Loud noises, sudden movements, traveling by public transit, the hunt for green spaces, dogs/cars/people everywhere... there are SO many things going on in the city. While this is a lot for a cat to handle, it's totally possible to explore with them in urban areas.
Gibson is a true city boy. I will admit, he's honestly always been SO adaptable to anything we introduce him to - we have truly been blessed by having a cat that is so flexible & easy-going. I now find that it'd be very difficult to ever leave the city if we were to because we are surrounded by opportunity (living here has also given Gibson some 'thick fur').
The city can be overwhelming for anyone let alone a cat! When I moved to Toronto, I came from the country. The town I came from, Wheatley, had a population of 2,322 and then I moved to Toronto which had a population of 2.5 million, both numbers that were recorded in 2006 the year just before I moved. I had never ridden a bus before, hadn’t ever lived on my own, and had no idea what it was like having people other than my immediate family living even as close neighbours let alone as roommates (my neighbours were literally fields). Life in my new urban dwelling was a massive adjustment and took a few years to get used to!
"The reason I am sharing this is not for you to get to know me more but to actually give you context to understand how a cat’s history, just like ours, will effect the time it may take them in getting used to all the sights and sounds of exploring in an urban area".
More importantly, most times you won't even know what their history was. My previous cat, Miso, was a street cat who I adopted when I was in South Korea. He was found at what the vet predicted was 2 months old and I had no idea what that little guy had to go through before getting to me. I assume that he was left behind by his mother or siblings, not weaned off of his mother's milk obviously, had to fend for himself and find ways of getting food somehow, and maybe even hurt by people. Trauma can absolutely stay with your feline companion (How To Heal An Emotionally Traumatized Pet, Megan Sullivan, PetMD). I once had a friend who's cat survived a fire by staying on top of the fridge. Now, any time that cat smelt something burning from someone cooking, she sits on top of the fridge. I had always tried to introduce Miso to exploring beyond my place by just bringing him to a friend's apartment within my apartment he absolutely hated it and I feel it had to do with his terrible past on the streets of Korea. I decided after months of trying that he wasn't open to adjust to anything but the space we occupied. This can happen & you will have to know when enough is enough as any animal under a lot of stress can be damaging over time (Sources of Stress in Cats, Franny Syufy, The Spruce Pets). I always say that the adventure will look different for every cat, so don’t look at other Instagram accounts and pressure your cat to be just like the ones you are seeing. Let your cat’s behaviours, personalities, and comfort levels shine the way they choose to and don’t force them to do anything that will amount to a negative experience. Even if they are okay with just the patio or your backyard on a harness, that still is huge for them and can even help, over time, boost their confidence to go to the yard, sidewalk, etc.
Cat exploring in a concrete jungle is no easy thing! My goal is to paint a picture of what to consider and expect if you choose to go around with your cat beyond the house in an urban development. Here's what I've come up with:
Cats are able to hear sounds that we cannot. It has been described that they hear in 'surround sound' (5 Things That Stress Out Your Cat, Megan Sullivan on PetMD). You can probably now imagine why your feline companion might be so sensitive to any loud or sudden noises.
TRAFFIC: I'd encourage you to read all about how I first started exposing Gibson to the loud traffic in my post here (see Step 1). Transportation was the noise that I knew would be a daily occurrence that we could not get away from. Once he was comfortable with traffic going by in the front and back yard, we began exploring around the block. With other noises, such as dogs barking, I would work on having Gibson normalize the sound in a controlled manner. For example, I would sit on the ledge by our house and have Gibson in a backpack and just watch the dogs go by. He'd hear them bark, dip his head down in the backpack, and then would pop back up once they passed by.
"The beginning times were a lot about focusing on that one thing I wanted him to be okay with, and then moving onwards with our adventure once he was confident. He was taking in so much at once and I wanted to somehow slow the process of learning down for him so as to not overstimulate him."
PEOPLE: People are also loud and you can't really walk up to someone and say, "excuse me, but I have a cat that is sensitive to sound so if you wouldn't mind... pipe down, please". Normalizing this sound had a lot to do with exposure for us. The more we exposed Gibson to being around people the more he just got used to it. If I noticed people gawking at us, I would stop and let them know that they could pet him. I believed it was the exposure that allowed him to get used to the noises of people. The movement of people and the attention he gets from them is another thin I will discuss.
OTHER: Other noises are just sudden noises that you actually cannot predict. For example, Gibson once had a photoshoot and the photographer was changing the background or something which was velcro. He suddenly tore the velcro off and Gibson was GONE. Luckily, we were in a studio and he couldn't run off somewhere never to be found but this is why a harness in open environments are so important. A noise that you never knew your fur bud was scared of could suddenly come and the reaction might only be controlled by them being on their harness and then providing a safe space (like a backpack) for them.
Finally, I wanted to share a fear of Gibson's that we are working on since all of these noises can easily become something you cat is fearful of. How I accommodate it might influence you to find ways of accommodating your cat's fears. For some reason he is terrified of this laundry pipe we walk by every time we leave our apartment. To help him get used to the sound and sight of exhaust, I've chosen to frequently take him out just to look at the laundry pipe. Sometimes it's blowing exhaust out and other times it's not. If he's okay with it, I bring him right up to the pipe and let him smell and inspect it. Over time he's gotten WAY better being around the pipe but still gets startled by it so I carry him on my back or in the backpack every time we walk by or he will cause damage to my skin, ha. Sometimes he forgets that it's there right up until we walk by it so I've known now to warn him that it's there as we walk by so that he's prepared for it. Other laundry pipes seem to be a threat to him as well so we will continue to reassure and show him that the laundry pipe will not harm him and take things day by day! Sometimes, that's all that has to be done. Allow you cat time to get over their fears and don't expect that they will in your time; this is all in their time.
- Do not explore with an agenda until your cat is able to cope with loud noises. Agendas can infer stress and will redirect your attention to where you need to be and not to what your cat needs. Be there for you feline companion(s) 110% until they are pretty confident as you explore without needing to be anywhere by and specific time.
- Your ultimate goal should be that you are there for them; don't put expectations on them or see their fears as irrational. You can expose them to things they are scared of VERY slowly (as I did with the pipe) but you should never force it.
- Know what scares them and see it coming before they do so that you have more control of their reactions and can accommodate their fear as you explore.
The People (& The Attention)
If you are an introvert, cat exploring may not be for you. You will get a lot of attention, people will be taking photos, asking to pet your feline companion (once COVID is over, of course), asking you questions about how in the world what you are doing is possible, etc. The attention will come to you no matter where you live but in the city with more people, it’s more often. If it’s not for you, however, I would propose that you consider seeing if it’s for them. Life beyond the house really is good for their physical & mental health if they’re ready and able to enjoy any level of an adventurous lifestyle!
People are unescapable in the city but what happens if your cat doesn’t like people? When Gibson was a kitten, he was fearless (and still mostly is). He confidently walked towards and past people without halting. Since he turned 1, I’ve noticed that he will sometimes stop in his tracks from seeing a person from 5 to 50 feet away and carefully observe their every move before carrying on. Often, I will reassure him letting him know that he is okay and he will carry on. Other times, he won’t move until the person/people are gone or have moved on by. In these situations I will let him take the lead to get to wherever he feels safe (often, it’s someone’s front yard off of the sidewalk), I’ll get down at his level, pet him and give him chin scratches or treats, and allow him time to observe the people walking by. Sometimes the people will notice Gibson and stop to talk. I then notice Gibson starts to calm down and he sees that the people aren’t a threat, gets bored, and starts eating grass or something as I talk.
"Your cat will feed off the energy you give out. You should be mindful of the way you react in situations that may be stressful for your cat".
If, for example, a toddler falls from a short distance and visibly in no way hurts themselves but your reaction is to immediately drop everything and run to them asking if they are okay in a panic, they will most likely cry. If you instead choose to patiently observe them you might start to see them pick themselves up. After calmly letting them know they WILL be okay, encourage them to shake it off or redirect the situation to something exciting like a book or ball and they probably won’t even notice what just happened. Over time I have already noticed Gibson getting a lot better in seeing or being around people because I’ve been calm and understanding to his fears and he’s been able to see for himself that people aren’t dangerous.
The Toronto International Buskerfest for Epilepsy Toronto was the first big event that I took Gibson to (see photo above). Upon walking into the event, there were a few families ahead of us who spotted me walking him on his leash/harness. They did ask so kindly if they could pet Gibson and I said, "of course!" He had never shown to be bothered by people in any way until this point. Suddenly, a swarm of adults and children approached Gibson and got really excited to see a cat on a leash. It was almost as if he was a planned event at this festival! He then pancaked to the ground and started pulling me away from it all to which I then apologized and just followed his lead as he retreated the situation. From that point on I realized that we had to make a small rule when people would ask to pet him. Now, I allow two people petting him at a time. I should have known, ANYONE would be overwhelmed at the sight of a swarm of people petting them, HA.
One final thing I will say about people are the fun little comments people say when they see a person walking their cat. The most common ones being, "is that a cat?", "does your cat actually walk?", and "I've tried putting a harness on my cat but they hated it", to people even barking at us. Others will often open up and share stories about what their cat can do. Honestly, sometimes we do have a schedule and need to be somewhere. When we get walking and Gibson has a good walk going on or he's on my backpack not trying to jump down and people stop us to talk it can ruin our walking streak. Sometimes, I'll admit, I'm annoyed. Yet I think that in this season where there's a movement of cats exploring on leashes and harnesses, we need to be a community of people who are kind and polite. We should open the conversation to allow for a few questions about what we do so that we can help to educate others about this actually being a global movement! We are in the midst of making a name for ourselves and I think we should take every opportunity to be open to conversation even if it is for a minute.
- Spend some time with your cat outside in your yard or a quiet park just observing people and getting your cat used to them being around.
- Allow your cat to have full access to their carrier/backpack and a few treats so they can retreat to a safe space when they're feeling scared while around people.
- Be consistent with whatever tactics you exercise in coping with being around people every day on a smaller scale if you can before going onto bigger adventures where you're always around people.
- Don't overwhelm your fur babe(s) with so much attention when you aren't 100% sure if they're up for that. Introduce new and strange people slowly to them but still reassure that you are there for them.
Gibson has taken all modes of transportation in the city! We actually do have a car which we could always take but back when COVID-19 wasn't around, we'd actually choose to take the streetcar, subway and/or bus so that we could continue to expose him of all the ways to go! I often travel with Gibson without my husband as well and do not drive so pubic transport is usually how we will get around anyways.
When I first took Gibson on the bus and then the subway, I was pretty nervous yet confident he could handle it. I had done my part exposing Gibson to loud noises and people and saw that he was okay with sudden movements and noises so had decided that it was time to give it a try! It was about 4 months of training outside and traveling by car before taking public transit. He ended up getting on the bus as if he had done it many times before. He was excited and wanted to walk around and see everyone. I sat down on the stairs at the back of the bus with him and let him walk around (see video below). Gibson is like a free range chicken and wants to be able to explore every inch of something new freely but we all have to put limits on that for their safety!
In the video below, we were on the same first trip of taking public transit (I just had to switch harnesses) but this time we were on the subway. The subway was what I was nervous about but I left the backpack open, had him on his harness and was down at his level to be there for him and he surprised me huge! I've never been prouder for him to have been totally okay with this loud, sudden, and new moment.
Another way to go in the city is by taxi (see photo below)!! There has been two times where we did have to take this route because we had to be somewhere quickly and cat dad had plans. Always be mindful that people won't always want your sweet and wonderful amazing 4 legger bud in their car (we take uber). Some people are also allergic! Again, we want to give others a good name for cat explorers so be polite and always ask before ordering your taxi about your feline rider. When I order my uber, I always put in the notes that I am traveling with a cat and ask them if it's okay that he's out of the carrier before stepping in the taxi (it's his preferred way to go). I have never had an uber drive deny me yet or give me any problems yet.
- If you can start using ways to go in a car first (even if it's a rental) you might have a better idea as to how they will react on public transit. Starting this way first will help you both in knowing what to expect on the bus, subway, streetcar, and taxi.
- Make sure you get your cat to go to the bathroom before going on public transit. I will always get Gibson to pee before leaving the house or getting on any mode of transportation. I am convinced he knows what "pee pee" is because every time he does go to his litter box, I do say, "good job, pee pee!" solely for this reason. I wanted to train him to understand this word so that I could tell him he should go if he has to. He often will go if I find a dirt spot, some collection of leaves, etc. so he can bury where he went. I also notice that every time I freshly clean his litter box and put him in it, he will almost always go.
- Bring treats! Sometimes Gibson will get whiney if we are in traffic and not moving or if the trip is a bit longer. I always bring treats to accommodate for these moments.
- Make sure they are comfortable in their backpack/carrier so you can always use it as a safe space if they need to.
- Clip their claws before making the journey so that if there is a sudden movement or noise that spooks them, you won't be clawed.
The Green Spaces
In the city, any patch of greenery is like a small patch of heaven. There are lots of small parks that we can go to where Gibson can climb trees, do his "business", watch the birds and squirrels, etc. We enjoy these spaces when we see them! What's also great is that within the GTA there are green spaces that are much larger such as High Park, Scarborough Bluffs, Hamilton Waterfalls, etc. Honestly, living in the city comes with access to SO much. We have so many adventures that we have planned this summer (if COVID-19 permits). In the photo below, we are in a small park right near the CN Tower. We take in these moments when we find them!
The wonderful thing about exploring with a cat is that the smallest park can give them so much. Who knows that a cat will stay at one spot and smell this tree or observe a bird for 20+ minutes if you let them? I want to encourage you to take it all in with them. Turn off your phone for once and just sit there and appreciate what mother nature has gifted us with! If you do happen to bring a book or art along with you, always be alert of any off-leash dogs coming your way. What we have noticed is that if you go to busier green space areas within the city, most often, guardians of dogs will follow the by-law and keep their dogs leashed.
- If you aren't sure of where the green space areas are, google it!
- Go to that park you'd like to bring them to ahead of time without your feline companion so you get a feel of what to expect and whether or not you think this park will be safe enough for you to be there with them.
- Always bring the backpack and be prepared with snacks and poop bags!
(Community, Indoor ‘Pet’ Friendly Spaces, Patios)
PET STORES: There are some obvious and not so obvious pet-friendly spaces that we frequent, especially in the winter time. I like to keep Gibson used to exploring beyond the house throughout the year so that he doesn't regress in all he's learned to be okay with. Our favourite is one of the bigger PetSmart locations near us with fish, hamsters, mice, and birds. Gibson will sit there for hours if we let him. We just put him in a shopping cart and let him observe the closeups of all the animals they have. He will also hang out at the cat tower and on shelves and act as if he is on display for people to pet. Allowing this also helps him normalize to people so we don't mind it. Just be mindful of all the dogs that come in and out of pet stores! That's often why Gibson is in the grocery cart and on shelves. Other common pet stores we will visit is Global Pet Foods, Pet Valu, and Ren's Pets (see all photos below for some of our visits to these stores).
STORES: The less obvious pet-friendly stores around us are Canadian Tire (but since Canadian Tire stores are independently run, do check with the store near you to see if it's pet-friendly before visiting with your fur babe), Michaels Craft Store, and Marshall's/HomeSense/Winners (but you must stay out of the isles with food for sale). Most often, pets are allowed in stores without food but we always check with the employees before entering a store with Gibson. Sometimes we will take him along to run an errand and pick something up but often we will just go and walk around the store for something to do and to maintain his exploration skills in the colder months as I already mentioned.
PATIOS: Typically patios are also pet-friendly but one thing I've noticed is that some restaurant owners with patios tend to be less welcoming when I mention that I have a cat I'd like to bring on the patio. Their reasoning is that they are fearful that Gibson will get the dogs barking and that the patio experience will become not so relaxing or nice for their customers. Once I explained to an employee that I had a cat that was actually okay around dogs, as long as they're leashed. I asked her if it'd be okay for me to bring him if I called ahead of time and reserved a corner table. I mentioned to her that if there was a moment where a dog noticed him and lost it, that we would leave. Most restaurant owners are fearful of a cat coming to hang on a patio just because they've never experienced it. I'd advise for you to not get offended if told no but to educate them on ways to accommodate your feline bud and offer to leave if things get out of hand. There are also pet-friendly breweries. One gathering that I will be forever proud of is when us local cat explorers got together and hung out at a pet-friendly pub. There is a brewery called Black Lab Brewery and most often, there are dogs that accompany their guardians for a pint. We decided that we would reach out to the brewery to see if they would be open to accomodating 11 cats with their guardians and to our surpirse they were happy to do it! They had sectioned off the back area of the brewery and warned dog guardians that there would be cats inside that night and advised that they not come in if their dogs were reactive to cats. If you'd like to see a group photo and a few video clips capturing that memorable moment, click on my Instagram post here.
- If you are unsure of the store's policies around being pet-friendly, call ahead of time. Something I'll do as well is I'll ask a store if they are pet-friendly when I am walking around our neighbourhood without Gibson.
- Consider getting a travel litter box and a lighter litter that you can bring with you when you plan on staying inside somewhere for a while. Other times, if your cat is comfortable going to the bathroom outside and you'll be outside you have nothing to worry about.
- I've become a part of a cat exploring community in the GTA and one of my friend made a link marking all the pet-friendly spaces which is editable between us all so we can add in more spots which are available for us to visit. Community is everything so even if it is one person that you can find who explores with their cat, reach out and get together so that eventually your community will grow starting with you and you can help one another out on knowing where to go and what to do!
Exploring YOUR Area
We'd love to hear all about what life is like exploring your area! Whether it be in a hot country, 4 seasons country, country area, etc. all of our experiences are completely different because our cat's personalities as well as our own are each so unique to the adventures that we have.
One last thing before you go - I am happy to announce that I partnered with our friends at The Busma Bunch to extend this blog piece to what it's like exploring in the suburbs! You can read all about their experiences here and let us know what you think!
Until then, feel free to tell me your story of where you explore and what it's like by messaging me on Instagram, emailing me, or dropping your comments below (just note that I cannot comment back but always read what you write).
xx Sarah & Gibson