After spending almost an entire year cooped up indoors, it’s no surprise that everyone is clamoring to spend more time outside—even our cats.
“Cats are naturally curious and love exploring all the sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors,” says Sandra Alexander, president of Sandia Pet Products, Inc. “In these days of COVID-19 restrictions, their owners are also eager to get out of the house and get some exercise. The trick is to enjoy the outdoors while keeping both cat and owner safe.”
Even before the pandemic, social media and celebrities like Jackson Galaxy from “My Cat from Hell” have been steadily increasing awareness of the benefits that come from bringing cats outdoors.
“When outdoors, cats will enjoy mental and physical stimulation,” says Michael Leung, co-owner and lead product designer for Sleepypod. “They’ll experience new sights, sounds, smells, and together, you’ll have extra bonding experiences.”
Of course, there are also potential downsides to allowing cats to explore beyond the confines of your home.
“With any pet, there are always dangers of taking them outdoors, which include natural predators, the risk of them running away or dangers in the nearby environment,” says Michael Schrekenhofer, operations manager of Leather Brothers cat products.
Luckily, there’s a rapidly growing array of products on the market to help keep cats safe as they venture outside.
While cats and dogs aren’t as disparate as pop culture would have us believe, they each have distinct needs when it comes to outdoor gear.
Collars, for instance, have very different functions for felines than their canine counterparts based on how they tend to play and explore.
“Collars for dogs are designed to stay put but with cats that explore tight spaces both indoors and out, collars need to be able to breakaway to prevent dangerous entanglements,” explains Lindsy Argenti, marketing director for Coastal Pet Products.
Harnesses, on the other hand, must be designed differently for felines because of their unique anatomy. Cats have free-floating collarbones, which allows them to pass their bodies through any opening that can fit their heads. This makes them especially good escape artists.
“Dog harnesses are not sized for or designed for cats—nor are ‘small pet’ harnesses,” says Tobi Kosanke, president of Crazy K Farm Pet and Poultry Products. “Cat owners should purchase a harness specifically manufactured for cats.”
Of course, it’s not enough just to purchase the right kind of harness; it also needs to fit properly in order to prevent cats from pulling a Houdini. Historically, cat harnesses have a higher return rate than dog harnesses due to their tendency to slip out of ill-fitting products.
Luckily, retailers can bridge this gap by teaching pet parents the importance of fit and how to choose the right style for their cats. Ideally, customers should be encouraged to bring their cats into the store for an in-person fitting, says Alexander.
“It is always preferable to have kitty come into the store for a personal fitting and selection of a color that is most becoming,” she says. “Be prepared to have kitty balk at being fitted, especially if not previously used to a harness and leash. Assure the owner that kitty will learn to enjoy the harness and associate it with the fun of being outdoors.”
When that’s not possible, a good rule of thumb is that harnesses should fit snugly against the body but still leave room for one or two fingers between the animal and the product.
However, it’s important to emphasize that no harness is ever completely escape proof.
“Never market any cat harness as being escape-proof, even if the manufacturer makes that claim,” says Kosanke. “There are too many factors beyond anyone’s control—from poor fit to customer error—to be able to claim with 100 percent certainty that a particular cat in a particular situation would not be able to escape from his or her harness. It is much better to point out that a particular harness is difficult to escape from if it is fastened snuggly and correctly.”
Another challenge that retailers face in this category is cats’ stubbornness. Cats are not known for embracing change, so pet parents may find it discouraging when they first try to take their cat outside or put them in a harness. Again, retailers can help by informing owners about best practices for walking your cat.
“If you can’t start early, start slowly,” Argenti explains. “Forcing a cat into loud, busy or unfamiliar situations can create undue stress. Avoid surprises and give your cat the time and space to explore on their terms. When you get a sense of their comfort level, you can progress to walks or trips out and about with a carrier.”
“Always allow the cat to determine the pace of time and distance outdoors,” Leung adds. “If a cat displays discomfort with being outdoors, never ever force the cat to spend time outdoors.”
Retailers may also find it valuable to partner with brands that provide additional educational support and resources to further customers’ education and help ensure their satisfaction with the products.
“We include a pamphlet, ‘How to Train Your Cat to Walk on a Leash,’ with every harness that provides a list of safety tips to keep cats safe outdoors by minimizing the chance of them escaping from the harness,” says Kosanke.
Striving for Sales
In addition to investing in customer education, industry experts encourage retailers to devote significant space and time to the outdoor cat category.
“The worst thing they can do is hide the cat aisle in the back of the store,” says Argenti. “It’s not going to be a footprint that will surpass dog, but it shouldn’t be impossible to find either. Merchandising collars and harnesses near toys and creating a one-stop cat spot for consumers can help lift sales of the less common purchases.”
Retailers can also boost sales by hosting in-store or online modeling demonstrations of outdoor safety gear to inspire pet parents to bring their cats outside.
“Many of our retailers have a ‘store cat,’” says Alexander. “They make wonderful models for cat control products.
“If there is no regular ‘store cat’, think about having a demonstration day with the store owner’s or a customer’s cat, perhaps associated with discounted prices on harnesses and leashes.”
Or, if all else fails, you could use a toy cat wearing a harness and leash or breakaway collar as part of your in-store display.
No beautiful display or social media campaign will make up for poor quality, though, which is why it’s also crucial to stock shelves with harnesses, leashes and collars from brands you trust.
“In order to maximize product sales, we recommend seeking out the best products that offer the most value,” says Schrekenhofer. “Made in the USA products are currently in high demand, not only because they are more readily available, but also because of the quality and negative association with certain imported products recently.”
While seeing cats out and about may still be less common than canines, that won’t be the case for much longer, according to industry experts.
“The cat industry is booming and will continue to grow even more so in the years to come,” says Schrekenhofer. “The future of this category not only relies on education and expansion, but the realization that cats are quickly becoming a prioritized staple in the pet industry as a whole.” PB