By Maura McAndrew
Contrary to popular belief, hissing is a normal way that cats express fear, not aggression or hatred. A hiss occurs “when a cat exhales a burst of air through the mouth, causing a noise that sounds similar to a snake hiss,” explains Dr. Marci Koski, a certified feline behavior and training professional with Feline Behavior Solutions in Vancouver, Washington. The cat will typically also bare his teeth, she notes, and have “ears flattened to the side of the head,” an arched back, and fur standing on end (piloerection). And as Alana Stevenson, a certified animal behaviorist based in Boston, confirms: “Hissing is a normal behavior in cats. They will hiss when they feel threatened, fearful, or are upset about something.”
So while hissing is not an aggressive behavior per se, Koski notes that, “If your cat is hissing a lot, something is not right in your kitty's world.” To help you get to the bottom of this behavior, we’ve compiled a list of possible causes behind the cat hiss.
“When cats feel threatened or afraid, they will hiss,” Stevenson says, noting that “it is not something they can control.” According to both of our experts, feeling threatened by or fearful of people is a common cause of hissing. “Cats typically hiss as a warning,” Koski explains. “Hissing is not necessarily an indication that your cat is aggressive, but it is a sign that your cat may attack if he continues to be provoked.”
If you notice your cat hissing when you or your family members attempt to handle him, he likely feels threatened in some way. As Stevenson notes, cats who are “handled roughly” might hiss “during restraint and on approach.” Similarly, you also may notice your cat hissing during a visit to the vet, as a reaction to being restrained by the doctor or technicians.
If your cat is hissing at you or your family members, it’s a good idea to take stock of your actions. Are you approaching your cat in a manner that could be read as aggressive, or not handling him gently enough? First of all, stop what you’re doing, and “give your cat space—this is critical,” Koski advises. “Slowly remove yourself from the situation and give your cat a way to escape so that he can cool off. It can take some cats time to recover from a scary situation, so make sure you let your cat come to you for the next interaction.”
It should come as no surprise to cat owners that people are not the only target of a cat’s hiss—confrontation with other animals is another common cause. “Cats really don't like confrontation with other animals, and hissing is one of the best ways to tell an ‘aggressor’ that they should just keep their distance,” Koski says. She notes that hissing is especially common during confrontations between unaltered male cats searching for mates, when it’s used as a tool of intimidation: “the sound is sudden and startling, and the cat is showing his weaponry—those nice, sharp teeth.”
But, as Stevenson points out, it’s important to recognize that hissing is more a defensive than offensive move, both in confrontations with other animals and humans. “If there is conflict between cats, often people will confuse the hissing cat with being the aggressor,” she says. “When in reality, the hissing cat can be a victim and the aggressor usually will be doing more staring and stalking.” That said, if you notice hissing between your cat and another animal, it’s best to separate them, as the confrontation could escalate.
Do you have a mother cat at home? Like most mammals, mother cats are extremely protective of their babies. According to Koski, “Mother cats will hiss if someone comes too close to their kittens,” whether it’s a person or other animal. This can be true even of very sociable cats during gentle interactions. Koski cites the example of her husband’s cat, Samantha. “[She] had a litter of kittens and she wouldn't let him near them to pet them,” she explains. “He was so intimidated by Sam—who is normally a loving and affectionate cat—that he was unable to touch the kittens for a few weeks!” If you have a mother cat who has recently given birth and become prone to hissing, it’s a good idea to give her and the little ones extra space so she can feel safe.
One thing that can sometimes put kitties off balance is the new or unfamiliar—people, objects, or changes in environment. For some cats, this fear or discomfort can prompt hissing. Koski cites an example of this from her practice: “I recently met with a new client whose cat, Bertie, hisses at everyone. In fact, Bertie hisses pretty much at anything that he is unfamiliar with, including new toys,” she explains. “His guardian thought he was aggressive, but after my visit with him, I found that Bertie was simply very scared of new people and objects in his environment.”
In this case, Bertie’s guardian can ease his fear by slowly introducing and desensitizing him to unfamiliar things in his home environment, Koski says. She suggests the option of “systematic desensitization with counter-conditioning,” which means gradually exposing your cat to low levels of the thing he fears (object or person) while providing him with something good, like treats or affection. If you’re patient, this can help your cat eventually adjust to the trigger and become less fearful. “With time, the hissing will decrease, and your cat will feel more comfortable with his home and its inhabitants,” she says.
This brings us to a related issue: stress. While stress can be related to the aforementioned issues of unfamiliarity or feeling threatened, it can stem from many other factors as well. If your cat is hissing, it could be related to stressors in his life or environment. “Cats do not cope well with stress,” Stevenson says. “They easily get into a flight, freeze, or fight mode. Usually, their choice is to freeze or flee and avoid conflict,” she explains, but sometimes they will react defensively by hissing. She attributes some cat stress to exposure to loud noises or “quick, sporadic movements,” and suggests making an effort to create a calm, soft, and quiet environment to ease tension for your cat. “They do like affection, but they need to feel safe,” she says. “If a cat doesn't feel safe, they will avoid the situation or there will be conflict.”
As mentioned previously, cats will sometimes hiss when being approached or handled by humans. “It can be a sign that indicates that they don't want to be touched or approached,” Koski explains, which “can be due to fear or even physical pain.” While physical pain is one of the less common reasons for a cat to hiss, it’s not unheard of, particularly if you are touching your cat in an area that is hurting him. Stevenson notes that cats suffering from arthritis may hiss when jumping off a chair or moving in a way that causes pain to flare up.
To determine whether a hiss is due to pain or simply fear, it’s important to be observant. “Make a note of when and where the cat is hissing,” Stevenson advises. “Then take steps to remedy the situation,” whether that means altering your behavior or, if you suspect pain, taking your cat to the vet. Koski agrees. “When you hear the hiss, pay attention,” she emphasizes. “It's important to not ignore this warning.”
Usually, hissing indicates the more serious issues we’ve covered, like fear, defensiveness, stress, and pain. But some quirky, comical cats will hiss often to show their displeasure or annoyance, like a human uttering a swear word to themselves, Stevenson explains. She gives the example of a cat who, when you try to bring him in from outside, hisses and walks away, as if to say, nah, I don’t want to do that. A cat might also hiss when denied a treat he wants. Likewise, hissing can be a cat’s expression of annoyance toward a person who is bothering him, even if he’s not afraid. “If someone is doing something that annoys your cat,” Koski says, “teaching that person to stop the annoying behavior is a good start. Giving the cat some space and respect will go far to reduce hissing if this is the case.”