Cat Hissing: What You Need to Know

Barri J. Morrison, DVM
Written by:
Published: March 30, 2022
Cat Hissing: What You Need to Know

You may think hissing in cats is a sign of hostility or animosity, but it’s actually a normal way for cats to express fear.

The most common cause of hissing in cats is friction between two unneutered male cats, or between a male cat that’s not neutered and a female cat that’s not spayed that are looking for a potential mate.

Cats can also hiss at people. If your cat hisses when you or another person attempts to handle them, they likely feel threatened. Your cat may also hiss during a vet visit, perhaps while being restrained by the doctor or technicians.

While hissing is normal, it’s a good idea to determine the cause so you can give your cat space and make changes to your cat’s environment if they are scared or stressed. You should also always investigate excessive hissing with your veterinarian to make sure it’s not your cat’s way of telling you that they are in pain or that something else is wrong.

What Does Cat Hissing Sound Like?

Cat hissing is a common behavior that sounds like the hiss of a snake or the sound of air leaking from a car tire. Feline behaviorists believe cats learned how to hiss by mimicking snakes as a survival technique in the wild.

When a cat hisses, they release a sudden burst of air through their mouth, which causes the hissing noise. If you’re close enough to the cat’s face, you can actually feel the air coming out of their mouth when they’re hissing.

A hiss can also change based on the given situation. A hiss can range from a silent, open-mouth hiss that is more a visual sign of unhappiness, to an aggressive his with full-on spitting. Common behaviors that occur with hissing are:

  • Mouth open with tongue curled

  • Ears flattened

  • Back arched

  • Hairs standing on end (also called piloerection)

Cat Hissing vs. Growling

Sometimes a hiss may be confused with a growl. Growling and hissing are natural behaviors, and both help your cat to communicate. A hiss occurs with the mouth wide open and teeth showing. It is a forceful breath out, with a hard stop. A growl often starts with an “mmmm” sound and then becomes low and long, with the sound originating in the throat.

Why Do Cats Hiss?

Hissing is an expression of discomfort, fear, or stress. Some of the top reasons cat hiss include:

  • Feeling threatened by or fearful of people

  • Confrontation with other animals

  • Protecting their kittens

  • Being in an unfamiliar situation or meeting an unfamiliar animal

  • Stress

  • Physical pain or anticipation of pain

  • Displeasure or annoyance

Cat hissing is more defensive than offensive, whether it’s directed at other animals or at humans. When your cat hisses, they are saying they need space from whatever they’re directing the hiss at.

Why Do Kittens Hiss?

Kittens also hiss sometimes from rough play. If another cat or another kitten is playing too rough, your kitten may hiss as a way of telling the other cat to stop. This play hiss is generally a shorter hiss than the defensive hiss of older cats. Your kitten might also respond to a sudden loud noise by jumping up and hissing, with all their fur standing on end.

Why Do Mother Cats Hiss?

Mother cats are very protective of their kittens. They will hiss when someone comes too close to them, whether it’s a person, another cat, or any other animal. Even the sweetest, most social cat will hiss during a calm interaction with their kittens.

Do Some Cat Breeds Hiss More Than Others?

Although cats can be extremely lovable and sweet, some breeds tend to have a somewhat feistier temperament, which can make them more likely to hiss:

  • Siamese

  • Sphynx

  • Bombay

  • Bengal

  • Scottish Fold

  • Pixie Bob

  • Egyptian Mau

  • American Wirehair

  • Korat

  • Singapura

  • Cymric

Why Do Cats Hiss at Each Other?

Hissing is almost always a sign that a cat that feels mistreated, provoked, insecure, uncomfortable, threatened, or pressured in some way.

The common misconception is that the cat that hisses is teasing or taunting the other cat, dog, or person. In actuality, hissing is often a signal that the cat wants to avoid a physical confrontation. In cat-to-cat behavior, the cat that hisses regularly is almost always the victim or the one being chased or antagonized.

Common scenarios for cats to hiss at each other include:

  • A female cat with a litter of kittens may hiss, growl, chase, swat, or try to bite another cat who approaches, even one she was formerly friendly with.

  • Two unneutered male cats or an unneutered male and an intact female commonly hiss at each other when they are looking for mates.

  • Cats are territorial and will hiss at other cats to assert dominance, especially when a new cat is introduced to their surroundings.

  • After a trip to the vet, it is common for the returning cat to be picked on and hissed at by their housemates. Cats communicate through sight, sound, and scent.

  • Cats will hiss to redirect aggression or when they anticipate pain.

What If My Cat Hisses at a New Kitten?

Cats may also hiss at new kittens to establish boundaries, especially when the older cat’s boundaries are being pushed. A hiss is a quick way for that older cat to tell the kitten to stop.

Socialization as a kitten is an important part of growing up. Kittens who don't have an opportunity to play and interact with littermates may exhibit more dominant behaviors because they didn't learn limitations or develop self-control.

Why Is My Cat Hissing at the New Pet?

If your cat is reacting to a big change like a new pet, make gradual, supervised introductions, and most of all, be patient. Give your cat a space in the house that’s all their own so they can feel safe.

Even after your cat is well-acquainted with a new family member, they may still hiss and growl more than normal until they fully trust that they are safe around the new pet.

Why Is My Cat Hissing at My Dog?

There are many reasons your cat might be hissing at your dog. In general, cats do not like confrontation with other animals, and hissing is a way to tell a possible aggressor to keep their distance. Hissing between dogs and cats can also be a territorial behavior when a new cat or dog is introduced to the family.

Why Is My Cat Hissing at Me?

Your cat might hiss at you because they’re annoyed with you. They may not want to be petted right then, or it may be because you’re trying to pick them up when they don’t want you to.

This type of hissing is also common if you have small children at home who don’t know when to leave the cat alone. As with other cats, your cat may also hiss at you because they feel threatened or anticipate pain.

Here are some other things you may do to cause your cat to hiss:

  • Trying to trim their nails or groom them

  • Forcing your cat into a carrier for travel

  • Having the smell of an unfamiliar dog or cat on you

  • Vacuuming or using some other noisy household appliance

Hissing is a natural reaction to a situation; it’s not something that your cat thinks about doing. It doesn’t mean your cat dislikes you or that your cat is aggressive. It’s a warning that your cat may have to resort to aggression if the perceived threat doesn’t back off. Provoking a hissing cat will likely lead to scratching and biting. 

Physical pain is one of the less common reasons for a cat to hiss. However, your cat might hiss if you are touching them in an area that hurts them. To determine whether a hiss is due to pain or simply fear, it’s important to be observant and have your cat examined by your veterinarian.

Why Is My Cat Randomly Hissing at Nothing?

Cat are sometimes upset by new or unfamiliar things, including people, objects, or changes in environment. This fear or discomfort can prompt hissing at what might appear to be nothing, but in reality, there is a real trigger.

You can ease their fear by slowly introducing and desensitizing them to a new home or new things in their home environment. With a little bit of time and love, your cat will start to feel comfortable.

What Should I Do If My Cat Hisses?

In the short term, the safest thing to do is back away from a hissing cat to avoid getting scratched or bitten.

Here are some steps to follow:

  1. Give them space and let them hide so they feel secure. Do not stare at your cat or try to hold them or comfort them.

  2. Make sure your cat has plenty of escape routes from other animals/pets and places to hide. Cat condos, perches, cat trees, and other high spaces are perfect, as they allow them safe spots where they can calm down.

  3. Give your cat time. Cats may take hours to calm down.

  4. When they are calm, coax your cat out with food and/or catnip and positive reinforcement. Rewards like toys, treats, or canned food can sometimes help relieve the anxiety and stress associated with cat hissing.

Have Your Cat Checked Out for Health Issues

If you’re in doubt about what your cat’s hissing means, or you see behavior that’s out of the ordinary, schedule an appointment as soon as possible with your veterinarian for your cat to be examined.

A cat who hisses excessively and frequently should be evaluated by a veterinarian to rule out pain or discomfort. Other signs that your cat’s hissing may be caused by a medical problem include:

  • Poor appetite

  • Low energy

  • Reclusiveness (hiding) or other changes in behavior

  • Hissing when you pet them in certain areas (possible pain)

Help Your Cat Feel Less Stressed

If all medical issues have been ruled out, there are plenty of ways you can make your cat feel safe and at ease in their environment.

Give them time to acclimate to any new situation. Understanding your cat’s triggers (like being bothered by the dog) will also help prevent unnecessary injuries.

Daily enrichment that uses physical and mental energy (e.g., interactive toys, catnip, hiding boxes, cat trees, window bird feeders, “kitty” TV, and even supervised outdoor activity) is great for helping decrease stress and anxiety in your cat.

Consider pheromone therapy, like Feliway classic plug-in diffuser and/or spray to assist with anxiety and stress, or Feliway Multi to help with multi-cat issues. Pheromone products should be used in a location where your cat spends most of their time. You can also try behavioral supplements like Solliquin or Composure.

You may also want to ask your vet for a recommendation for an animal behaviorist who specializes in helping people understand their pets’ behavior. They can help analyze your specific situation and provide tactics to try to alleviate your cat’s stress.

Featured Image: iStock.com/FatCamera


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