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Cats on leashes ... yes, it's a thing

Jennifer Privett takes her Himalayan cat Jean Claude out for a stroll in San Francisco on June 28.
Chloe Veltman
Jennifer Privett takes her Himalayan cat Jean Claude out for a stroll in San Francisco on June 28.

On a sunny afternoon in San Francisco, Jennifer Privett took a stroll with her very large, very fluffy, blue-eyed Himalayan, Jean Claude.

With his luxurious, cream-colored coat and chocolate face, tail and paws, Jean Claude would turn heads even if he wasn't sauntering along the streets of San Francisco on a leash.

As it is, he attracts a lot of attention from passersby when Privett walks with him several times a week through the neighborhood.

"People all the time are stopping to talk to us," Privett said, just as a stranger walked up to ask the cat's name. "He's very sociable, and I've also made new friends because of this guy."

Privett said the cat accompanies her to nearby destinations such as the dry cleaner, a pizzeria and several coffee shops.

 Jennifer Privett and Jean Claude
Chloe Veltman / NPR
Jennifer Privett and Jean Claude

"If I ever go there without him on the weekends, they ask, 'Where's Jean Claude today?'" 

The cat dilemma

Whether or not cats should be allowed outside the home is controversial in this country — though they roam freely in many others, such as the United Kingdom, Morocco and Japan.

Cats can get hurt outside. But it is also estimated that cats kill over 1 billion birds each year in the U.S.

"There's no good answer to the cat dilemma," said Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist who's written a book about the ethics of keeping pets. "It really seems problematic to let cats outside because of the implications for wildlife and also because of the danger cats are in from cars and malicious people and so forth. At the same time, it also seems bad to keep cats indoors all the time, because they're wild at heart and they have a lot of cat behaviors that just don't get satisfied, or are difficult to satisfy, inside."

Taking cats out for walks while still restraining them has become a way for some owners to try to navigate this.

"I think for the right cat, it can certainly create environmental enrichment, get them some more exercise and things like that," said cat veterinarian Grace Carter.

But Carter said cat-walking is not for everyone.

"Some cats are too stressed for it," she said. "Some never adapt to the harness and leash." 

Reasons to walk a cat

For Privett, walking Jean Claude was a practical decision. She said they started taking neighborhood walks about 10 years ago, when the cat was 3.

"It kind of just happened naturally," she said. "I mostly have lived in apartments, and he wanted to go outside. But I didn't feel comfortable just letting him out anytime."

For fellow San Francisco cat owner Jennifer Balenbin, the great outdoors are a way to improve her kitty SpongeBob's mental health. They even show up together at occasional meetups in San Francisco parks for likeminded people and their sociable felines.

"The vet wanted to put him on Prozac," Balenbin said. "But she first was like, 'Can you let him outside, to roam around?' I was like, 'No, this is the city. I can't do that.' So we tried walking him. And we found that the more he goes out and he's with us, he's more calm at home."

A trend driven by Instagram

Cat-walking isn't a new phenomenon. Owners have long paraded their prize felines on leashes for competitive cat shows.

But the more recent trend has been fueled by social media.

"People are seeing these gorgeous photos of cats outdoors," said Laura Moss, the creator of Adventure Cats, an online resource for people who want to take their cats out and about safely. "And they want to try it for themselves."

Moss said owners who want to leash-train their cats should do it slowly and gently.

"Introduce the harness when they're indoors — don't put it on them yet, let them just sniff it and get used to it. Make it a positive experience, so put some treats on it," she said. "Once they're used to that, clip the harness on, tighten it, add the leash, and just practice walking around at home. And then, once your cat is comfortable like that, you can take them outdoors."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.