Photo: Courtesy Tony Yu

We Asked the Pros How to Turn Your Indoor Cat Into an Epic Adventure Cat

by Elisabeth Sherman Mar 10, 2022

Cats have a certain collective reputation for being fastidious groomers, moody, particular about the company they keep, and enjoyers of luxury, relaxation, and sleep. So it may be surprising that adventure cats are at the center of the latest outdoor photography trend. Take a quick look at Instagram and you’ll see that there are about 729,000 posts under the hashtag #adventurecat — i.e., cats who ditched the comfortable cushions and met the great outdoors with the spirit of their wild ancestors.

These so-called adventure cats can do it all. They swim, camp, kayak (in a life vest, of course) hike, go on road trips, and even brave the snow. And they are wildly popular public figures on social media — for example, Reinhardt from British Columbia is a top Instagram adventure cat with 285,000 followers. In addition to being adorable, a second upshot of the growing number of Instagram adventure cats is that there’s now an increased interest in transforming indoor cats into traveling companions.

The idea that all cats will automatically be miserable outside is simply incorrect, says a leading vet. “Cats often get seen as the kind of pet that doesn’t want to go outside but I think we’ve kind of forced them to be that way,” explains Chicago-based veterinarian Dr. Lenyr Muñoz . “A lot of them actually thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically when they get to go outside and feel the wind on their whiskers.”

However, before you can strap a harness on your cat and take her on a hike, you can to follow some guidelines and tactics to ensure your cat is safe and happy. Wannabe adventure cat owners might be eager to capture that perfect shot of their life vest-clad cat at the prow of a kayak like a fearless explorer, but these fickle creatures require months of practice, training, and patience before they can call themselves true adventure cats. Here’s what you need to know (and potentially buy) if you want to train your cat to enjoy the outdoors.

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Adventure cat training requires patience

Archer adventure cat near the ocean

Photo: Courtesy Tony Yu

If you’re interested in bringing your cat on your next outdoor excursion, start planning months ahead of time, especially if your cat has never been outside before. If you’re planning on adopting a kitten to eventually become an adventure cat, it’s best to start training right away.

“If you have the ability to start super young, people need to take advantage of that, but that’s not always possible. The key is to take them out every single day, put the harness on them, and go outside,” says Muñoz. “That regular repetition of going out every day is very helpful to get them a little more curious each time.”

Cat owners still need to respect their pet’s temperament and tolerance for the outdoors until they become accustomed to the change in environment. Let your cat take the lead.

“This is not something you want to force a cat to do. If the cat is running or hiding, then use that as your cue to say, ‘I respect this and tomorrow we’ll try again.’”

One way to help your cat get acclimated to the outdoors is by setting up a soft-sided mesh playpen on your porch or in your backyard where your cat can observe and smell the environment while still feeling safe. From there, you can introduce a harness and leash, but be prepared to commit to a months-long process.

Vivian, Toronto-based “cat mom” to Archer, knows from experience that forcing a cat outside before he’s ready doesn’t work. Vivian describes Archer as “very curious and very brave,” but he immediately hid under the couch the first time she opened her backdoor to see if he might be interested in going outside. She put a harness on him when he was about three months old, which inspired him to flop on the ground like a fish and refuse to move. But eventually, he began walking up and down the stairs in his harness and leash. Once he was used to that, she reintroduced the backyard.

“When it comes to training [a cat], sometimes we expect results very quickly, but with a cat, patience is so important,” she says. “We were just very consistent, taking him out every few times a week. It took six or seven months to build up his confidence.”

Lindsey, cat mom to Arizona adventure cat Aries, noticed that he spent all day looking out through her apartment window, which she took as a clue that he wanted to spend more time outdoors. She started the training process by walking him up and down the stairs of their building before venturing onto the patio. But before Aries could even get to the patio, he needed to get used to the harness.

How to train your cat to wear a harness

Archer adventure cat harness

Photo: Courtesy Tony Lu

A harness is the most important tool in your adventure cat arsenal. Cat owners cannot clip a leash to the cat’s collar — leashes can strain cats’ necks and cause injury. They’re also not as secure around a cat as a dog; cats can easily slip out of collars and bolt into traffic, resulting at best in a scared or lost cat. But cats are infamously intolerant of fabric touching their fur or anything else that might make them feel trapped or constrained, so it takes some training before they become accustomed to the harness.

“We left [the harness] by his food, and he was smelling it and biting it, and playing with it. Then we put it on loosely for ten minutes, gave him a treat, then took it off,” explains Lindsey, who also recommends measuring your cat before purchasing a harness so that you’re sure to buy the right size. “And then we attached the leash [to the harness] and let it drag behind him.”

Lindsey and Aries practiced this routine, gradually introducing him to her backyard and front porch. Six months later, he was ready for his first hike.

Most cats have heightened senses, so the smells of other animals and noises from birds and traffic might be triggering at first. The first time you take your cat on a walk, it should be in a quiet place close to home without distractions like ducks or passing cars. From there, your cat can graduate to more difficult hikes.

“My advice is to observe your cat’s body language, and try to understand how they feel at that moment,” says Vivian. “Your message to your cat when you’re outside is that they can trust you.”

Why every adventure cat needs a backpack

Archer adventure cat kayak

Photo: Courtesy Tony Yu

The second-most important item for any adventure cat is a cat backpack. We love the PetAmi Premium Backpack Dog & Cat Carrier from Chewy, which is both affordable and super durable.

“Cats need to take breaks,” says Vivian, “if it’s too noisy or if they’re in a new environment. They need to have a place where they feel safe. So the backpack is a safe haven for them.”

Vivian says that Archer stays cozy inside the backpack during the winter, especially when there’s snow on the ground, and even rides on top of it sometimes. She finds it especially useful if a dog approaches Archer on the hiking trail.

“I pick him up right away and put him on top of the cat backpack,” she says,” so that there’s distance between him and the dog or the bicycle, or whatever it is that he feels uncomfortable with.”

Lindsey says she finds the cat backpack most useful when Aries gets tired. Usually after about two miles, Aries needs to rest, so Lindsey moves him to the backpack while she keeps hiking.

How to keep your adventure cat safe

Aries adventure cat hiking

Photo: Courtesy Aries Adventure Cat

Before introducing your cat to the outdoors, make sure your cat is current on vaccines and that they’ve been treated for fleas and ticks (topical treatments and pills are available at pet stores).

Vivian coats Archer’s paws with a protective wax before hikes and cleans his sensitive toe pads of rocks, dirt, and other debris after reach hike. She also carries treats and a collapsible water bowl. And she recommends carrying a cat first-aid kit during hikes with, among other items, a pair of tweezers and bandages.

“The other thing I recommend is a dog spray,” adds Lindsey. “It just scares the dog away, but it doesn’t hurt them.”

One more thing to keep in mind: White cats are more susceptible to sunburn, so if you have a white cat you’d like to hike or paddle with, be sure you’ve train your furbuddy to tolerate a sweater or a jacket beforehand as they’ll need the extra protection. Dr. Muñoz also suggests that you equip your adventure cat with a brightly patterned collar birds can spot from far away, signaling to them that your cat is a potential predator.

Lastly, remember that the training process — and ultimately exploring the wonders and beauty of the planet together — can bring you closer to your cat.

“Aries and I have become a lot more bonded and connected,” says Lindsey. “I can read him like a book.”

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