Why do cats hiss?
Before we talk about what a cat’s hiss means, let’s talk about what it does not mean:
Hissing does not mean your cat hates you.
Hissing does not mean your cat is mad at you.
Hissing does not mean your cat is being aggressive.
The hiss, in fact, is probably not what you think it is at all.
What kind of sound is a cat’s hiss?
If you had your eyes closed (and a wild imagination) you could easily mistake a cat’s hiss for the hiss of a viper, or the air being let out of a tire.
A cat makes this sound by expelling air rapidly through the mouth as she is exhaling.
The hiss is usually accompanied by a specific facial expression and body posture. A hissing cat will pull his lips back and bare his teeth, and may also flatten his ears to the side of his head. A hissing cat might puff out his tail fur and make his body hair stand on end – a trick scientists call “piloerection.”
If you’ve never been hissed at, this is what a hissing cat sounds like:
A cat who feels the need to take the hissing up a notch may advance to spitting. Scientists who study cat vocalizations tend to view spitting as a variation on the hissing theme rather than a separate sound. Hissing is considered a “voiceless” vocalization and it is more drawn out, while spitting is an explosive burst of sound. It almost sounds like a cat is making a “T” sound.
You can hear the cat in this video spitting at this poor child who clearly had no intention of upsetting the family pet:
Let’s get back to that viper reference for a minute. A lot of armchair scientists out there will tell you that when a cat is hissing, she is mimicking the sound a snake makes. A hissing cat sure sounds like a snake, right?
Cats are definitely capable of mimicry. Read, “Why does my cat chatter his teeth?” if you want to know more about that topic. But there is no scientific evidence that a hissing cat knows what a snake sounds like, or that she plans to get a rise out of you by making a snake sound. How many of your indoor cats have ever met a snake?
It’s possible that ancestral cats have passed down this ability through the DNA like any instinctual behavior, but there is absolutely no scientific evidence that this is true.
When does a cat hiss?
You’re going to look at your hissing cat differently after reading this section. Your hissing cat is not being a jerk. If he is hissing, he’s expressing fear, not aggression, and not hatred.
Scientists believe that hissing is mostly an involuntary vocalization, meaning your cat doesn’t even “decide” to hiss. It just happens when she feels threatened.
A cat hisses when he feels alarmed, anxious, afraid, or threatened. A hissing cat is not trying to engage you in conflict – he is trying to head off a conflict. It’s a kind of verbal warning. He’s almost saying, “Back off! I don’t want to be forced to use my claws!”
The hiss is an intimidating noise that has the power to scare off a potential opponent. The facial expression that accompanies the hiss and the puffed-out body posture are also designed to make the cat appear more intimidating.
But a cat who is hissing is not being aggressive. A hissing cat is trying to avoid a confrontation. A hiss is like saying, “I’m scared, but I’ll attack if I have to.”
Hissing helps cats to communicate their feelings
According to a study that was published in the Journal of Veterinary Science, cats can produce at least 21 different vocalizations. This is more than any other carnivore (way more), which is frankly, almost unbelievable.
We tend to think of our cats as solitary creatures, but this is evidence of how social they really are. Specific vocalizations, like the hiss, help them communicate with others. The ability to understand another individual’s emotions is critical for animals living in social groups, just like it is for us humans.
In fact, the more cats, the more hissing. A study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery looked at households with two to four cats. The more cats in the household, the more conflict. Staring was the most frequent “conflict” behavior – which is evidence of how conflict-avoidant cats really are. No one is really looking for a fight if staring does the trick.
Hissing is just very normal cat behavior. In that study, cat guardians reported that hissing occurred daily in at least 18% of the households. That’s a lot of hissing. But that’s also a lot of cat fights that never happened because of hissing.
So, remind yourself when you get hissed at: hissing is a natural behavior. Your cat is just expressing himself in one of the few ways a non-verbal animal, like a cat, can express himself.
What kinds of things can cause a cat to hiss?
Every cat is an individual, so what one cat will ignore another may hiss at.
Unfamiliar things, if they make your cat feel anxious, may cause her to hiss: a new object (even a cat toy) in the house. A new pet. A human house guest your cat doesn’t know. If you come in smelling not like yourself, but like the next-door neighbor's dog, that may cause your cat to feel unsure.
Territorial concerns can result in a hiss. Maybe there is an outdoor cat who is too close to your indoor cat’s home turf. The hiss is a warning shot across the bow.
Protectiveness can cause a cat to hiss, especially a mother cat protecting her kittens.
Annoyance can produce a hiss. Maybe your cat doesn’t want to be petted at that moment, or the petting has gone on too long. (Read, “How to pet a cat,” for more information.). Or maybe your cat doesn’t want to be picked up right then.
Monitor your kids around your cat; they might not know when it’s time to leave the cat alone. And keep an eye on rough play between cats, especially between a new kitten and your cat. Sometimes one cat will hiss at another when play goes too far, as if to say, “take it down a notch.”
Note, as you’re evaluating a confrontation between cats, that what you see may not be what you think you are seeing. The hissing cat is not necessarily the aggressor. The hissing cat may be the victim. The aggressor may be doing something even more subtle, like stalking and staring.
When to worry about a hissing cat
The one potential cause of hissing that I didn’t mention above is pain. A cat who is feeling unwell or in pain may hiss. A cat with arthritis may hiss as he jumps off the bed, for example.
If your cat is not a hisser, but suddenly starts hissing, it’s time to visit your veterinarian. Any change from your cat’s normal behavior or routine is a red flag. Try to catch your hissing cat on video, as it may give your vet a clue as to what may be going on with her.
Consider reading, "How do you know if your cat is sick?" for more insight about what to look for.
What to do (and not) when your cat is hissing at you
First, don’t take it personally. Remind yourself that if your cat is hissing at you it is because it is one of the only ways he knows how to communicate with you.
Understand that a cat who has a close bond with you may still hiss at you. The hiss is a reaction to a very immediate situation. It is not a statement about your relationship and it doesn’t mean your cat doesn’t like you.
First, try to figure out what is provoking your cat and remove it, if you can, before your cat feels she must resort to scratching and biting.
Second, give a hissing cat space and the option to escape. Don’t touch. Don’t pet. Don’t make eye contact, and don’t pick up the cat. Your cat does not need to be comforted right now.
And finally, don’t reprimand your cat for hissing. Punishing a cat for hissing will only increase her fear and aggression.
In the future, make it a point to pay closer attention to our cat's body language so that you can see your cat’s frustration, annoyance, or stress building, to prevent a future hiss. Make sure your cat never feels backed into a corner.
If you have a multi-cat household and your cats are hissing at each other, first make sure there are enough resources to go around. Make sure each cat has his own food dish, toys, and plenty of space to escape from the other cats in the household. You may also find it helpful to read, “Do cats get jealous?”
This post on feline hyperesthesia syndrome is also relevant to this topic.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 McAndrew, Maura. “Cat Hissing: 7 Things That Might Be to Blame.” PetMD, 13 Oct. 2020, www.petmd.com/cat/slideshows/cat-hissing-7-things-might-be-blame#slide-1.
 Tavernier, Chloé, et al.
 Elzerman, Ashley & DePorter, Theresa & Beck, Alexandra & Collin, Jean-François. (2019). Conflict and affiliative behavior frequency between cats in multi-cat households: a survey-based study. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 22. 1098612X1987798. 10.1177/1098612X19877988. researchgate.net/publication/336652653_Conflict_and_affiliative_behavior_frequency_between_cats_in_multi-cat_households_a_survey-based_study