Like the low growl of a dog or buzz of a rattlesnake’s tail, the hissing sound of a cat is unmistakable. But why do cats hiss? Is hissing a sign of anger or cat aggression, or is it something else? Read on to find out.
What Is a Cat Hiss?
A cat hiss is a sudden, explosive exhalation of air across a cat’s arched tongue and through the mouth. When cats hiss, they also display other related body language, including baring their teeth, pulling back their lips from the mouth and flattening their ears back against the head.
Many cats also arch their backs and their hair may stand out from the skin (a phenomenon known as piloerection). The arched back and puffed-up coat (hackles standing up) are meant to make the cat appear larger than it really is to dissuade predators from approaching. When cats are really upset, they might growl and spit (hiss so forcefully that saliva ejects from the mouth).
Common Reasons Why Cats Hiss
When a cat hisses, it is a sign that she is feeling threatened, fearful, or extremely upset. Hissing is a warning: Stay back! Don’t approach me! A hissing cat feels that she is in danger. A cat may hiss at another cat, at a dog or other animal, or at people. Here are some common scenarios when a cat might hiss:
Cat Hissing at People
It’s common for cats to hiss at the veterinarian, especially when they are placed on the cold exam table or when veterinary staff comes to poke and prod the cat. If past visits were frightening, the cat remembers the sights, sounds, and smells of the veterinary clinic. She may hiss as soon as you arrive, even if she hasn’t yet been touched.
Cats might also hiss if you bring them to another unfamiliar place like a boarding facility or groomer. It’s normal for cats that usually stay at home to feel afraid of sights, sounds and smells that they are not accustomed to.
Cats frequently hiss when new guests or workers enter the home, or if they are around unfamiliar children who are being loud and boisterous.
A cat might hiss at you or another family member if you try to give her a bath, brush her, trim her nails, or give medication.
Cats might also hiss if someone is petting or holding them and they are not feeling comfortable for whatever reason. If your cat hisses when you approach her or try to touch her, it could be a sign that she is in pain. It is not unusual for cats with arthritis or an injury to hiss for seemingly no reason. In fact, they are communicating to you to stay away because they are hurting.
Hissing at Cats and Other Pets
Mother cats may hiss if another cat or human tries to approach her litter of kittens. It is her instinct to protect her babies from potential harm, whether real or imagined.
Cats living in multi-cat households may get into squabbles that result in lots of loud hissing. Sometimes, two or more cats may gang up on another cat, stalking or ambushing them in the litter box or at the food bowls. Similarly, if a cat feels threatened by or nervous around the family dog, she might hiss as a warning to stay away.
It’s very normal for cats to hiss at one another when introducing a new cat or kitten to your existing cat. When the cats are properly introduced and allowed to acclimate to each other’s smell and presence, the hissing usually subsides as the cats get used to each other and see the other cat is not a threat.
What to Do If Your Cat Is Hissing
Hissing or even growling is not necessarily a sign that a cat is angry, nor is hissing a sign that you have an aggressive cat on your hands. Hissing is an expression of fear and a warning to stay away.
A hissing cat is scared and uncomfortable. If the warning of a hiss is not heeded, and the cat continues to feel vulnerable or threatened, a hissing cat may progress to aggressive behavior like scratching or biting.
If your cat is hissing, first and foremost, give her space.
Hissing is a clear communication: stay back! Allow your cat to retreat to a safe place and calm down before attempting to approach her again. This might take minutes or hours, depending on how scared your cat was. Cats should always have a safe, quiet place to retreat when they are feeling nervous or scared. This can be a tall cat tree or a quiet room in the back of the house.
Try to figure out what is making her afraid.
If possible, remove the perceived threat or move the cat to her safe space. For example, if a friend’s visiting dog is bothering your cat, put the dog on a leash or in a crate. If your cat is scared because workers are over, put her away in a safe room away from noise until the workers are gone. You can play calming music in the safe room to drown out any scary sounds.
If you’ve recently adopted a new cat or kitten and notice a lot of hissing, give each cat a safe place to retreat and give it time.
It can take several weeks for new cats to settle in and adjust to each other. Don’t force interactions and intervene if things get too heated. Pheromone diffusers and sprays can also help in this situation. Most cats learn to at least get a long, even if they don’t love each other.
If you suspect squabbles between multiple adult cats in your home, try to find out the source of the issue. If one cat is pestering another, try adding more litter boxes and food and water dishes. Make sure the cat that is being bothered has a safe place to retreat and try to intervene if one cat is ganging up on anther. Sometimes, pheromone diffusers, sprays and collars can help calm cats down.
Sometimes, it’s hard to identify why your cat is hissing.
Hissing can be an outward sign that your cat is stressed about something or even in pain. If you can’t figure out what is triggering your cat, a visit to the veterinarian is in order to make sure your cat is healthy.
If your vet finds no physical cause for your cat’s hissing, he or she might refer you to a veterinary behaviorist. These professionals are experts in understanding cat behavior. If you’d like to consult with a behaviorist, your regular veterinarian can give you a referral.