On a short leash: ‘Walking our cat in the front garden has become a daily ritual’

As the owner of an indoor cat – a short-haired tabby, named Monkey – I’m in a bit of a pickle. I want to keep him safe from the thousand natural enemies outside, including the storm drain and the Range Rover, but I also want him to live a full life: to feel the breeze on his whiskers, fresh grass under his paws; to have exotic adventures stalking the wild tundra like some primal cat god.

In the end, my wife and I compromised and decided to walk Monkey on a leash in our front garden. It wasn’t quite the wild tundra I had in mind, but it was the best we could do in suburban Melbourne.

The leash is a basic nylon harness that you can buy from any pet store – one loop in the front, one loop in the back. When we showed it to our cat, he seemed sceptical. We managed to get the thing clipped on, but Monkey just flopped sideways like a sack of water, refusing to move. Dragging him slowly along the floorboards didn’t seem like a promising start. But we persisted, and after a few weeks he stuck his nose outside and entered a world he’d only ever seen through glass.

As time went on, walking our cat in the front garden became a daily ritual, one that Monkey seemed to enjoy. Whenever we grabbed the lead he’d trill and purr and run to the front door, like an excited puppy. The garden became his personal kingdom. He ate interesting grass and smelled things and got stuck in bushes and pounced at bees. He’d left Plato’s three-bedroom cave and sipped the milk of true knowledge.

But we did notice something during this experiment. People thought we were weird. Like dotty, English eccentric-level weird. Passersby would stop and gape, or laugh mockingly, or say things like: “Oh my goodness, it’s a cat!”, as if a cat was some strange and mythical creature they’d only read about in books. Our neighbours didn’t say anything, but I could feel their judgment through the blinds.

Other cat walkers I’ve spoken to experienced similar stigma. My mother-in-law takes her two cats to the local park in a special pet stroller – which even I admit might be pushing it. She says the bemusement of strangers and flat-out hostility from dog owners is very real. Walking dogs is socially acceptable. Dogs own the pavements and the parks. Walking a cat is somehow aberrant and peculiar, like walking your accountant.

“Cats can be trained far more than we used to think,” says veterinarian and behavioural expert Dr Emma Hughes. “But cats are not small dogs. It all comes down to the skill of the owner and reading the animal’s body language.”

Hughes says there’s no blanket rule when it comes to walking cats. Vets are neither for it, nor against it. All the Australian Veterinary Association says is that indoor cats must be “contained or subject to curfew and, where contained, must be provided adequate enrichment”. How you enforce a cat curfew is anyone’s guess. Hughes says walking a cat outside probably does fall under the banner of “adequate enrichment”. But there’s definitely a right and wrong way to do it.

“It needs to be introduced safely and slowly,” she says. “Getting your cat used to wearing a harness so that it can be taken outside and allowed to wander and sniff and smell for a bit is very different to ‘walking it like a dog’ down the street. Cats tend to be more attached to their environment, so if you are thinking of a harness, I’d recommend taking the cat to a familiar spot each time, like an enclosed backyard. The cat will slowly learn that this is part of their world.”

And it’s not just about keeping your cat safe, of course. The CSIRO found that unleashed pet cats kill hundreds of millions birds, lizards and small squeaky things each year, many of them Australian natives. That works out at roughly 110 native animals for each “outdoor” pet cat.

Hughes recommends cat runs and outdoor enclosures for this reason. They let your cat choose when and how it wants to go outside, they keep the cat safe from passing German shepherds or wedge-tailed eagles while keeping the odds of snacking on native wildlife pretty slim. They also come judgment-free.

But in this age of tolerance and enlightenment, have we been too quick to condemn cat walkers? Cats have four paws and a dream, just like everyone else. Shouldn’t we open our backyards, and our hearts, and give cats a chance to run free(ish)?

Just some cat food for thought.