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Why do cats hiss? Here’s what your cat is telling you

Angry looking black and white cat.

A hissing cat is acting defensively and not aggressively.

© Slava Dumchev - Shutterstock

A cat that hisses isn’t being rude. They’re trying to communicate with you as their owner. Here we look at what your cat is trying to tell you and how to help.

By Greta Inglis

Published on the 11/04/2021, 17:00

Have you ever been caught off guard when your cat hisses, wondering why they do this and what it means? It’s a common misconception that a cat that hisses is behaving aggressively but hissing is actually a sign they’re feeling insecure, frightened, or may even be in pain.

As a cat owner, it’s important to get to the bottom of this behaviour. Cats don’t have the ability to tell us what’s wrong so they have to use their body language and vocalisations to communicate.

Is it normal for cats to hiss?

Our feline friends have a wide range of vocal forms of communication that they rely on to express their perception of situations. Growling, yowling, purring and meowing all help to tell owners if they are relaxed, stressed, feel threatened or are just plain hungry. Hissing is an additional form of communication, and an important one at that.

Hissing is a way for your cat to show you their discomfort and as such is as normal a behaviour as any other form of vocalisation. From a welfare perspective, hissing may suggest your cat is feeling anxious, so steps must be taken to understand the reasons behind the behaviour and how to help.

How do cats hiss?

The action of hissing involves expelling air from the mouth, as your cat exhales. The quick movement of air produces the hissing sound, which is usually accompanied by a change in body language. Your cat might flatten their ears back, arch their back, and you may even notice their fur standing on end. Known as piloerection, this serves to make your feline friend look big and scary, a technique developed to keep predators at bay.

If you’ve ever heard your cat hiss and imagined a snake, you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking so. 

Feline behaviour experts actually believe that the act of hissing originated as a form of mimicry of snakes, in order to protect cats from threats in nature.  

Mimicry of more menacing creatures in the animal kingdom is actually fairly common, with creatures assuming identities to protect themselves. Examples of this are the milksnake that mimics the look of a poisonous coral snake, and the butterflyfish with eyespots on their tails so predators are redirected the wrong way.

What is your cat saying when he hisses? Misconceptions and truths

Many of us have experienced our cat hissing from time to time. This forms part of cat behaviour and is an important tool your cat uses to avoid conflict.

Reason one: Cats hiss as a warning to increase distance

If your cat is startled or feels cornered, they may hiss to try to increase distance between themselves and whatever is scary. This can come in the form of a human, a dog, another cat, or even a new object at home. The hiss in this case serves as a warning: your cat is effectively asking the threat to “back off”, before resorting to any form of aggressive action.

Reason two: Cats hiss when they’re feeling anxious

An anxious cat will undoubtedly be feeling insecure and uneasy in their environment. As small animals, cats have a natural predisposition to protect themselves from danger and move away from what scares them. This can come in the form of loud noises, new people or new items brought in to the home.  A poorly socialised kitten can grow up to become an adult cat afraid of humans and new things, and this too can lead to anxiety. If you have a multi-cat household, you may find existing cats hiss at new kittens.

Cats are notoriously creatures of habit, and changes in routine and environment can startle them and leave them feeling on edge.

Take a look here at our suggestions for home remedies to soothe your cat.

Reason three: Cats hiss when they’re in pain

If you go to stroke your usually social cat, only to find they wriggle and hiss, this could be a sign they are experiencing pain. Cats that flinch, become stressed, or hiss when touched, may be trying to tell you that something is wrong. If you notice any of these signs, book a trip to the vet and avoid touching them until a diagnosis or treatment has been carried out.

Reason four: Cats hiss as a form of redirected aggression

If your cat likes to rule the roost, or you’re experiencing inter-cat conflict within the home, you may witness your cat hissing on a regular basis. If your cat turns to you and hisses, this could be a sign of redirected aggression. The hiss was not intended for you, you just got caught in the crossfire!

This can also be the case if you have two kittens living together who play frequently. Kittens often hiss softly at each other to signal their play has become too rough, and if you move to touch your kitten in this moment, you may find yourself on the receiving end of the reaction.

Reason five: Mother cats hiss to protect their babies

Once a mother cat has kittens, these tiny furbabies become her world for the first few months. It is her job to protect and look out for them, and this is an innate instinct in most cats. Having evolved to live with humans, this is no longer such an evident necessity, but the trust between owner and cat must be there if your cat is to let you approach her babies. A cat that doesn’t feel confident her owner will leave her undisturbed, may hiss to create a distance she feels comfortable with.

What should you do when your cat hisses?

There are a number of techniques and practices you can adopt, in order to help your cat feel secure and to reduce the hissing. It is important to consider the triggers that may be at play and to think about the root cause, as this will not only lead to a more positive environment, but a happier and calmer cat.

Should I punish my cat for hissing?

The quick answer to this question is that no, punishing your cat for hissing will not help them in the long run. A cat that hisses is feeling threatened and insecure in some way, and punishing them for expressing themselves will increase this feeling. This can lead to the development of aggressive behaviour.

Punishment works by stopping a behaviour from being expressed, which works against you in the long run, as this does not address the reason behind the insecurity. Stopping a cat from hissing is like stopping a human from requesting a time out, and this could lead to your cat jumping straight to more aggressive behaviour in future.

Is it bad to hiss back at your cat?

Hissing back at your cat will not help them to feel more secure and settled. It may work to decrease the level of trust between you, which will only make things worse.

Instead, work to create safe places and to show your cat you understand what they are trying to tell you. Give your cat space when they show you they need it, moving away from them quietly and calmly.

Creating a safe and secure hiding spot can help your cat to relax. Historically cats needed to keep quiet around prey and out of the eyeline of predators, and so hiding places were essential for survival. An igloo, quiet room or cat ledge can all work, depending on your cat’s preferences and the space available. Multi-cat households should have multiples of each item to avoid inter-cat aggression.

Thinking of introducing a second cat to your household? Read our guide here on how to introduce two cats.

If you feel your cat is experiencing anxiety, lots of reassurance, company, toys and treats can help. Do remember, if your cat hisses at you, try not to take it personally. They are expressing themselves the best way they know how. Through working out what they need, you can help your cat feel loved and understood, and this will only improve your bond for future days to come.

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