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TL;DR My cat panics when I try to put him in a harness and I'm not sure if he's just afraid of his harness or if I'm doing something wrong. Are there any tips on buying cat harnesses? Is there something I can do to make him more comfortable with the harness?

Some background:

My aunt has a dog and a cat and, when she leaves on business trips, she brings them to my place and I look after them. I have a hedgehog and the dog is (rightfully) skeptical about bugging her after he got too close to her. The cat is curious, but knows not to bug her. So I'd say they all get along, essentially. I have to walk the dog every day, and the cat always tries to get out around the time that I go to take the dog out.

I can get the cat to come back (he's pretty obedient, despite being a troublemaker), but he seems to get lonely if the dog isn't around with him. He tends to misbehave when I leave to take the dog on walks (scratches furniture, meows a lot so the neighbors complain, disturbs my hedgehog to the n-th degree) whereas if I go to work and come back, he's usually pretty good (plays with toys, sleeps, leaves my hedgehog alone). My aunt is going away for a little longer than usual, and my apartment neighbors are normally lenient about the cat when my aunt leaves for a week or so, but I can't subject them to constant meowing for a month.

Furthermore, my hedgehog is used to quiet and dislikes when a shadow lurks overhead, like most hedgehogs do. The cat makes a lot of noise and jumps on her enclosure very often when left alone. If this were to happen continuously for a month, I think my hedgehog would get sick from stress. I do usually move her out of the living room and into the bedroom when the cat is around, but she still gets pretty stressed from the cat meowing more (and louder) than usual. Also the door doesn't lock, so the cat can still get into the bedroom. In my eyes, leaving the cat at home is not an option.

This summer, my aunt is leaving her cat and dog with me for a few months (she says it could extend into next year) and is going to be living out of the country, although not permanently. I'm pretty sure I should be dealing with this problem now, so I figured the best thing to do is learn to walk the cat. I'm looking after them now while my aunt is out of the state, and I've bought everything I need to start walking the cat.

I'm having difficulty, though, since I can't get him on a leash/harness. He does want to go outside, and if we're just in my yard he's pretty much safe, but he tends to get fussy when I use a leash/harness. Usually I can get him to do pretty much anything, but he hates this for some reason. He only put it on once without complaining and since then he's been a nightmare. I thought it might be too tight and brought him to the pet store to have them check, but they determined it was a good size and let me swap out for a set made of a different material after the ordeal we went through trying to get the harness on him. (They thought the material was itching him.) It isn't working. Surprisingly, he doesn't seem to be too upset with me even though I'm usually the one subjecting him to this.

Right now, I take the cat in a cat carrier while I walk the dog and I've been going to a park with fewer dogs in preparation for when the cat is ready to walk on a leash. I could probably keep that up, but he's miserable whenever he's in the cat carrier. How can I make him less frightened of his harness? Is there something I should be considering when looking for one outside of just the size and material?

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It looks like a "pure" training problem. I try to divide the answer in two parts: the choice of a training method and then implementation of the training.

How to train the cat: physiological and behavioural modifications?

The reaction of the cat is not that surprising. There are many training strategies available the ones I would use in this case are:

  • Desensitisation: you habituate the cat to the harness/leash, starting at a level he feels confortable with, then you move on very slowly, always staying behind his "threshold";
  • Counter-conditioning: related to the first point. The idea is to change the underlying response of the cat to the harness. You want to change an avoidance behaviour with a "hey let's go for a walk" state of mind;
  • Positive reinforcement: you reinforce the cat for any tiny step taken in the direction of wearing the harness. It is also a mean to achieve the first two points. This can be combined with "clicker training" or "marker training" (references to be added).

The first two points are about physiological modifications while the third one is more focussed on the behavioural modification.

So you're not doing anything wrong and the model/size of the harness is probably not the cause of the problem.

Desensitisation is about making the cat feel confortable with something new and that he considers undesirable. Counter-conditioning adresses a possible negative reaction he might have learned, possibly after just a few exposures to the harness. Positive reinforcement training is particularly suited in this case and with a cat (compared to punishment based training or other useless ideas).

In any proceed much more slowly and stop immediately to try to force the harness on the cat (you don't seem to be in a hurry anyway). In those situations we usually make the mistake to proceed at the pace we want things to go, not at the pace the pet is confortable with.

So think about the whole thing as if you would like to teach a gorilla to jump through a hoop: no frustration, no yelling, no intimidation, etc.

How to implement training sessions?

First thing is desensitization and/or counter-conditioning: habituate the cat to the harness. At the beginning that means without wearing the harness. Take the harness with you anytime you interact with the cat or anytime you groom him, pet him, etc.

Depending on how you feed the cat, you might want to start just before feeding time. If he's crazy about his food, try to have him interaction with the harness for a while, then feed him. Progress slowly and after some time you could try to put the harness on the cat and then giving him access to his food.

The goal is not to try to fit the harness on the cat while he's eating.

You can also invent games with the harness, or bring it with you in any other positive activity you do with the cat.

The goal of this first part is mainly to obtain the correct physiological response to the harness, ie. a good state of mind, not a particular behaviour. Of course some behaviour is associated with everything, but here you just want the cat to feel good with the harness close to him or on him.

Then the next part is to obtain the correct behavioural response, that's more in line with what we usually mean with training (eg. teaching a sit to a cat or dog, no real "emotion" to overcome). That's only possible if the first part is attained.

When you'll be able to fit the harness on the cat without provoking excessive reaction, start to positively reinforcement any good behaviour with the harness on: not moving for 1 second: reinforce him (treat or praise or play, all of the that, etc), coming to you, etc. You get the idea.

Your cat will decide what's a reinforcer: many he'll like a particular food treat, his favorite toy, etc. With cats it is in my experience a bit harder than with dogs. My cats get either overexcited or just not interested.

On top of all of these you could also apply the same principles without harness, just with a collar, and gradually manipulating the collar more and more (more or less tight, attaching a leash, etc.).

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I have a cat too, and he hates the harness as well. Maybe it is just uncomfortable for it so you can try getting a softer and less tight harness. If he or she is trying to reach behind and pull it off, that's a sign he doesn't want it. What I did is I left the cat with the harness on so he would get used to it, then attached a leash. Sometimes the cat just doesn't want to be on a leash. Train the cat and after putting on the harness give it a treat. Soon the cat will get used to the harness. As I said, sometimes the cat just doesn't want it, it's too tight or uncomfortable or he needs to get used to it. Hope this was helpful

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