Why Do Cats Hiss?

Lisa Selvaggio
by Lisa Selvaggio
We instinctively back away when we hear a cat hissing. But why do cats hiss and how should you react?

Cats of all ages hiss, but why do they do it? What messages are they trying to convey when they hiss, and what gave them the idea to bare their teeth and make that scary face and sound in the first place?

Trying to Act Like a Snake

Some feline experts believe that cats started hissing after they began imitating snakes. That may seem strange, but one species copying another in the wild isn’t unheard of, as it could provide them with extra survival skills. A snake’s hiss is undoubtedly scary, and it gets your attention, so you can’t blame cats for wanting to copy this tactic.

What the Hiss Means

Put simply, a hiss is meant to let you know that the animal is behaving defensively and is ready to protect himself. A hiss is basically a warning that you should stay away, as well as create more distance between yourself and the cat. Otherwise, the cat might be getting ready to strike with tooth or claw. This could be because the kitty is scared or because he’s trying to let you or another animal know that he’s the boss. So a hissing cat is an unhappy cat.

Situations When Your Kitty Might Hiss

There are a lot of scenarios in which even the sweetest housecat will end up hissing, and many involve your cat seeing a strange animal or human. For example, if you adopt a new pet, such as a dog or another cat, your resident kitty might be on the defensive and may hiss at the newcomer. Taking your time with introducing your pets is the key to reducing this hostility, as your resident cat needs to learn that his territory – and all of the food, toys, and human attention within it – isn’t really being threatened.

Related: Hissing Tips on How to Stop Cats from Fighting

Stressed felines might also hiss, such as when they’re in shelters or being examined by a veterinarian. Kitties who hiss in these scenarios are often fearful and confused, so they’re ready to protect themselves.

Cats who are surprised may instinctively hiss until they can take a second to assess the situation and rest assured that they aren’t actually in danger. And mother cats will hiss at potential predators when they have a litter of kittens to defend, while the kittens may hiss at one another when they’re playing.

It’s important to note that a cat may also hiss when he’s in pain. For example, if you touch a part of your cat’s body that hurts, he might hiss at you. If you think that your kitty’s hissing is the result of not feeling well, a trip to the vet could help you get answers.

How to Approach a Hissing Cat

Whenever your cat is hissing, it’s a good idea to back off and give him a chance to mellow out. It isn’t a good idea to chase him, get angry at him, yell at him, or even stare at him, as these actions will only serve to confuse, frighten, and stress your pet out even more.

Related: Purr-fect Guide to the Sounds Your Cat Makes

If you’re petting your cat and he suddenly hisses at you, it might be because he’s had enough. Try to look for other clues that your cat is over-stimulated or agitated, such as a swinging tail. In this case, it’s best to give him space and let him move away from you if he wants to. On the other hand, if you can tell that a cat is hissing because he’s in pain, sick, or injured, you should do your best to handle him as gently as possible to take him to the veterinarian and have him examined.

As you get to know your cat, you might discover that certain things trigger a hiss, so you can work on enriching your kitty’s environment and removing triggers to keep your pet at ease. Just remember, the feline hiss is a signal that lets others know that the cat is unhappy and ready to fight if necessary. Knowing what can cause a cat to hiss, as well as how to react when one does, will help you create a happy home for your pet.

Lisa Selvaggio
Lisa Selvaggio

Lisa Selvaggio is a freelance writer and editor, and our resident cats-pert, with certifications in pet nutrition and pet first aid. She enjoys producing content that helps people understand animals better so they can give their pets a safe and happy home.

More by Lisa Selvaggio