Why do cats hiss? As it turns out, there are all kinds of reasons for a cat hissing!
What we do know is that the likelihood of a cat hissing for no reason is pretty slim. So, whether it is cats hissing at each other, a cat hissing at a new puppy, a cat hissing at a new cat, or even a cat hissing at you, it is up to us to decode the meaning before it will stop.
In this focused article, we investigate what the research says on why cats hiss and how to stop a cat from hissing.
If you are having problems with cats hissing and growling for no reason, this article is for you!
Why Do Cats Hiss?
Cats make all kinds of noises. “Famous” cat noises include chirping, meowing, howling, purring, chittering, and spitting. Why do cats hiss then?
Although a cat hissing is just sound in your cat’s vocabulary, the sound itself is quite unique.
Some listeners describe feline hissing as similar to the sound a snake makes when it hisses.
Hissing may even be your cat’s literal attempt to mimic a snake. Biologists call this phenomenon “protective mimicry.” It refers to situations where an animal mimics a fiercer animal to stay safe.
But, did you know that cats can also growl? It doesn’t sound quite like a dog growl, but it is a different sound from hissing.
You can see and hear a good example of a cat growling and hissing in this video.
How Do Cats Hiss?
Hissing and spitting (which is a fiercer version of feline hissing) are produced when a cat is startled and exhales rapidly through a slightly opened mouth.
Typically, you’ll also see your cat bare their teeth when they hiss. Their ears may also be flattened to the side of their head and they might arch their back.
I know that I’ve even seen my kitty’s fur standing on end (piloerection, as experts call it).
What Does It Mean When a Cat Hisses?
At a fundamental biochemical level, brain research tells us that a cat hisses when the part of the brain called the hypothalamus is stimulated beyond a minimum threshold.
The hypothalamus is a small region, but it has a big job. This tiny region provides a link between the nervous system and the endocrine system. It controls the pituitary gland, which is responsible for releasing hormones into the body.
Feline research suggests that hissing is one possible precursor to defensive or predatory behavior. However, it can also be caused by artificial or disease-induced stimulation of the hypothalamus.
Now, all of this is fine and dandy, but what if your cat is hissing for no visible reason?
Why Do Cats Hiss for No Reason?
The reason why cats hiss may or may not relate to something you are doing.
For example, certain sounds you make or environmental sounds (such as the tea kettle whistling or the radiator kicking on) may sound like a hiss to your cat’s ears.
In these cases, they may simply be responding in kind to the “cat” they can’t see but certainly can hear!
Also, some owners admit to hissing at their cat as a form of communication and a part of training efforts. So, if you hiss at your cat, you can expect that at some point, your cat will return the favor when the situation calls for it.
My Cat Hissed at Me? Why Is My Cat Hissing at Me?
The answer to the question, “why do cats hiss?” is fairly simple. Cats hiss when they are stressed out, irritated, afraid, or angry.
The goal of any cat hissing is to be left alone.
So, if you catch yourself wondering why your cat hissed at you, try to retrace your steps and see what happened just prior to the hissing. What were you doing or not doing? Could that have prompted your cat to hiss?
Pay attention to nonverbal as well as verbal cues. Is your cat displaying traditional defensive body language (ears flattened back, fur standing up, tail thrashing, back arched) while hissing? If they are, they might well feel threatened.
However, if you do not see any of these signs, it may be an indication of an underlying health condition. In cases when a cat hisses for no known reason, it is important to look for a possible underlying health cause.
Sometimes, cats may hiss out of pain from an injury. If your cat seems to hiss when you touch a certain part of their body, they might be in pain. It would be wise to see your vet at this point.
Why Do Cats Hiss at People?
A new cat hissing is likely a fear-based response – the cat does not know you and is afraid and does not want you to approach.
Conversely, hands-on play or petting can cause some pet cats to tumble quickly into overstimulation.
Figuring out why cats hiss can sometimes be as simple as noticing when your cat seems to “flip a switch” inside. Here, try to dial back the physical contact during play time and see if that resolves the hissing.
Cats Hissing at Each Other
Witnessing a cat hissing at another cat or kitten is often about territory disputes.
So let’s say you already have a pet cat and then you decide to adopt a new cat. All is going well until your existing pet cat arrives on the scene.
Then you witness your resident cat hissing at the new cat. Essentially, what’s happening is the resident telling the new cat to go find its own territory!
But, the reason why cats hiss at kittens also depends on the relationship. For instance, if the hissing cat is the kitten’s mother, common reasons a mama cat will hiss is to tell the kitten to let her rest or to go be an adult cat now.
What if you’ve got two cats you can’t seem to get along? Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Separate the cats for a while: This may be helpful especially if these two used to get along in the past. You may need to give them separate bowls, beds, and litter boxes, so they can have some territory. Pet owners have found that letting them eat on opposite sides of a door (from separate bowls) have helped cats associate being together positively.
- Reward good behavior: Give them a treat whenever they act friendly toward each other.
- Whatever you do, don’t let them “fight it out”: Cats can’t practice conflict resolution, so if they’re really fighting, it’ll only get worse. You don’t want two injured cats on your hands. Break up fights by clapping loudly or using a water gun.
- Reunite them when they’re more relaxed: Just open the door a little bit more every day so they can both see each other. When they’re ready, they’ll be back together on their own.
Cats Hissing at Dogs
Why do cats hiss at dogs? Determining why a cat is hissing at a dog will only become obvious once you realize these two animals have different priorities.
Your dog craves social position: to be your number one.
Your cat craves turf position: to own the territory.
Regardless of who is the newcomer, their priorities stand firm.
To help your cat and dog get along, therefore, you need to do two things:
- Help your cat feel secure in territory dominance
- Help your dog feel secure in social dominance
It is also critical to supervise all interactions until when you feel the two can be trusted to interact safely alone.
Reasons for Cats Hissing
As you’ve seen, cat hissing can happen for many reasons. If you’d like to use the elimination method to figure out why your cat keeps hissing, you may find this list helpful. Just so it’s all laid out there, these are the common reasons for cats hissing.
- Fear or discomfort: This is the most common reason why a well-adjusted kitty would hiss as you. They may feel afraid, uncomfortable, or in pain.
- Poor socialization: If your new cat has not been properly socialized, they may be afraid or even aggressive.
- Territorial conflicts: Cats love to feel secure in the dominance of their territory. So, don’t be surprised if they hiss at a new pet, be it cat or dog.
- Redirected aggression: If you catch your kitty hissing, it’s best to give them some space. Otherwise, you may be next in line for their wrath — especially if you interrupt them exerting dominance over their territory.
- Overstimulation: This is what happens when the content kitty you’re petting suddenly turns fierce and hisses at you. The cuddles simply turn from purr-inducing to irritating for your cat. The best thing to do in that scenario? Leave them alone.
- Predatory aggression: You’ll notice this with your cat and smaller prey animals such as birds or gerbils.
- Maternal instincts: Just like other mammals, cats can get incredibly protective of their kittens. So, give them the space they need to feel safe with their kittens until they begin to warm up to you.
How to Stop Your Cat Hissing
The first step is to see your vet to ensure that your little kitty is healthy. Once you’re sure that there are no injuries or health issues, observe your cat closely. Try to determine the hiss triggers. Finally, if you can’t seem to figure it out and it’s not improving, it’s time to get help from a behaviorist.
Hissing can mean that your cat is either ill or about to get aggressive, so always take it seriously.
Why Do Cats Hiss? – Summary
We hope we’ve answered your questions about all things cat hissing and growling and now you know why cats hiss. Cat hissing can be caused by a multitude of reasons.
Your cat may be in pain or ill, for one. They could also feel threatened or just be exercising dominance. We hope all our tips have helped you figure out which one has got your cat all hot and bothered.
Has your cat ever hissed at you? Do you know why? Please post a comment to share your story!
References and Further Reading
- Brown, J., et al, “Defence, attack, and flight elicited by electrical stimulation of the hypothalamus of the cat,” Experimental Brain Research, 1968.
- Wheatley, M., PhD, “The Hypothalamus and Effective Behavior in Cats,” Archives of Neurophysiology/JAMA Network, 1944.
- Bandler, R.J., “Predatory behavior in the cat elicited by lower brain stem and hypothalamic stimulation: a comparison.,” Brain and Behavior Evolution, 1977.
- Greco, D.S., DVM, PhD, DACVIM, et al, “Disorders of the Pituitary Gland in Cats, Merck Veterinary Manual, 2018.
- Darwin, F., “Protective Mimicry,” Nature, 1876.
- Block, K., et al, “Cat Chat: Understanding Feline Language,” The Humane Society of the United States, 2018.
- Schotz, S., “Hissing and spitting,” Meowsic (Melody in Human-Cat Communication), 2016.
- Miller, C.D., “Dog Tip: Introducing a New Dog to a Resident Cat,” PAWS Rescue Charity, 2018.
- ASPCA. Aggression Between Cats in Your Household.
- PetMD. Vogelsang, J., DVM. Causes of Sudden Aggression in Cats.
- VetStreet. Fuller M., DVM. Why Does My Cat Hiss?
- Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Moesta, A., DVM, MS
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