If you have a cat in your home, chances are you’ve grown quite close to them. As independent as they are, cats quickly become an essential part of not just the household but the family as well. But, like any family, there can be disagreements.
Having your cat hiss at you can be confusing and may even hurt your feelings, but understanding a little more about why they may be doing it can help lessen the sting. Why do cats hiss, and what should you do about it?
We’ve got the answer to those questions, and maybe more haven’t thought to ask yet.
Why Do Cats Hiss?
Why do cats hiss? Cats use hissing as a form of communication — a vocalization designed to get their point across. Think of it like a dog barking; it may mean different things depending on the situation or their intonation, but it’s communication all the same.
Unfortunately, as close as we are to our feline companions, we don’t speak the same language. It’s like trying to converse with someone who speaks a foreign language. Without taking the time to learn the other person’s native language, you may be able to understand what they need in basic terms, but all the nuance is lost.
Understanding why cats hiss not only helps you with cat care, but you’ll also become a better pet parent and develop a closer relationship with your cat.
Out of Fear
One reason cats may hiss is out of fear. Like humans, cats are afraid of many things — loud noises, new people, a change in environment, etc. While we may gasp or scream when startled, cats often express their shock by hissing.
You can differentiate hissing out of fear from cat aggression by looking at their body language. Fearful cats usually press their ears back against their head, open their eyes widely, and generally crouch low to the floor.
Fear-related hissing can also happen at the vet, especially if your cat has not developed a friendly relationship with them. There are a lot of new smells, they’re being touched against their will (and often stuck with needles), and they’re outside their comfortable home environments.
If your cat regularly has a fear response to going to the vet, look for a vet that is “feline-friendly,” meaning they’ve taken the time and put in the effort to make their clinic a more comforting place for cats to visit.
As a Warning
Another common reason a cat may hiss is as a warning. Think about the sound a cat makes when they hiss — does it remind you of anything? I
f you couldn’t see what creature is doing it, you might be concerned that a snake had slipped into your house without you noticing. A hissing cat and a hissing snake are likely trying to get the same point across — back off.
Even the most aggressive cat wants to avoid confrontation at all costs. Hissing gives the other party (whether that’s a human who has gotten too close to a new kitten or a new cat invading their territory) a chance to go the other direction.
Cats will also combine hissing with a change in body language — often arching their backs and piloerection (the hair standing up, especially on their shoulders, back, and tail) — to portray themselves as even scarier.
You’ll frequently see hissing when there are two unneutered male cats in the home or an unneutered male and an unspayed female (that is not a littermate). Introducing new cats to a household can also trigger warning hissing, especially if you don’t do it slowly.
When They’re Hurt
In some situations, cats may involuntarily hiss as a pain response. You may notice pain-related hissing when you’re petting your cat and hit a painful spot or when they’re just lying in their bed across the room and randomly making the noise.
If your cat’s pain is severe enough, they may even hiss as a combination of pain and as a warning to you not to approach them. However, of all potential causes of hissing, pain-related hissing is the least likely. You can suspect a pain trigger if you’ve ruled out other environmental causes of their hissing.
How Should You Respond When Your Cat Hisses?
If your cat is hissing, your response should depend on identifying stressors. There are usually two primary categories — human and animal-related.
If your cat is hissing at you, stop what you’re doing immediately. Never continue to approach a cat that is showing potentially aggressive behavior for the safety of both you and your cat.
If your cat is hissing at someone else in your home, ensure that they do the same. If the household member your cat is hissing at is a child, take the time to teach them what to do if it happens again. If it continues to be a problem, don’t leave your child and cat unsupervised.
Once you’ve removed yourself from the situation, take a step back and see if you can figure out why your cat was hissing in the first place. Are they showing signs that they may be in pain? Have you noticed other concerning cat behavior, like urinating outside of the litter box or hiding? Has anything changed in their environment, like a recent move or new addition to the family?
Awareness of their triggers is vital in resolving them. You should use the same strategy if your cat is hissing at another animal (especially one in your home). See if you can identify what about their interaction is causing your cat to respond this way, and then try to alter the situation as best you can.
However, even if your cat has not physically engaged with the other animals, don’t reach in and try to break it up. It’s tempting to storm in and save the day, but your sudden presence may escalate the situation even more. In some cases, you may be able to gently separate them and allow them to take a brief time out.
Can You Keep Your Cat From Hissing?
Like any vocalization, you can’t keep your cat from hissing. Not only can’t you, but you shouldn’t. If you stopped or punished them every time they tried communicating with you, all it would do is make your cat afraid of you.
However, what you can do is reduce the stressors that are causing your cat to hiss. If your cat has been hissing without an obvious trigger, your first step should always be contacting your veterinarian to schedule a check-up.
Because cats can be so stoic about their health, any changes with your feline friend should always be run by your vet. Once you’ve ruled out any health concerns, you can move on to looking more into feline behavior-related issues. You can also talk to them about adding a scientifically-proven CBD + CBDA oil to your cat’s routine, which can help reduce stress and discomfort from the inside out.
Cat-specific behaviorists are an excellent resource if you’re looking to reduce your cat’s stress level and identify specific triggers. They can answer questions like “why do cats hiss?” as well as point out lifestyle changes that can help make your home a calmer, safer environment for everyone (feline, human, and otherwise). Most cat behaviorists will come to your home to see the environment for themselves.
For example, multi-cat households can pose unique challenges. Products like Feliway can be helpful, as they harness the power of the same pheromones that mother cats use to calm their kittens. When plugged into the wall, Feliway emits those soothing pheromones into the air, quickly lowering feline stress levels.
You’ll also want to look at the physical setup of your home as a trigger for stress, especially if other cats live with you. Ensure that your cat has unfettered access to a litter box and has plenty of areas they can go to if they want to hide or not be disturbed.
It is also helpful to help your cat burn off some excess nervous energy by ensuring they have plenty of enrichment activities available to them. In addition to giving them different toys to play with independently, set aside time to play with them. Playtime can distract your cat, build their confidence, and tire them out, so they sleep better (and maybe less reactive in the long run).
The Bottom Line
Why do cats hiss? Like many feline vocalizations, the reason can vary. The key to interpreting why your cat may be making a hissing sound is to take a step back and evaluate the situation.
Once you’ve gathered the information necessary to determine the trigger, you can take steps to resolve them and return your household to a state of calm. All cats will have moments of confusing or aggressive behavior; it’s learning how to handle those moments that determine your relationship with them.
Feline vocal communication | PMC
Diagnosing Behavior Problems in Cats – Cat Owners | Merck Veterinary Manual
Evaluation of the efficacy of an appeasing pheromone diffuser product vs placebo for management of feline aggression in multi-cat households: a pilot study | ISFM