Why Do Cats Hiss?

Cat owners know that their feline friend can have some pretty unpredictable behavior. One minute you're giving your cat a belly rub and the next you're prying your hand out of a shocking bite! When cats warn you that playtime is over, the transition usually comes with a hiss. Their eyes and mouths go wide, they show you all of their teeth and release one gnarly hissing sound. But why this sound? Why exactly do cats hiss?

Kittien with arched back
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What is hissing exactly?

A hissing sound is created when a cat forces a burst of air out of her mouth over an arched tongue. The cat will pull her lips back to make sure you can see all of her teeth and her ears will lie flat against her head. Usually with hissing comes an arched back with hairs on edge!

Why do cats hiss?

Kitty meows and purrs can have multiple meanings. From contentment to hunger to fear to excitement, a meow or a purr will always need further investigation to find out what your cat is truly feeling. Hissing, however, always points to distress. A cat will hiss when she feels there is an immediate threat and is trying to defend herself with an intimidating warning. The hissing sound is a result of combined fear, confusion, unhappiness, and surprise. Adrenaline is flowing and the hiss sound comes out of sheer instinct.

Many animal behavior experts claim that cats hiss in an attempt to mimic the hissing sound of snakes in order to ward off predators or any other perceived threat. This behavior is commonly used in the animal kingdom as a survival tactic. Cats depend on their hiss to warn any source of danger to stay away. This strategy is used with other cats, dogs, humans, and even inanimate objects, basically anything the cat deems a threat. Yes, that can include menacing toys your cat just doesn't trust.

Mother cats will imitate the hiss of a snake if you get too close to her kittens. House cats may hiss at a new guest that they haven't deemed safe quite yet. Veterinarians have definitely experienced the hiss of a cat when beginning procedures or administering medication. There are few things scarier than a hissing snake. Cats are well aware of this and will use this tactic for their own survival.

Snake attack !
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What causes a cat to hiss?

As hisses always come in as a warning to back it on up, here are the most common circumstances that can produce this snake-sounding threat.

  • Feeling threatened by people
  • Confrontations with other animals
  • Protecting offspring
  • Fear of the new and unknown
  • Stress
  • Physical pain
  • Annoyance or displeasure
  • Being forced to do something they don't want to do
Closeup Devon Rex hisses in Profile view on Gray
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How to handle a cat who is hissing.

When a cat hisses at you, stay calm and give her some space. If you're in a closed room, open the door and give her a means to escape if she needs to. Never punish your cat for hissing but instead treat her with care. Let her get reacquainted with your scent before making any sudden moves or attempting to touch her. At this point she is the boss and you want to make her comfortable or a scratch or bite is sure to follow the hiss!

Try to figure out why she is hissing, address that problem and the hissing should stop. If your cat hisses every time you pick her up, make sure there isn't something wrong physically. She may be hissing out of pain and trying to stop you from hurting her further. If your cat is hissing at other animals or people it may be time to work on her socialization and help her build trust with others.

Kitten that screams at puppy.
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Hissing is common around guests in the home. When this happens, let your guest know that your cat is feeling uneasy and show them how your cat like to be petted. Instruct your guest to extend a hand and let kitty take a whiff! They can also offer up your cat's favorite play toy. If your cat sees that this person is a friend and not a foe, her hissing should decrease. Just make sure she has a means to escape and plenty of hiding places available if she still doesn't feel safe.