usually the story ends with the person giving up right away and never trying again.
Often, though, my human will encourage them to go back and try again, this time holding out one of the cat’s favorite treats, but just out of reach. This little trick will often get the cat up and walking pretty quickly. But let’s go a little deeper into this, to make the whole process of harness training your cat easier and more fun, both for you and the cat.
Oh, and this also goes for cats that fall over in clothes too, if you are into dressing up your cat.
Understanding why your cat is falling over in a harness
They feel confined
Think, for a moment, about how a cat moves. They are flexible, agile, and almost liquid. It’s a gracefulness that looks a bit wild in even the tamest housecat. So if you put anything unfamiliar on your cat’s body, it’s going to feel unnatural and it’s going to inhibit their range of motion. This bothers us cats more than almost any other creature because of the sensitivity of our bodies.
How your cat will react to this feeling depends on how independent and freedom loving they are. Cats who are used to getting their own way may get feisty and try to struggle out of the harness. If a cat feels very safe around you, and realizes you aren’t intentionally trying to be mean, they’ll just fall over and wait for you to take off the offending thing.
Your cat is scared
You have the whole picture in your head of getting the cat used to the harness and teaching them to walk on a leash. But your cat doesn’t. All they know is that with very little warning, they’ve been snapped or pushed into this unfamiliar thing and they have no idea what is going to happen next. It may even smell weird to them. Because you are a family member who otherwise takes good care of them, they may not put up much of a fuss — but they have no idea what’s up with this new development. So they fall over.
The harness is improperly fitted
Ideally, a harness should be pretty snug on a cat (as opposed to cat clothing, by the way, which should be loose and free). But the first few times your cat is wearing a harness, they are doing it indoors only. So it’s more important that your cat get used to having the harness on instead of having it tight enough. In fact, it should be a bit loose the first few times they wear it.
A note about cat harnesses
A cat harness should be adjustable at both the neck and torso. Look at your cat’s body. If the neck is not adjustable, it is pretty easy for them to wriggle and squeeze backwards out of a harness. Vest harnesses can be uncomfortable for cats for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. So you might want to consider a strap harness. If it is made specifically for cats and adjustable at both the neck and torso, it will still be secure.
Getting Your Cat Used to the Harness
Start off with the cat familiarizing themselves with the harness without it even being latched at all. Let them smell it. Pet them with it. Reward them with treats for tolerating its presence. When they are okay with it being around, put it on them gradually. Slip it over their head without latching the torso. When you do latch the torso, do it snugly enough so it doesn’t slide around, but looser than you would have it if you were taking them outside. Did I mention to offer your cat lots of treats and rewards for humoring you?
Gradually, through 10 minute sessions, tighten the harness until it is snug enough to keep them from wriggling out of it. You should just be able to fit a finger between the harness and the cat’s body. Now you can see why it’s best to tighten the harness gradually, to give the cat time to get used to moving in it.
Oh, and did I mention that you are giving out lots of rewards and treats during your sessions? And yes, the easiest way to get a cat moving in a harness is to hold out a HVT (High Value Treat), just far enough that they have to get up to get it. This is also a good way to get your cat walking on the leash too. That is actually how I learned.
I was pretty much a natural at harness training…although I did have my moments!
Cats and clothes
Now for the clothes thing. My human actually discourages people from trying to dress up their cats! A small percentage of cats don’t mind it (Binga was one of them), and an even smaller percentage actually welcome it (that would be me!). But unless there are medical reasons or they’re one of those hairless breeds, there are really no reasons to dress up your cat if they don’t want to.
If you do have a cat that’s amenable to wearing clothes, here are a few guidelines my human has learned with me over time.
The garment should fit loosely
Comfort should be the most important thing in cat clothes. Because unlike what some human fashion victims endure, style should never be painful or awkward for a cat.
Make sure it’s the right size
Most pet clothes are designed primarily for dogs. Dogs have shorter, broader torsos than cats, so those cute clothes you see in the dog section won’t always fit your cat. Measure your cat beforehand because sizes aren’t standardized in pet clothes. Then pick out clothes that have narrower, longer shapes, but still have room for your cat to move.
As you can see, these PJ’s were too small on me, so I only had to wear them for this post. They were also the only thing my human could find to put on me that I would flop over in!
Avoid putting things on their heads
Cats really don’t like having their vision or hearing impaired. A hat or any other headwear gets in the way of their eyes and ears doing their important jobs of keeping them in touch with their surroundings. So as cute as a cat in a hat can look, it’s not really recommended.
If they don’t like it, don’t push it
If I don’t like something my human puts on me, she will take it off and I will never see it again. Although I have to admit, that’s probably only happened a couple of times since September, 2014 when I first started wearing clothes! But anything your cat doesn’t like, return it, give it away, or toss it. Don’t make your cat wear it.
I hope you found this advice on harness training and clothes wearing helpful! Let me know what you thought in the comments.
Other posts you’ll enjoy:
Jennifer (and Cats) says
Very helpful, thank you!
I was one of those ‘give-uppers’…
I wanted to harness leash train our Toki. since he was so outgoing…but yup…I didn’t do it the right way…
Pipo & Minko tolerated clothes, decorative collars and a few costumes, but only because they knew the things were coming right off in a few minutes. Oh, and treats, LOL!
I think Summer must have had a hand, er, paw in writing this
column. Giving your cat treats was mentioned more than once.
Good information actually. We never had the need to dress the
cats in clothing but I would have liked to have used a leash if
I had known about them.
Catherine Lingg says
Honest Summer I tried all those things. Princess wants to be inside. Maybe she had a traumatic experience outside. Remember she was dumped at a high kill shelter with no info. Not even a name. Just get rid of her. She was 3 so she had been somewhere with someone. Hopefully I’ll never meet that human. Princess is special. A bit high strung and a talker but highly intelligent. Possibly the smartest kitty I’ve ever had . At 13, she’s earned her status as alpha house kitty
BellaDharma an BellaSita Mum says
Guud post Summer!!! Mee wuud not like anythin on mee….butt that iss from THE trauma of mee early life. BellaSita did drape 2 of ‘angel’ Unkell Siddhartha’ss clothess on mee, butt mee was havin nun of it!!!
An THE thott of a harness freekss mee out. Moew about non-complyant rite???
BellaSita laffed about backin outta walkin vest! Unkell Siddhartha allygator death rolled outta his walkin vest with sweater or tee-shirt or jackit on! Hee death rolled outta 3 diffyrent harnessess……hee was WHO-deen-ee fore sure…..
There’ss allwayss one 😉
Wee think yore a furry u-neek an amazin kitty Summer <3
**purrss** BellaDharma an **giggellss** BellaSita Mum
These are excellent tips!
Charles Huss says
Cats definitely don’t like a harness at first. I found one that was super easy to put on and that really helped.
Ellen J Pilch says
Great tips. I love the photo of you in your pj’s. Thank you for visiting us today. XO
Pawsome advice Summer!
I also think you have the right purrsonality for this and you trust your human.
Trust is important 🙂