Why some pet owners are taking their felines on the cat walk — and why it’s not as easy as it looks

British Columbia·New

Cat owners are seeking ways to indulge their pets’ primal instincts with exposure to the outdoors while not letting them roam free where they might endanger themselves or the wildlife they prey on. To that end, leashed walks is a solution some embrace.

Hayley Vendiola of Richmond, B.C., with her cat, Reinhardt. Reinhardt, Vendiola explains, loves to get out and explore parks and wilderness areas. She says she keeps him on a leash to keep him and wildlife safe. Cat walkers like Vendiola may be part of a growing trend.(Christian Amundson/CBC)

When Hayley Vendiola, 23, takes Reinhardt for a walk, she draws a crowd.

In Richmond's Minoru Park, a stream of onlookers, a photographer and even a perambulating sketch artist all stopped to catch a glimpse of the dashing two-year-old Siberian cat out on his leash exploring the gardens.

"A lot of people think he's quite brave looking and quite fierce, but he's actually a really big scaredy cat, which is really funny," said Vendiola.

Vendiola and Reinhardt are part of what may be a growing trend.

Hayley Vendiola and Reinhardt, in his carrier. The right equipment is important for anyone who wants to take their cat into the great outdoors, including a well-fitted harness and a carrier they can be put into if they are scared or ready to go home.(Christian Amundson/CBC)

Cat owners are seeking ways to indulge their pets' primal instincts with exposure to the outdoors while not letting them roam free where they may endanger themselves or the wildlife they prey on. To that end, leashed walks are a solution some embrace.

"He loves to watch the birds, he loves to watch the squirrels," said Vendiola of Reinhardt's outdoor escapades. "He does get a chance to sort of get those hunting instincts out but without us having to worry about him actually killing anything."

Reinhardt the cat walks on a leash in Minoru Park in Richmond.(Christian Amundson/CBC)

But not every cat expert loves the trend, saying taking cats for walks, even leashed, is just too dangerous.

Those who endorse cat walking say it requires patience and practise — or else it can be as difficult as herding some type of animal that normally doesn't like to be herded.

A star at the park, and on social media

Vendiola said proper training has been essential for Reinhardt. He's been practising since he was a kitten, first indoors, then in a backyard, then in parks and then further afield.

They have gone to places like Banff and Vancouver Island for incredible photo opportunities, which Vendiola has turned into an Instagram account with 179,000 followers.

"We didn't expect to get so many offers for sponsorships and stuff," Vendiola said. "It's really interesting to see him in advertisements."

Those sponsorships can net up to $1,500 per post, Vendiola said, but more commonly, free products are the payment. It's a nice bonus she said, but definitely not enough to make cat walking a career.

The social media success of some of these leash-walked cats is troubling to Tasha Bukovnik, president of the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association.

The cat advocacy group adopts out cats and helps finds missing ones. Bukovnik says in recent years, more people have tried taking their cats on leashed walks.

VOKRA president Tasha Bukovnik says her group advocates for cats to be kept indoors. She says too often, people simply grab a cat and a leash and take their pet to the park, which can lead to the cat getting scared and running off, perhaps never to be seen again.(Christian Amundson/CBC)

"They see a lot of posts on social media. It's become a new hot trend," Bukovnik said.

"We get calls on a regular basis to come look for cats that have been lost because they've been taken out, they've escaped their carrier or they've escaped from their harness.

"Most of the time we never find them again. Or if we do, it's really in sad circumstances where we only find a part of the cat."

Bukovnik argues cats are happiest indoors. She said if someone feels their cat could benefit from outdoor exposure, they should consider a window enclosure or "catio" instead.

Outdoor access can be beneficial

Dr. Claudia Richter, a Burnaby-based veterinarian and expert on cat behaviour, agrees a catio is a great option and shares their concerns about escapes from harnesses.

Veterinarian Dr. Claudia Richter with her cat, Winnie. Richter believes the trend of cat walking is growing — or at least more people are asking her about it — and it can give cats a chance to experience the outdoor environment.(Claudia Richter)

She adds outdoor access, including leashed walking, can beneficial if done correctly. That means slowly introducing the harness to your cat, letting them decide how fast or slow you go, getting the right equipment and making sure their shots are up to date.

"A lot of our cats are understimulated and I do see this as a source of behaviour problems such as peeing in the house, anxiety disorders, things like that," Richter said.

Claudia Richter said she had hoped she would be able to walk her cat, Winnie, along with her dogs to work. She found out that wasn't going to happen and that cats, when out on a leash, don't act like dogs.(Claudia Richter)

She says more people are interested in cat walking these days, especially due to social media.

She's walked her own cat, Winnie, on local trails and in her quiet neighbourhood safely but it was a learning experience.

"I had that expectation … that I would be able to walk her to work with my dogs, which very quickly got destroyed by the fact that my cat is just really slow," she said.

"It's her walking and we're just following her with the leash and as a sort of security officer."

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten. Liam contributes to CBC Vancouver's Impact Team, where he investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community.

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