Why Do Cats Hiss? A Complete Guide To Cat Hissing

Quotes from this blog appear in this article in Rover.com

What role do vocalizations play in cat-to-cat and cat-to-human bonding and relationships – from meows and purrs to trills and hisses? Do sounds that mean danger, fear, or warning typically have different pitches or frequencies than sounds that are happy, inviting, or even neutral?
Cats do a lot of communicating using sounds and typically vocalizations fall into these categories: 

  • Meowing (or trilling) for announcing a greeting or (meowing) asking for something (from humans, or kitten to mom).
  • Defensive or offensive sounds like hissing, growling, yowling or spitting.
  • Sexual calling when attracting a mate like caterwauling.
  • Purring when relaxed (or ironically for self-soothing
  • Chattering which indicates frustration (usually with something the cat can’t get to like a bird outside a window). 

Vocalizations aren’t so much about frequency as it is specific types of sounds, however yowling does involve pitch modulation either going up or down in frequency at the end of a yowl. Adult cats don’t generally meow to other adult cats, but they meow to us and for that reason we think that we’re at least partly in a maternal relationship with cats. We’re the mom!

What is the difference between a hiss and a growl? Are they used in different scenarios? What does it mean if a cat is hissing and growling?
Both are warnings and both can precede an attack, but a growl is more serious and cats usually will hiss before growling. Hissing is reflexive and involuntary. Growling is voluntary. Interestingly cats can also make a spitting noise (without projecting saliva) and we believe this sound is universally understood across all major species of animals so it’s more like an “international warning” in a sense.

Can you describe what a hiss is and why cats use the sound for? Is it a natural sound cats make (not totally influenced by domestication)?
Hissing is done with the mouth open, and visually is accompanied by what is usually described as a snarl. It is usually used defensively, and is technically what’s called an agonistic (combative) sound but can also precede an attack when the warning isn’t taken. Some cats do what I call a “startle hiss” which is their default response in situations where they are startled, but then relax. Hissing is not influenced by domestication or more accurately by socialization. While there is debate in the scientific community about whether cats are really domesticated, the majority believe that cats are born domesticated because they have the genetic influences that allow socialization unlike other animals like wolves which can’t be adequately socialized no matter how much human handling they have at a young age.

How do cats physically make a hissing sound?
They expel air with their mouths open. It doesn’t use the vocal cords.

Are there different types of hisses – a play hiss, warning hiss, or hissing from pain? Do they sound different or does a pet parent need to rely on body language to understand the meaning of a hiss?
Any hiss indicates some degree of stress, confliction or fear. If a cat is in pain and is approached, they might hiss because of those emotions that are caused by the pain. There is no play hiss per se, but there is “startle hiss”, see above.

–if yes, what are body language clues that your cat is hissing out of:

Fear: Body language includes dilated pupils, but also constricted pupils can indicate a predatory mode, sideways or backward facing ears, piloerection (fur stands up), skin ripples, arched back, or crouching low. Body language needs to be taken in context. Example, dilated pupils with sideways facing ears indicate fear, dilated pupils with forward facing ears indicate a predatory response or playfulness.

Pain: You have to look for signs of injury or illness, or a change in your cat from when they are normally acting fine, and suddenly act differently. If you approach your cat and they start to hiss for no apparent reason you should suspect illness or injury and get them to a vet.

Playfulness: A cat who is playing with you might hiss, but it isn’t a playful hiss, it means that something in the play has crossed the threshold and they have become overstimulated, fearful or conflicted.

Does hissing play any role in cat-to-cat hierarchy or dominance? What about looking for a mate or when a cat is in heat? In colonies there is a hierarchical social structure and a new cat in the colony may be hissed at by a more dominant cat who is at the top of the structure particularly if the new cat isn’t following the “rules” as dictated by the higher level cats; who gets to eat first, etc? For females in heat, they do what’s called “The call”, which is a closed mouth murmur. Sometimes males make this sound when fighting. Males looking for a mate will caterwaul.

Is it concerning if my two indoor cats hiss at each other? Are there ways to help them get along?
It depends if it was a “one off”, and one of the cats just got upset by something. This is usually the case in cats who generally get along, but different if two cats haven’t been well introduced and one or both are showing fearfulness, aggression and conflict. If it’s a minor one off his, just redirect them with a toy, or gently find a way to separate them, but don’t discipline them or you will just make them more stressed. For cats who are not getting along, there are programs of behavior therapy that can almost certainly help.

Why is my cat always hissing at my dog? Are there ways I can help them get along?
Chances are the cat is either naturally afraid of dogs, or the dog is engaging in behavior that is causing fear. In the former consulting with a certified feline behaviorist is the way to go, in the latter with a certified dog trainer. For cats that are naturally afraid of dogs it’s all about helping the cat feel better about the dog by doing desensitization and counterconditioning.  Decreasing the distance between Fido and Fluffy during interactions is desensitizing. Pairing a reward like food with the stressor (the dog) is counterconditioning, and the reward works on the part of the brain that is stressed and reduces that stress over time.

Are there other reasons a cat might hiss, especially at their pet parent that they know and love? What are they?
The most common reason is that the cat tends to overstimulate, which means that they reach a time limit during petting because after a period of time, which can be seconds or minutes, the petting stops feeling good, and the cat overstimulates. And this leads to hissing, swatting nipping. Playing roughly with your cat, or just pushing them beyond their limits can also cause hissing.

When should I see my vet for an increase in hissing in my cat?
If the cat appears ill or injured, or if the hissing is going on frequently. Your vet may be able to recommend a behaviorist. See “Pain” above.

Why might tiny kittens be hissing at me?
Kittens need to be socialized with people, and if this hasn’t happened yet then they are going to hiss at people. To become socialized they need gentle handing starting as soon as 2-3 weeks of age if possible. A kitten who hasn’t been well handled by about 5-6 weeks of age is going to hiss, and while the window of socialization is a bit fluid, it gets harder and slower to socialize kittens as they age. It can be quite difficult by about 10-12 weeks of age, and if it isn’t done by about 16 weeks of age the kitten may never socialize. It can be possible to socialize cats after 16 weeks of age, but it becomes increasingly difficult, slow and unpredictable as to the results.

Is it okay for someone to hiss back at a cat? Why or why not – will a cat even understand what you are doing?
This is not a good idea. Anything that raises the fear, stress or confliction of a cat we think of as not a good interaction and hissing at your cat is going to make all that worse. They may understand it, but they won’t like it.

Are there ways to calm a hissing cat? What are they and how might a calming method depend on the root cause for hissing (pain vs. fear). 
A hissing cat is warning you to back off, so do just that, back off and give them space. Talk sweetly to them. Give a quiet time out. Offer enrichment once they have calmed down in the form of gentle petting, treats or play. Hidey beds can give comfort, it’s like a man cave for cats except that it’s a cat cave. Pheromones can help too, these are artificial scents that replicate scents given off by cats in special glands in their skin and that are perceived by an organ in the cat’s mouth. Feliway is a well-known brand. For pain the cat needs veterinary care.

If a cat hisses at me, does it mean they don’t like me? – does my cat not like my vet if they hiss at them?
It isn’t about liking or not liking you (or the vet), it’s about being fearful, stressed, anxious or conflicted.  If you yell at your child for dropping their clothes on the floor, you still love your child, but you’re upset. It’s the same thing with cats. Generally, these are temporary, situational emotions.  A cat who we described as not liking someone really means that a specific person’s presence is causing those emotions every time they interact and either that means the person isn’t treating the cat correctly (playing rough with them all the time as an example) or because of improper interactions the cat has learned to fear that person and reflexively hisses when they see them.

Are there any breeds that are known to be more vocal than others – does more vocalizations correlate with a high chance of hissing at people and other animals? What role might life experience rather than breed play in a cat’s tendency to hiss?
Siamese, Burmese, Tonkinese, Burmese, Japanese Bobtails are examples of vocal cats with Siamese being the winners! Being vocal is not connected to hissing. Our species of cat is one of the few of the 38+ species of cats that are both predator and prey at the same time. Some cats live at the top and more predatory end of this scale and others closer to the bottom and identify more as prey.  The cats at the top are very confident, and the ones closer to the bottom are less confident and a cat who is less confident may be more likely to hiss. But hissing is complex and is connected to threats and stressors as well as to dominance and sometimes to social structure.

stephen quandt with his cats cricket and jenny

By Stephen Quandt

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