Cat Hissing: Why Do Cats Hiss?

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If you’ve spent time around cats, at some point you’ve likely experienced a cat hissing at you. All three of my cats have hissed at me at various times. In fact, the first night both Zoloft and Poutine came home, I was hissed at by both of them. I have too many pictures of me snuggling with each of them to count so needless to say, we managed to turn things around.

If you’ve had a cat hissing at you, you may be wondering why do cats hiss? It’s not exactly a pleasant sound and, like many aspects of cat body language, the meaning can be confusing at times, though you can probably correctly assume that it’s not a friendly vocalization. That said, hissing isn’t necessarily a bad thing and may be preferable to alternatives like a cat biting you.

What Does A Hiss Sound Like?

I know this may seem a bit basic, but we should be on the same page to know what cat hissing is and what it isn’t. Hissing is a high pitched, typically brief vocalization. If you’re not sure what hissing sounds like, this YouTube video has a great cat hiss and growl.

Hissing is distinguished from another common not so great vocalization, growling, by the pitch and length of the vocalization. Growling is usually lower pitch and a longer vocalization, whereas hissing is high pitched and short. Growling is also a more aggressive vocalization than hissing. While the focus of this post is about hissing, if you want to learn more about cat vocalizations and body language, I suggest you check out Kitty Language by Lili Chin.

Why Do Cats Hiss?

Hissing is a pretty distinct vocalization and, thankfully, the meaning of it is usually pretty straightforward. Hissing is a defensive vocalization. In other words, the cat is letting a person, another cat, a dog, or whatever else the cat may be feeling threatened by that are trying to tell that they need to back the heck off. While cat hissing isn’t an aggressive behavior, it also isn’t a friendly vocalization so if you ignore it, you risk getting bitten.

Hissing At Other Cats

Cats can hiss during a play session that started out friendly to let the other cat know that they’re over it or it’s getting a bit too rough for what they like. It may also occur if you are trying to get a cat to use an inhaler without getting them used to it first or toward an unfamiliar stranger.

When introducing cats, there may be a bit of hissing at times. While this isn’t necessarily abnormal (cats are territorial and a new cat coming into their space isn’t great from most cats’ standpoint), it’s still something you want to avoid as you want your cats to have as positive of a relationship as possible. If one or both cats hiss, they’re feeling the need to defend themselves. Instead of just accepting that hissing is no big deal, it’s better to try to introduce the cats slowly and to avoid letting them get to the point of hissing at each other or you may end up with a permanently damaged relationship.

Hissing At Humans

If your cat is hissing at you or other humans, chances are fear or a stressed cat is the problem. This could be due to additive stressors, known as trigger stacking, so it’s a good idea to evaluate what may be causing your cat stress. As mentioned earlier, this happened to me with both Poutine and Zoloft when they arrived home for the first time. Both of them of them quickly turned into little snuggle bugs once they learned to trust me, but were pretty scared to start.

Joey, a white male with glasses, dark hair, and a short beard, lays in bed while wearing a green shirt with Poutine, a lynx point Siamese cat.
Proof that Poutine ended up liking me eventually despite the initial hissing.

If your cat is generally comfortable in their environment but is hissing at you during particular situations, they are letting you know they don’t like something about the situation. If you’re cornering them to give them medication, they likely know what’s coming and are trying to get you to back away. They may also feel trapped if the hissing occurs in a narrow hallway or they may associate you or that location with something scary that has happened to them before.

The common theme is that your cat hissing is a way of communicating fear or anxiety. They’re letting you know they want you to stop doing something or that they need space. If you’re not the target of the hissing, you should assume that whoever is the target is doing something to stress the cat out and they should back off.

Cat Hissing Isn’t Necessarily Bad

Even though a cat hissing means the cat is distressed, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that hissing is all bad. As a Fear Free Certified Professional, I’m obviously not in favor of causing cats to be stressed or fearful so their emotional state isn’t great. However, hissing is ultimately a way of communicating. Your cat is letting you know they’re uncomfortable and giving you, your other cat, or whatever they’re hissing at know that they should back away.

If your cat didn’t hiss, instead they may be forced to defend themselves in an aggressive way by scratching or biting. In some ways, hissing can be thought of as your cat’s attempt to deescalate the situation. It’s a warning that things may get violent if the cat isn’t given space.

Because it’s an attempt to communicate, cat hissing is a good thing because rather than jumping right to biting or fighting with another cat, they are giving them a chance to back off. It’s very important you don’t try to punish your cat for hissing because if you do, you tell them they shouldn’t communicate. Instead, your cat will just skip right past the non-violent communication and go straight toward something high risk for all involved.

Need help figuring out why your cat is hissing?

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!