When Hayley Vendiola, 23, takes Reinhardt for a walk, she draws a crowd.
During a recent jaunt in Richmond, B.C.’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.
She and Reinhardt are part of what may be a growing trend.
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.”
Not every cat expert loves the trend, however. Some say taking cats for walks, even leashed, is just too dangerous.
Those who endorse cat-walking say it requires patience and practice — otherwise, it can be as difficult as herding an 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 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 the payment is free products. It’s a nice bonus, she said, but definitely not enough to make cat-walking a career.
WATCH | Cat walkers stroll through Minoru Park:
The social media success of some of these leashed cats is troubling to Tasha Bukovnik, president of the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association, an advocacy group that adopts out cats and helps find missing ones.
Bukovnik says in recent years, more people have tried taking their cats on leashed walks.
“They see a lot of posts on social media. It’s become a new hot trend,” Bukovnik said.
But there’s a downside, she added.
“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.”
Outdoor access can be beneficial
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.
Dr. Claudia Richter, a Burnaby, B.C.-based veterinarian and expert on cat behaviour, agrees a catio is a great option and shares the concern about felines escaping from harnesses.
She says outdoor access, including leashed walking, can be 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 under-stimulated, and I do see this as a source of behaviour problems, such as peeing in the house, anxiety disorders, things like that,” Richter said.
She says more people are interested in cat-walking these days, especially due to social media.
Richter has walked her own cat, Winnie, on local trails and in her quiet neighbourhood, 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 … 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.