BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

Why Do Cats Hiss: Giving Words to the Scary Sound

gray cat hissing
Steve Corelli
Written by Steve Corelli

If you are a cat owner or just interested in understanding feline behavior, there is one question that might cross your mind: why do cats hiss? Most cat owners will attest to the fact that their furry friends sometimes exhibit quite unpredictable behavior; one moment you are having enjoyable play time and the next you are nursing a scratch on your arm. Another common behavior is hissing. This is a snake-like vocalization that felines will make at kittens, people, inanimate objects, and even fellow cats.

Cats have adapted to living indoors or near homes; this comes with its share of challenges which they have to overcome. Communicating with humans and other pets is essential for them, and vocalization, which may manifest as hissing, is high on the list. Hissing is not only a sign of aggression; it can communicate different things.

To better understand hissing in cats, we will start by looking at how the sound is made. We will also cover eight different reasons why cats find it necessary to hiss. Read on to find out more about this odd feline behavior.

How Do Cats Hiss?

kitten hissing

Before we go deep into the reasons why cats hiss, let’s first find out how they do it. The sound is created when these fur babies force air through their tongues. For the hiss to be effective, they arch their tongues upwards and to the center of the mouth. If you are close enough when they hiss, you will feel a burst of air escaping from their mouths.

Typically, your cat will pull back her lips at the same time and flatten her ears against her head. With her mouth gaping and teeth showing, she appears menacing and terrifying.

Additionally, her body will be arched, giving the illusion of being taller and ready to attack. Her hairs will also bristle as a reflexive response to whatever emotion she is undergoing.

8 Reasons Why Cats Hiss

Hissing is an innate behavior that is observed in all cats including the big felines in the wild. Most animal behavior experts claim that the hiss of a cat is a part of their defense mechanism.

This behavior mimics that of a snake, which is one of the most feared creatures in the animal kingdom. Mimicry is a common behavior when there is a need to deter opponents in the animal world, and it seems cats learned from the best; their hiss is both scary and effective.

With that in mind, let’s look in depth at the main reasons why do cats hiss at each other:

#1: Cats Hiss to Warn Their Kittens

tabby cat hissing

When you observe your cat hissing especially the adults, one question that might cross your mind is why do cats hiss at kittens? The simple answer is that this is a warning hiss. A mother cat will hiss at her kids to warn them of impending danger. This could be brought about by an oncoming stray cat or stranger.

A warning hiss is a call to action. Kittens are supposed to heed the sound of their mother and return back to her. It’s a way of getting their attention especially when they are engaged in play with each other or when they are playing with toys.

This hissing will be followed by more action on the mother’s side if her kittens do heed her warning. She will walk towards them protectively or towards the source of danger.

#2: Cats Hiss to Teach Their Kittens

As we have said earlier, some animal behavior is as a result of mimicry. This also applies to kittens and their mothers; mollies will hiss to make their kittens copy them. Since at a young age all cats are impressionable, kittens will diligently do everything their mother does.

Of course, this defense lesson takes time so don’t be worried when hissing becomes a common sound amongst the litter. At first, the small kittens will hiss at each other, the way they see their mother doing. They will also hiss at their mother playfully.

At first, their hisses will be soft; this is because kittens are born before their bodies are fully developed. With time though, they become not only strong but also vocal enough to make loud hisses.

#3: Cats Hiss at Kittens to Chase Them Away

cat hissing at kitten

As kittens grow, the time comes when they have to be weaned by their mother. This happens at about four weeks after birth. A mother cat will try her best to keep kittens away from suckling; hissing is one way of doing this.

She will behave menacingly towards them and withdraw herself from them. This behavior won’t be taken kindly by the kittens, and they will try to fight back. They will hiss at their mother in retaliation and even chase after her; either way, there will be a lot of hissing in your house during this period.

See Also: How to Wean Kittens

#4: Cats Hiss Out of Fear

Fear is an emotion that is observed in most animals and cats are no exceptions. At the very first sign of danger, your cat will try to keep the threat at bay. Hissing is one of the common responses when faced with a threatening situation. Typically, your cat will withdraw herself to a safe distance and then hiss as a warning.

This is usually a sign of aggression on her part, and it’s supposed to communicate that she will react if provoked. This kind of aggressive behavior does not mean that your cat has an aggressive personality; it’s just a reaction aimed at keeping herself safe.

This kind of hissing can be brought about by the presence of something she is not familiar with. A new squeaky toy can be treated as a threat during the first few days. If your cat steps on it or happens to squeeze it, the sound will send her scurrying away and hissing from a comfortable distance.

#5: Cats Hiss to Protect Their Territory

cat hissing and protecting the territory

Your kitty will also hiss when she senses the presence of an intruding stray feline. This can seem abnormal especially if you can’t see the stray; picture yourself in the backyard with your kitty sleeping peacefully by your side and suddenly she is hissing and acting aggressively.

What you need to understand is that cats have heightened senses and can detect an unfamiliar cat, even one who is on the other side of the fence. This kind of improved sense of smell and hearing is an adaptation that keeps a cat safe in the wild. The ability to detect a threat when it’s far away allows your feline to announce her presence and deter the stray from approaching.

Most cats enjoy their own company and will be rattled if they sense a new cat, especially a stray, making a move on their space. Hissing is their way of announcing their presence.

This behavior is important especially for outdoor cats who have to stay on their guard at all times. Without such a mechanism, they will more often than not lose their food, water, and their favorite sleeping places.

#6: Cats Hiss to Maintain Harmony

When there are multiple cats living in the same house or territory, they will hiss to maintain harmony. The notion that cats use hissing as a way of maintaining harmony may seem farfetched, but have you ever wondered how several cats are able to stay in the same confinement without tearing each other up even though they are solitary creatures in the wild?

First, it’s good to understand that most domestic cat groups are usually not from the same litter. For example, you will find yourself keeping Scottish Folds and Devon Rexes as your pets. This lack of close family ties means that their indoor shared territory is more of an imposition than a choice.

They have to share the same bowls of food and water, sleep in the same bed or close to each other, and play in the same play area or enclosure. In short, to thrive they must find a balance on how to co-exist with each other and keep you happy at the same time.

In such a multi-cat household, hissing will be a familiar sound. This is because in order to maintain social order, each cat has to know his or her place. Instead of biting or battling each other, your cats will choose to avoid conflict, and one of the best ways of doing this is hissing at each other.

Also, when they are playing and one cat tires earlier than the others, hissing will be a sure way of telling the others to keep off. The same will be observed during sleeping time; when one cat takes over the sleeping quarters of the other, hissing will be an amicable way to decide who gets the bed.

This kind of group dynamic is delicate and can be affected by the smallest of things. There is anecdotal evidence of cats hissing at each other simply because they have spotted a stray cat or dog through the window. Your fur babies get so scared that they turn on each other.

#7: Cats Hiss at New Members

white cat hissing

When you bring home a new kitty, the rest may not take kindly to the gesture. Hissing will be a way of trying to scare the new feline into leaving. New members come with a fresh smell that is new to the cats and the house. This indicates trouble, and the old members will be edgy and unfriendly.

Cats have a sense of smell that is far superior to that of most animals—an adaptation that makes them excellent twilight hunters. To give you an idea of how good they are at recognizing scents, consider this: your kitty can smell 14 times better than you.

As a way of marking their territory, cats rub on to things to transfer their scent onto them; they will rub on you as a way of ‘marking’ you. They groom each other to transfer scents and rub against things in the house to claim them. This allows them to quickly identify new arrivals by scent rather than sight. New smells are interpreted as danger and hissing will follow.

The association of danger with new smells also sees a cat who has just been to the vet being hissed at by the rest, even though they have lived together for a long time. The same fate will befall a feline who ventures outdoors and comes back smelling wrong. If a cat comes back smelling like cow manure or new cologne after being petted by strangers, she will definitely be hissed at.

#8: Hissing as a Form of Displaced Aggression

It may be common for your kitty to hiss at you even though you are not aggressive or mean towards her. Such a situation will leave you asking, why does my cat hiss at me? One of the main reasons behind this kind of behavior is displaced aggression.

This happens when your cat is unable to confront the source of her fears; instead, she hisses at a softer target, which in this case happens to be you.

Aggression towards you can also be occasioned by trying to force your kitty to do things she is uncomfortable with. This is common especially when you are introducing a cat to new experiences. You could be trying to get her in a carrier or bathing her, and she ends up announcing her displeasure by hissing.

This aggression can be dangerous for you since she may lash out with her claws. For this reason, it’s recommended that while acclimatizing a cat to new experiences you should be careful and well protected. Use gloves to cover your hands and boots to cover your feet.

New people in your home may also be hissed at for intruding on your cat’s territory. Your cat will also hiss at you out of jealousy. If your cat smells the scent of an unfamiliar feline on your clothes, you should expect to be hissed at. This is a form of betrayal on your part, and your kitty won’t take it lying down.

Wrap Up

orange cat hissing

Cats hiss for a number of reasons. They do it to protect themselves from real or imagined danger or to communicate a message. The list of things that cats see as dangerous is a long one: noisy toys, other cats, dogs and strangers, and even their owners.

Typically, your kitty will hiss to avoid a physical fight with her aggressor. The scary sound may be accompanied by an open mouth, arched back, and piloerection of fur.

This combination of body posture and sounds makes a cat appear menacing and fearless which works well as a defense mechanism. Reading your cat’s body language besides the hiss can help you identify the trigger and help where you can. Unless it really bothers you, it should not be a cause for concern.

Did you find this post helpful? Have you identified other things that have triggered hissing in your cat? What did you do to help? We would like to hear your feedback on this and more. Leave us your comments below. Lastly, check out our article on what are cats scared of so you can anticipate the situation and prevent hissing.

About the author
Steve Corelli
Steve Corelli

Steve Corelli is a Pet Nutrition Expert from Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is the author of many nutritional strategies for different breeds and a member of some Pet Food development teams. His Maine Coon Stephan, as you might guess, is always well-fed.

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