As Johanna Dominguez kicked her way through two feet of powdery snow on Somerset, New Jersey’s Six Mile Run Reservoir trail, Sirius Black, her 18-pound Savannah cat, rode serenely in her backpack. Only his yellow eyes were visible from the unzipped mesh carrier that matched his sleek, midnight fur.
Dominguez, 35, shouldered off the pack, scooped out the cat with a long faux leather leash affixed to his harness, and set him down where her tracks had cleared a path. Sirius sniffed the snow, unbothered by the cold, wet ground beneath his paws. At the sound of Canada geese honking overhead, he jerked his head up; he had a pile of snow on his head. Dominguez snapped a picture on her phone.
Sirius Black is an adventure cat. It says so on his collar.
Adventure cats are a fast-growing community of felines who accompany their owners on outdoor excursions, the documentation of which usually goes straight on the Internet. An Instagram search for the hashtag #adventurecats yields more than 17,000 photos of cats gazing into the distance from mountaintops, perching on the bows of kayaks, snuggling in tents, or navigating rock walls. Around 5,000 of these images were posted in the last two months alone.
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But adventure cat advocates say the trend goes beyond the Internet obsession du jour—and that dog owners no longer have the monopoly on hiking-friendly pets.
The rise of cats as outdoor companions is thought to have started in 2013 with Stephen Simmons, an Iraq War veteran from Oregon who has said hiking with his intrepid black cat, Burma, has helped him manage his post-traumatic stress disorder. He likely coined the phrase “adventure cat” with his Instagram account, @burmaadventurecat.
Craig Armstrong, another early adventure cat owner, rock-climbs in Utah with his cat Millie harnessed to him like a belay partner. “I wish to God I had her calmness and skills,” he says. His website, climbkitty.com, answers common questions he gets from fans, like what grade climbing routes Millie can handle (about 5.5) and what kind of harness he uses (a basic “over-the-counter” variety, reinforced with cording for added safety).
In 2015, pet behavior journalist Laura Moss launched adventurecats.org to share resources she wishes she’d had while leash-training her own cats—and gave the movement an official online home that now sees 40,000 visitors a month. The site, which was nominated for a 2016 People’s Voice Webby Award for internet excellence in the Weird category, offers practical tips for hiking, boating, camping, and more. In the article “3 Essential Steps to Make Your Cat an Adventure Cat in 2016,” Moss advises, “Don’t be alarmed if your cat goes limp, lies down, refuses to walk, or walks strangely the first few times he dons his harness,” an image that tempts one to try harnessing the nearest cat.
Adventure cat owners need to be dedicated to more than getting the perfect photo, as there are more logistics involved in taking cats outside compared to dogs. As one media representative for the UC Davis veterinary school said by email, “I don’t know any cat that would ever go for a walk on a leash. Mine certainly would never.” But with the right cat and the right attitude, it may be worth a shot. “I think it's great, because many cats are too sedentary,” says Brian Collins, a doctor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Many of adventure-cat owners insist that people have underestimated felines and given them an unfair reputation as solitary, indoor animals. Collins mostly agrees with the sentiment, but the stereotype is based on truths about the species. They’re not far removed, genetically, from wildcats—and most still do act like solitary hunters (some argue that humans barely domesticated cats at all). That is to say, not all cats have the personality of an adventure cat.
“You take some cats outside and they think the sky is falling and their eyes get big and wide and they want back in,” says Mieshelle Nagelschneider, a popular cat behaviorist and author of The Cat Whisperer. “Don’t expect your cat to behave like a dog. Make sure you’re not forcing a cat into a situation that’s going to be scary.”
Armstrong has a second cat, who prefers to keep his girlfriend company at home when he’s out climbing mountains with Millie. “I would take her on some easy hikes outside and she hated it,” he says. “She was stressed to the max. I said, ‘Nope, I’m leaving her at home.’”
Even though walking a cat on a leash might look eccentric, that’s the only way to take your cat outdoors, even if it’s not their first time, says Nagelschneider. When it comes to going far from home on hikes or camping trips, a cat left to its own devices might return to its owner—but it might not. “Never in a million years would I tell someone to let their cat off the leash unless they wanted to risk never seeing it again.”
Collins recommends leash-training a cat from a young age for best results, starting in the yard and expanding the radius slowly. Nagelschneider advises starting indoors with the harness. And when it comes to “walking” a cat on a leash, Nagelschneider says you have to “make it the cat’s idea.” You can lure them forward with treats or a toy, but try pulling and you’ll soon be dragging dead weight. Cats will not be compelled, only cajoled. Owners should also make sure the cat has had all its shots first, and if it’s a particularly fat cat or has asthma or a heart condition, talk to the vet before upping the exercise routine.
In New Jersey, Dominguez’s hike with Sirius is an ongoing negotiation. He sniffs at the snow as she coaxes him forward—or tries to, at least. “Come on, Siri.” He looks at Dominguez, then over his shoulder, then stares into the distance.
Dominguez wants to change how people see felines and how both cats and their owners experience nature. “People want something that will go along like a dog,” she says. “But you have to go at their pace.”
When he’s ready, Sirius takes a few steps forward, then looks around again. He is getting cold. He clambers over to his backpack, willing to continue the hike from a cozier vantage point. Dominguez loads him in and starts up a hill. She pauses to examine a dry brown shell stuck to a withered stalk of grass. “I never would have noticed that praying mantis egg case,” she says. Luckily, she was hiking at a cat’s pace.