Boating Adventures | "Boat Cat in Training" | Article and Photos by Vicki Totten

Photo from "Science Alert," Renata Apanaviolene/

So many things to look at!
Our cat Skipper has been working out lately. While it isn't quite the Olympics, our kitten's activities could be considered strenuous. And if you have ever spent much time around cats, you know that the words strenuous and cat are seldom used in the same sentence. That's because when you sleep 15 to 20 hours a day, there isn't all that much time left for other activities. Plus, from the looks of it, unlike dogs, cats are not constantly begging to be taken out for a walk. But going for walks is what Skipper has been doing.

Starting to get the hang of it.

Since we live on our 33' sailboat part-time, our plan is to have Skipper come with us when we are on the boat. And in order to help Skipper stay safe when making the transition from living on land to living on the water, we need to first get him used to walking with a leash.

Skipper's training has involved spending short periods of time each day attached to a tiny kitty harness and leash while walking around in our back yard. While I doubt we will ever reach the point where Skipper brings the leash to me in his mouth, begging to be taken for a walk, we are making progress.

Getting fitted for his XX-S harness.

The first time I put the harness on him, he reacted the same way I saw cats react in a few videos I watched about walking your cat. He immediately fell over on his side and went perfectly still. So, I tried again. Same response. I tried a third time, and he again immediately fell over as if he had just been tasered and was now completely paralyzed. But apparently I am more stubborn than Skipper, because finally when I set him up on all four paws a fourth time, he stayed upright long enough to try and make a run for it. And even though for such a small kitten, he has amazing speed, I finally managed to capture and scoop him up for our first outdoor lesson.

Each time we have had a lesson, Skipper seems to become more confident and less afraid of the leash. His previous experiences living outdoors had been as a stray, which meant spending his time hiding from all of the dangers that surrounded him, while trying to keep from starving. But now that he has shelter and food, he is able to enjoy being able to sniff and scratch and climb outdoors, even if he is also attached to a leash when doing so.

If Skipper is going to be happy living with us on the boat, it will be important that we continue with our training. Luckily, a friend told me about an NPR interview with feline behavior specialist Sarah Ellis that was all about training cats. Ellis had just written a book titled "The Trainable Cat." Using the ideas from the interview, along with some great internet resources, I have learned the following:

Getting Skipper used to his harness.

  • Leave the carrier you use to transport your cat out and open in your house, so the smell of it becomes familiar to your cat.  Smell is everything for cats and it will help make it feel less foreign when he then is placed in it for a trip in the car.
  • Teach your cat short commands by using one word commands, such as "come" and initially standing very close to your cat with a treat.  Then gradually move out further, but continue to provide treats when the cat comes toward you in order for him to learn to pair something pleasurable with the word "come."
  • Since smell is everything, if you are trying to get one cat used to another one, switch out their bedding or give them time in rooms next to each other where they can smell each other before being introduced to one another.
  • When using a leash and harness, first give your cat time to get used to just wearing the harness.  Then add the leash and go very slowly in getting your cat to actually walk with the harness and leash, remembering to use treats as a reward after walking, so it is paired with something pleasurable.

Since we just arrived on the boat, it is too soon to tell how it will go, but the trip getting to the boat went very well.  Skipper loves to travel in the car and seemed very comfortable watching the scenery moving around him.

He took turns napping on both of our shoulders.

Of course, it helped that we brought his toys.

Instead of being scared in the car, he was just very curious.

When I first started talking about wanting a boat cat, some of my friends were skeptical.  However, since several boat owners in our harbor have cats living on their boats with them, I remain hopeful.  And recently some new research indicates that my hopefulness about Skipper liking boats as much as I do might not be misplaced.  According to an article a friend sent me, there is new DNA evidence indicating that cats accompanied the seafaring Vikings on their journeys across the sea as far back as the eighth century.  

So I'm hoping that Skipper will be able to access that little part of his DNA that remembers his ancestors and discover that a cat living on a boat is just as natural and exciting as it is for people living on a boat.  Only time and more training will tell.

Looking pretty comfortable at the helm.

First day on the boat.

So many things to look at!

Vicki and husband, ceramic artist Stan Irvin, are both retired professors who have discovered the joys of Rockport and living part-time on their 33' sailboat, while exploring new sailing destinations and adventures.

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