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What is Your Cat Telling You? Better Communication for Happier Travels

Cats are mysterious creatures. They’re often independent, sometimes aloof, and usually do things on their own terms. You may not think they sound like the best adventure buddies, but we’re here to tell you that they are! You just have to learn how to decode the signals they send your way. This can take time, as every cat is different and sometimes the signs that they’re displaying can mean more than one thing. Paying a little extra attention and keeping an eye out for some key indicators can change your relationship dramatically. 

What is Your Cat Telling You? Better Communication for Happier Travels | GoPetFriendly.com

Traveling with our cats means we have had to learn more about how they’re feeling. To be aware of what they’re comfortable with and what boundaries we’re able to push, we’ve had to pay close attention to how they react in certain situations. For example, Fish loves kids. When they approach, his tail sticks straight up in the air – an indicator he’s feeling happy and friendly. This way we are able to tell kids that it’s okay to pet him, knowing he will have a positive reaction. 

Fish’s tail is pointing straight up, indicating he’s quite happy.

When we’re approached by dogs, Fish’s reaction is different. He likes certain dogs, but generally reacts cautiously when encountering a new one, and certain breeds really freak him out. We can tell he’s nervous if his ears go out to the side. If he’s especially alarmed, his ears will be pinned back, his pupils will dilate, and his tail will puff up. Next he’ll raise his back as whatever he perceives as the threat is approaching. If the dog is leashed and doesn’t seem interested in him we’ll generally let the encounter continue, because it’s a good way for Fish to get used to dogs. But if Fish starts hissing, we know it’s time to pick him up so he feels safer. Hissing is a really obvious sign of distress, fear or aggression.

His tail is fluffed up and his pupils are enlarged which shows us that he is rather nervous.

Fish looking super casual.

Anxiety is one expression that we see more often in Chips than Fish. Fish is a pretty laid back cat, but Chips is more uneasy in some situations. This usually manifests by him crouching down close to the ground with his ears back and tail straight out, angled down, or tucked underneath him.

For us, the best thing to do in this scenario is give him space. More often than not, he just requires a little longer to get comfortable in his surroundings. As long as there is no danger, working through these feelings on his own teaches Chips that new environments are not scary. We just remain calm and show him that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Chips looking anxious as a dog approaches.

Which brings me to my next point: never mimic their reactions. Always be aware of the mood that you’re putting out and make sure it’s positive. If your cat is scared, nervous, or frustrated, never react in a negative way. Animals are exceptionally adept at understanding our body language as a form of communication. If you’re nervous it will heighten their anxiety. Instead make sure your tone is positive, your body is neutral, and you’re dealing with any situation with confidence. 

Sometimes your cat might make audible noises to communicate with you, such as purring or various meows. Interestingly, adult cats don’t normally meow to communicate with each other – so if your cats are meowing, it’s usually because they have something to say to you!

If you pay close attention, you probably know that your cat’s “hungry meow” sounds different than his “let’s play” meow. Cats develop their own tones and variations based on how you react. That being said, a noise like purring is universally recognized as the sound of contentment, and growling or hissing generally demonstrate fear or aggression. Chattering, which is a noise they often reserve for watching birds outside the window, is a sound of frustration and interest. Chirping, or what is often referred to as trilling, is a noise they make when they’re looking for you or want you to come over to them.


Below is a list I’ve gathered of some common cat communications that you can watch for, but keep in mind that every cat is different. And sometimes individual expressions can mean different things when paired with other indicators, so definitely take a comprehensive approach when evaluating their body language.

Positive

  • Tail straight up, slightly curved at the tip or in a relaxed position behind them
  • Whiskers relaxed
  • Slow blinking or droopy eyelids
  • Ears angled forwards
  • Laying down on their side or back
  • Pupils are normal slits
  • Head butting, licking, kneading
  • Purring

Fearful

  • Ears to the side
  • Body crouched low to the ground
  • Eyes enlarged
  • Back arched
  • Tail between legs
  • Hissing

Aggressive

  • Direct stare
  • Ears flat to the head
  • Whiskers forward while in a stare down or fight
  • Back arched, tail fluffed or tail lowered and flicking
  • Growling, hissing

We hope these tips for understanding what your cat is trying to tell you will help make your travels more fun for you both!

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  • Very interesting, Pamela! I can see why an arched back might confuse Honey. She’ll have to try to remember that cats warm up to dogs a little more slowly. ;-)

  • Great post! Because my dog and I meet a lot of adventure cats on boats, it’s really helpful to have these tips for understanding cat body language. One thing I’ve observed from Honey is that she sometimes confuses an arched back for a play bow. She really likes cats and we have to explain to her that not every cat wants to be her friend.

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