Bringing Cats Outdoors
Most cats long to be outside, but as pet owners realize that nature is not always feline-friendly, they’re turning to products that allow cats to experience the outdoors while curbing their inclination to stay.
Ask any cat owner—their pet is the feline version of Houdini. Although some indoor cats show no inclination to flee their cozy confines, others can’t wait to make a break for the great outdoors at the first opportunity, causing no small amount of consternation and worry for their owners who try—often for extended periods of time—to entice them back inside.
There are plenty of reasons why cat owners become so distraught over these escape attempts. For an indoor cat, the outside poses plenty of potential dangers, including the risk of becoming lost. Even indoor/outdoor cats, savvy as they are about being outside, face a heightened risk of injury and can also go missing if something catches their attention and they wander too far from their familiar surroundings.
For these and other reasons (such as protecting the bird population), more owners are opting to keep their cats under house arrest. However, many still struggle with the idea that given a feline’s nature, their pet would be happier if the outdoors wasn’t off limits.
The good thing is that there are products that allow cats to more safely experience the great outdoors, whether it’s a routine part of their day or entirely unintentional. But, awareness of the various options is still on the low side, says Tyler Johnson, product manager for PetSafe Brand.
Johnson attributes this to the fact that dog owners take their pets out in public with far greater frequency than do cat owners. In fact, spotting a cat and human strolling down a sidewalk together, hanging out in a park or really doing anything outdoors with each other is a rarity worthy of an immediate Instagram posting.
But this may be changing. One of the trends Kate Benjamin, director of marketing and designer of the Hauspanther Collection for Primetime Petz, is seeing is the “adventure cat” concept.
“These are cats that live with owners who are nomadic, often living in tents or trailers,” she explains. “Some cats do have the temperament for traveling and being outside, especially if trained from an early age.”
Sheila King has also noticed cat owners taking a more inclusive approach when it comes to their pet. King, product manager for Coastal Pet Products, says they’re seeing a “slowly growing trend” of cats becoming more involved in outdoor activities, fueled by people discovering the potential for creating an active lifestyle with their feline friends. Still, these adventurous spirits are in the minority.
“When it comes to cats, collars, leashes and harnesses are still largely and untapped market,” says King. “According to APPA data, only around 18 percent of owners put a collar on their cat, let alone consider bringing them outdoors.”
A Product Primer
This isn’t necessarily bad news for pet specialty retailers. Instead, it means there is plenty of opportunity to juice sales in all categories, but particularly of harnesses, collars and leashes.
For example, Coastal offers the Adjustable Cat Wrap Harness with 6 in. leash. The harness is constructed from a breathable fabric and is designed to snugly accommodate each cat’s shape, says King. Another of the company’s products is the Bergan by Costal Cat Carrier. The airline-compliant carrier with the panoramic viewing window is designed for convenient everyday traveling or for more far-flung adventures.
Included in Primetime’s Hauspanther Collection is the KittyPak, a backpack cat carrier. The carrier has a cat face graphic on the front, with two clear windows for visibility and air mesh sides for ventilation.
Sandra Alexander, president/owner of Sandia Pet Products, Inc., says the company’s noticing more demand for leashes and harnesses specifically designed for cats. The company manufactures the nylon Cat H-Harness and the nylon Adjustable Figure-8 Harness for cats.
“The younger generation is particularly interested in exercising with their animals and that includes cats,” says Alexander. “Kitty learns very quickly that the harness and leash means outdoor fun.”
The company also offers line of Break-Away collars, says Alexander, advising that any cat playing alone outside (or an indoor cat with a tendency to dash through an open door) needs to have a cat safety collar.
“Cats love to poke their heads into tiny spaces and they love to climb,” she says. “Both activities put them at a risk of catching their collars on something that will hang them. A breakaway collar is essential to keep them safe. However, never walk a cat on a leash attached to a break-away collar.”
Jackson Galaxy, host of the TV show “My Cat From Hell,” has brought more attention to harnesses and how indoor cats with behavioral issues have benefited from being taken outdoors while securely tethered, says Tobi Kosanke, president of Crazy K Farm. The company makes the Kitty Holster cat harness—which Galaxy used on the show—and matching leash. The harness is constructed of 100 percent cotton and has a metal D-ring for attaching a leash.
“Compared to dog harnesses, cat harnesses historically have a much higher return rate because so many cats are able to escape from them,” says Kosanke, identifying harnesses with hard-to-adjust closure systems, among other design features, as being more vulnerable to feline flight.
In addition to the Come With Me Kitty Cat Harness & Bungee Leash, designed to allow cat owners to comfortably and securely take their pet out and about, PetSafe offers an In-Ground Cat Fence, a containment system that incorporates an adjustable, waterproof receiver collar (with a stretch section for safety), wire and flags that allows cats to be outside within boundaries established by the pet owner.
The receiver collar provides four levels of static correction that can be set to the cat’s temperament and a correction tone (used only for training). When the cat approaches the buried wire marking the established boundary, the receiver issues a warning tone. This is followed by the static correction if the animal proceeds further. The system supports multiple cats, each wearing a receiver collar, which should be worn no more than 12 hours a day. Short training sessions will teach cats the boundaries in two weeks.
Although cat owners are becoming more dialed into the perils cats face when outdoors, pet specialty retailers will nevertheless need to ensure these customers are truly aware of the dangers, says Donna Bodell, vice president of Up Country Inc.
“Train your staff to help educate cat owners about the risks of free-roaming,” says Bodell. “And have the appropriate products to help keep indoor cats entertained, like toys, scratching posts, etc. Our harnesses are a great way for cats to safely enjoy the outdoors.”
But when discussing any harness, avoid setting unrealistic expectations, cautions Kosanke, who says that no harness is totally escape-proof.
“[Retailers] should never market any harness as being escape-proof, even if the manufacturer makes that claim,” she says. “There are too many factors beyond anyone’s control—from poor fit to customer error—to make that claim. They should state, either in person or with signage, that customers should look for a harness with the best, snug fit and that no harness is 100 percent escape proof.”
Retailers must also understand that a cat isn’t a small dog and that harnesses designed for dogs will not properly fit a cat, Kosanke adds.
“The mesh lining on most of the dog and small-pet harnesses is very abrasive to cat fur, so be sure to market only cat-specific harnesses to cat owners,” she says. “Retailers should also explain that a cat should never be placed on a tie-out like a dog. Cats can rotate their collar bones and pull backwards out of a tie-out, potentially injuring themselves in the process.”
As for merchandising, give these products the attention they deserve, especially since more cat owners are starting to seek them out.
“It’s traditionally been a slower turning market, but that’s beginning to change,” says King. “Where these owners were once as different as cats and dogs, we’re learning that it may not be so big of a difference after all. We see it in our own data year over year.”
Consequently, rather than leaving cat-owning customers to figure out on their own what they need, pet specialty retailers should be proactive, making suggestions, educating them about the use of collars, leashes and harnesses and addressing any misconceptions they may have, says King, adding that common misunderstandings are that any collar on a cat is dangerous and that outdoor cats are so independent they don’t need one.
Creating a special cat room or section and separating all these products from dog items can be effective, says Alexander. This area could include all things cat, such as food, litter, snacks, toys, harnesses and so on. Since cats are so inquisitive, she advises providing an assortment of products designed to keep them safe. Also think about offering books and videos about how to train a cat to walk on a leash, says Kosanke.
Just don’t confine this section to the back of the store, says King.
“It’s not going to be a footprint that will surpass dog, but it shouldn’t be impossible to find,” she says. “Merchandising collars and harnesses near toys and creating a one-stop spot for consumers can help lift sales of the less common purchases.” PB