The reason why cat harnesses often don’t work and how to fix the problem

Good and bad cat harnesses
Good and bad cat harnesses
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Cat harnesses are meant to allow cat guardians to walk with their cats but often they immobilise them. In this article I set out my reason why a harness immobilised the cat in the video and how I think the problem can be fixed. Some cats are affected more than others and some might not be affected at all.

The cat owner in the video is highly amused at the reaction of his cat when placed in a harness. He thinks that his cat is resisting, in an impressive manner, going for a walk. It looks like passive resistance or that the cat is resolutely going on strike. Actually it almost seems as if the cat is drunk and falling over.

However the problem is more than simple resistance to walking in a harness. The cat has been ‘immobilised’ like a toy with the off button depressed. It is some sort of mysterious physical or mental reaction. This is not a conscious decision by cats to not walk in a harness. This is an automatic response in the cat’s brain. So what is it? I have discussed this before but these videos are interesting in that there is no attempt to explain it.

The Reason

The reaction of this cat is exactly the same as kittens who are picked up by the scruff of the neck by their mother; they become passive which allows the mother to carry her kitten unhindered by a struggling baby. The kitten inherits this natural passive reaction to the pressure of their mother’s jaws on back of neck (the scruff).

Cat carrying kitten
Cat carrying kitten. YouTube screenshot.

My theory is that the kitten becomes immobilised by the pressure of their mother’s jaw on the back of the neck. I have selected the word ‘pressure’ carefully because the harness also applies pressure to cats.

The harness’s pressure is applied to the cats’s flanks and to the back of the neck where the harness goes over the body. I believe that it is this pressure at the back of the neck which mimics a mother’s jaws when she picks up her kitten. The problem may be wider than that. The pressure on the flanks may also trigger the same response.

Inadvertently, the manufacturers have made a product which replicates the mother-carrying-kitten response in the kitten. This immobilises the kitten until it is removed as can be seen in the second half of the video.

I believe that it is more than an immobilisation. The kitten is also calmed. This is the reason why the Thundershirt works to calm cats when e.g. fireworks are being set off.

This has to be the only plausible reason and I suspect (I have not checked) that this reason is given across the internet nowadays. I’d be surprised if that was not the case.

I suspect that the pressure on the neck sends a signal to the kitten’s brain to trigger the immobilise/calm response. I call it the ‘kitten response’.

The Fix?

The only solution is to make the harness less tight fitting and the side and crossover panels thinner. This would exert less pressure on the cat which would stop triggering the kitten immobilisation response.

The problem here is ensuring the harness remains secure and effective. If the entire problem concerns the crossover section of the harness (the part that is in contact with the back of the neck and shoulders) then the fix is easier because you just have to make that section thinner. This might work but it needs testing.

I am very surprised that the manufacturers have not addressed the problem because it is their problem.

Wider Issues

There are wider issues. There is more pressure today to encourage cat guardians to only allow cats outside on a leash. If a harness makes it impractical something needs to be done about it.

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4 thoughts on “The reason why cat harnesses often don’t work and how to fix the problem”

  1. Harnesses are great until your cat wiggles out and runs off. Some are fine but THE VAST MAJORITY OF CATS SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN ANYWHERE IN A HARNESS. The shithole world we live on is not a good place to lose a furry family member. Leave them inside and throw away the harnesses. All it takes is one moment to slip up and lose them forever.

    • Yes, I sympathise with your thoughts. Harnesses have to be damned good to prevent a scared cat wriggling out of it as they can be amazingly athletic and flexible when frightened. And if they do there could be a catastrophe.

  2. Yes I know you’ve figured this out before and you’re still right. While perhaps half the cats out there manage to walk with a harness, the cat’s that don’t are seemingly surrendering to the automatic physical response as with the Thundershirt. I haven’t seen the shirt work, but no doubt it does and for the same reason. I don’t recall that Mr. Galaxy ever put these two together, so you’re smarter than him.

    I’d say that the cats who wear a harness without collapsing are introduced to it with care. And the cats who don’t might have been carried around by the scruff by their mother more. Those two things might aid or detract from harnesses working or not. Also, the way the harness is made; I think if it does not have a breast strap (connecting the neck loop to the chest), that might help keep the harness from putting pressure on the neck.

    • Oh, another instance where this “kitten” response works is when some people apply clothes pins pinching the skin on the back of their neck as the mother cats would when carrying them. That serves to illicit the response and help calm them while treating.


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