Cat lovers rejoice, as hitting the trails has never been more exciting! Thanks to sites like adventurecats.org, and Instagram feline stars Bolt and Keel, a new trend is emerging and active young adults are bringing out their feline companions in cat-packs and harnesses to join them in outdoor adventure.
Alpena local, Josh Stephan, is one of the many people taking on outdoor cat training and cat hiking with his 8.5 lb. feline pal, Leo. We caught up with Josh to ask him a few questions about Alpena hiking life with his cat.
“Leo and I started hiking together last year in the winter of 2015-2016, and he had his first overnight backpacking trip this spring.”
What was your inspiration for making Leo your hiking buddy?
“I was following these two ladies from Canada that take their cats, Bolt and Keel, backpacking. They have a great story and have been featured in the news often so they are definitely my role models for cat backpacking. I have even contacted them a few times to ask questions and tips about training Leo. Eventually, Leo and I would like to meet up with them to go on a trip someday.”
Speaking of training, what kind of training is involved for cats?
“Lots of training! A lot of people think cats cannot be trained to do anything and that just is not true. Cats react to positive reinforcement, so every time Leo does something I want him to do he gets a small treat. The difference between training a cat and training a dog is that dogs will also react to negative reinforcement. If you try negative reinforcement with a cat, they just get scared and run away. So we took Leo’s training step by step. The first day I got him, I put a harness on him. After a week of running around the house, I clipped the leash. Once he got used to the leash chasing him we moved on to him sitting on my shoulder and to stay there as I walked around. Then we did outdoor training. It is definitely a challenge to manage a cat while hiking sometimes.”
“In the summertime, he is always on the ground and prefers to smell every plant and tree we walk by. In the winter he loves riding in the backpack more because his toes get cold quick. He does love running through the snow though, but just for a short period of time.”
What does Leo do when you are walking? Does he keep up or get distracted?
“Leo will smell everything. So most of the time, no he does not keep up. Backpacking or hiking with a cat is at a much slower pace than what I am typically used to. With a slower pace, it has also made me more curious about my surroundings when I take him with me. Leo will also get tired often and I will have to pick him up to carry him. However, when my dog Hannah comes with us, he acts totally different! Hannah is always moving forward and this encourages Leo to walk more and try to keep up with his big sister.”
Where is Leo’s favorite hiking trail?
“Hey, is that a cat?! Awwwwwwww!”
How does Leo feel about swimming? Does he take advantage of Alpena’s plentiful waterfront while venturing outdoors, or is this where he draws the line on an outdoor adventure?
“Leo will let me give him a bath, but he doesn’t seem particularly fond of water. Yet, he hasn’t really had the opportunity to be in the water on a beach. We don’t go to the beach in town because the noise is too much for him and he gets scared.”
How do your other 2 cats feel when you take Leo out? Do they get jealous?
“They will sit at the window and watch. Simba (the other male cat) is not that interested. Nala (my first cat and a female cat) use to be a feral cat so sometimes she will run outside a few feet just to rub in the dirt. So she is not really interested in exploring, just wants the feeling of being outside.”
Would you recommend cat hikes to others?
“Yes and no. To take a cat backpacking they need to be the right cat because training a cat can only go so far. They need to have the sense of adventure and curiosity to go with the training. As a trainer, you will need to have patience and you will have to learn to go at the cat’s pace. I would at least recommend attempting to train a cat, the younger the cat the better. Being exposed to a leash and collar early on will help a lot as well.
“Leo knows that on my shoulder and in my arms is his ‘safe place’, so when we are on the trail I always pick Leo up when there are dogs around so that he feels safe. Leo has all of his claws, so I usually try to wear a sweatshirt, coat, or at least 2 shirts because he will use his claws on me.”
Any other interesting facts about Leo?
“Leo’s latest trick is learning to sit on command. Sometimes he also goes with me on car rides. Most of the time after we are done hiking we go through a drive-thru or someplace where he won’t be left alone more than a few minutes. He usually sits on my shoulder and we get lots of looks and stares like, “there is a cat in the drive-thru!”. When Leo isn’t backpacking some of his favorite things to do are to sleep in the window, eat, and cuddle with me wherever I am sitting or laying down.”
To find out more about backpacking with your feline friend, we suggest doing your research into the subject…as cat training can be much more difficult than dog training! Do you have a leash-trained cat that accompanies you on outdoor adventures? Tag us @sanctuary_of_the_great_lakes on Instagram to share your stories!
(All photo credits courtesy of Josh Stephan)