Cat harness and lead changes my cat’s personality and I don’t understand why

I bought a harness and lead for my young cat. The idea was to take him outside safely. He changed when I put it on. He is normally very active in the morning. I put the harness on him and he calms down. It is like someone gave him an injection. I don’t know what is happening.

The harness is a bit like a coat but not as big. I like it because it makes him calmer. In the morning he runs around a lot. I am not sure I like it. He could get hurt. He could damage something.

I am not sure he should wear it as it changes him so much. The change is a bit of a shock to me and strange to see.

Do you know why a harness for a lead changes him so much?

Response from Michael: I hope people comment on this. You have probably heard of the Thundershirt. This a product mainly for dogs but also cats. It calms them down. It is usually bought by dog owners whose dog has anxiety problems or becomes overexcited under certain situations. The general opinion is that is works but not always and, here’s the 64,000 dollar question: How does it work?

It seems to me that the harness you have bought works like a Thundershirt. It wasn’t designed to but it does. So it is triggering something inside your cat.

You say it is as if he has been given an injection. This may indicate that wearing the harness triggers the production of a hormone or a brain chemical of some sort in the cat. It may trigger the production of a certain type of neurotransmitter in the brain.

The manufacturers say the pressure calms the animal. Why? It may trigger an emotional connection to the time when the cat was a kitten being nursed by his mother. The pressure of the harness may create a reassurance in the cat for that reason. It may also cause some confusion because it is a created feeling and not real. In other words it puts the cat out of character for his age.

I also wonder if this reaction will continue or will it wear off? It may. I have not read that the Thundershirt stops working after a while but it might become less effective during long usage.

I’d be interested to know what anyone else has to say on this phenomenon. Update: I believe the cause for the change in personality is a partial kitten response. This is the response cats/kittens make when picked up by the scruff of the neck. This is strange because the harness does not put pressure on the back of the neck.

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22 thoughts on “Cat harness and lead changes my cat’s personality and I don’t understand why”

  1. Always question when humans make statements and everybody else should just accept them as facts. Like cats have to be outside. Did you ask a focus group of cats and they confirmed 9 to 1? Was there a recorded uprising of cats storming or protesting outside a house? Are you quoting from an article you read in Cat Digest? No, you need to justify your position as the final word so you can feel good about letting your cat out, and that is ok, it is your business. And cats should not wear harnesses. Why? Do you have some proof that the Apocalypse will occur if cats do similar things to dogs? If a cat owner wants to do anything to their cat that they believe is in the best interest of their cat and does not hurt the cat so be it. Just do not like it when people pretend they know everything and make blanket statements without any proof.

  2. I am afraid to use calming collars and shirts. It reminds me of something I read a while back about certain flea collars being lethal. I would want to know exactly what materials were used and the process used, especially if they are made in China. Remember the poisoned food from there that killed thousands of pets? They have no standards and safeguards and are not too fond of the west. They kill animals because they think their hormones will make them virile, barbaric and cruel. I have been to Beijing, it is a dirty, smelly, ugly, extremely polluted city. Maybe the cat calms down from some toxic substance they threw in. They can claim anything about their product like that it only uses pressure and there is no one to check up on it, no FDA, it is not under their jurisdiction.

  3. My question is does putting the sweater on a cat during extremely cold nights; which calms him down to almost an elderly age temperament, have any adverse effect? He walks slowly and Lays there purring all snuggled up but he’s usually very frisky. I only purchased the sweater because it’s super cold here in Nyc and I found him dug in to my made bed hiding up under the blankets. Which obv tells me he’s cold. The heat is up high and I’m somewhat comfortable and he’s a Norwegian Forrest cat so super super furry? He’s my bff and the last thing I want to do is harm him or his spirit in any way. Btw he doesn’t put up a fuss for me to put it on him and believe Me he’s the boss when he doesn’t want something.

    1. HI Christina. No, the sweater will not harm him. It is a temporary condition. His brain is temporarily stimulated to respond this way. As soon as it is off he is back to normal with no side effects whatsoever in my view. He sounds like a super cat.

  4. We recently adopted a kitten who was taken away from his mother and litter too early. He jumps on and bites our older cat who growls and tries to fight back. She is clearly frustrated and sad. When I put the younger kittens harness on him, he calms down and doesn’t go after the older cat with as much aggression. But I’m concerned that it’s dwarfing his energy and personality. I feel so bad for my other cat, but he needs to learn not to attack her. thoughts???

    1. Hello Laurel, thank you for commenting and asking. Are you sure that your young cat’s jumping and biting on your older cat is because he was weaned early? It may be because he is a young cat who wants to play rough which of course as you know is normal for cats of that age.

      I have not seen a connection between early weaning and aggression, as I recall. I will doublecheck that but I don’t recall a connection between the two. On just reading your comment what comes to mind more readily is his age and the desire to play fight which is not something that your older cat wants to engage in. Apparently, however, early weaning can lead to a cat wanting to play more than normal and of course play, as mentioned, includes biting.

      I raised a kitten from seven weeks of age and he is now around four years of age and he still likes to jump on my feet and bite because he wants to play in a very rough way. He is expressing a desire to hunt which he can’t do as much as he wants because he lives in an enclosure albeit a very large garden enclosure.

      I don’t think that there is an easy fix for this “problem”. I don’t think it is practical to train it out of him. It seems to me that there is an incompatibility between the older and younger cat as they have different desires. These are just thoughts.

  5. I’m not sure why a harness would calm a cat,but my dog was easier to walk and a lot calmer with a harness than collar and leash. The harness is not going to hurt the cat. And since we have denied access to the outdoors to cats for various reasons,”walking” them is an adjustment some cats may accept so they can be outdoors.

    1. Nice to hear that. I think Ruth was correct. The harness on a cat somehow triggers the ‘kitten response’ – the response of the kitten to go limp when the mother picks him up by the scruff of the neck. Only the harness hardly touches the neck. It completely alters the way my cat behaves. He looks non-plussed. Zonked out. Weird.

  6. Harnesses should not pull on the neck area, so I’m not sure that the “scruffing” theory holds water. The lead attaches to a clip on the back strap which fits behind their front legs. The idea is to let the cat lead the way with us following. I used an extension lead,so at no stage should there be any feeling of restraint at the back of the cat’s neck.

    1. I have not read all the comments but if the harness only rests on the back of the neck I don’t see how the kitten response (going limp) can be elicited unless it is elicited simply by covering the torso with a wide harness like a coat. This may also trigger the response. If it does, I have not read about this before. The Thundershirt may be based on this. But it is a partial kitten response.

      1. It could very well be due to a coat style harness covering the torso. We’ve seen similar reactions when people put t-shirts or other clothing on cats.

  7. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

    Cats were never meant to be led around! Why should they get used to something alien and unnatural to them.

    1. But canned cat-foods, human’s houses, being kept by humans, humans, and all other things “human” are not alien and unnatural to them. Oh, okay. Got it.

      1. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

        Yes all those things are unnatural to them too, but long ago humans domesticated cats and we can’t turn the clock back now and leave them in the wild where they belonged, it’s too late!
        All we can do is the best we can for our own cats and for cats worldwide and this is what I do.

  8. When we were preparing to move to Florida from New York, since one of our kitties would be flying in the cabin with me and my husband would be driving the cats to our new home it was strongly suggested that we get our cats accustomed to wearing collars with identifying information attached to them JUST for their protection- as well as becoming acclimated to a leash.

    We started very slowly. They did get accustomed to the collar (in retrospect a harness would have been safer) but when we attached the leash they went limp.

    I don’t think that there going limp was an indication of calmness. In fact quite the opposite.

    We introduced our cats to these aids simply for their safey during travel- and never used them to take them for a walk.

    This said Jackson Galaxy has often recommends taking cats for walks using a halter and leash- and slowly getting them accustomed to these aids. Some cats that Jackson has worked with really enjoy taking walks with their guardians- as here in the USA in city areas with the huge amount of traffic it just isn’t safe for cats to freely roam unsupervised.

    From the behavior you described of your kitty going “calm” when you put the harness on him, it sounds more like he is frightened and doesn’t understand what is now on his body. Perhaps start very slowly- use treats and lots of verbal praise- using the harness for only a few minutes at a time and slowly increasing his exposure to it as he gets more accustomed to wearing it. Then procede with the leash, again very slowly.

    Hope this helps.

    1. If I ever put a collar or harness on a cat (which I would never do in a million years)and the cat froze with fear or panicked in any way I’d take it off and put it in the bin, I think the author of the article answered his/her own question “I am not sure he should wear it as it changes him so much. The change is a bit of a shock to me and strange to see.” It’s clear to me that the harness should be binned.
      What I don’t understand is why the author doesn’t want the kitten to run around, it is what kittens do and kittens also damage things, fastening them up in a harness is like putting a straightjacket on a toddler to keep him out of mischief. Jo I can understand why you used them briefly, and am seriously glad you never used them for walking your cats like dogs, I disagree with Galaxy on this point, leashes are for dogs not cats.

    2. Jo: I agree with your suggestion that it’s more of a fear reaction than a feeling of calm. Perhaps the coat style harness made that person’s cat feel in some way restrained, as though someone/something had a physical hold of their body?

      When I moved from Cyprus to France for a year, we had a 12 hour car drive from CDG airport to our destination. (Sadly no airport closer which accepted international flights.) I spent the month beforehand getting Holly accustomed to a harness and she took to it like a duck to water. Maybe this was because she was 17 at the time and was calmer or maybe she trusted me implicity? Mind you it was more a case of me following her than the other way around. Her being happy to walk on a harness meant that during the long drive we could stop for breaks to stretch our legs or grab a bite to eat.

      I did try introducing the harness to Merlin and Sophie when we lived in the flat. He was desperate to go out but local traffic was just too dangerous and I thought a harness might be a happy compromise. The cats disagreed. Sophie went ballistic and was like a contortionist trying to escape a straightjacket. Merlin just froze on the spot. That idea was quickly abandoned. We did once take them to a deserted area of beach and let them run free. Merlin enjoyed that but Sophie was less impressed.

      I don’t have a problem with people walking their cats on a harness, provided the cat is happy to do so and it only happens in quite areas away from traffic, dogs and lots of people. Not everyone has the luxury of a private garden and no matter how much indoor enrichment is provided, it simply isn’t enough for some cats. It’s in their nature to want to explore outside and for some the only way to do so safely is on a harness. It would certainly give blind or deaf cats a little extra interest in their lives.

      1. I agree with the points you make. I feel that most cats will find a harness hard to accept. And some squirm etc. as described. Depending on the style of the harness it does something to their mind. However, if a cat can wear one then it can be a useful tool in the right environment. Everything is a compromise and cat lovers should be flexible in their mentality and not too dogmatic.

  9. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

    A young cat needs to run around, it’s against his Nature to stop him, it’s not right for a young cat to be forced to be calm, he needs to use his energy. I hope that person allows that cat to enjoy his youth, if someone likes a calm pet, then they shouldn’t have a kitten.

  10. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

    What is it with people trying to turn cats into dogs! If anyone wants a pet to take out on a leash then they should get a dog! We’ve taken enough from cats, let them be cats, if it’s not safe to let them have their freedom, then build a run!

    1. Thanks Ruth, but do you have any ideas why this happens? Sometimes it is not possible to allow cats to roam freely and neither is it possible to build an enclosure. Harnesses are compromises, yes, but they are a decent compromise under certain circumstances.

      1. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

        I expect it’s the pressure on the cats nape that causes him to go calm, like giving an injection, hold the scruff and the cat usually ‘freezes’ into immobility. I’ve heard of some vets putting clothes pegs on a cat’s scruff to immobilise him, I don’t agree with that of course but again it’s the pressure causing the cat to ‘freeze’
        It’s not natural for a cat to be fettered and I worry it’s going too far as people are treating them like dogs, they are not dogs and it’s not right to treat them like dogs.

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