Hissing Isn’t Hating: Why Cats REALLY Hiss

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Sorry, my human couldn’t find a photo of me hissing, since I very rarely ever do it. In fact, she can count the times I’ve hissed on the fingers of one hand, and it’s mainly for just one reason: another cat (or someone smelling strongly of other cats) has gotten too close to me. I just don’t like being too close to strange cats.

The peach kitty and his relatives don’t count because they are family. I watched them grow up. But other cats need to keep their distance. Which is one reason cats hiss: they are telling you they want their space — stay away! But that’s just one reason. Let’s look at the others.

Stock photo of an Abyssinian cat hissing

Hissing Doesn’t Mean I Hate You

But first, let me get this out of the way right now. Just because a cat is hissing, it doesn’t mean they hate you. Hissing is an instinctive response to something that is bothering a cat. And that something could be emotional or physical. The same way someone does something really annoying, or accidentally touches a part of your body that’s sore. Humans have a variety of verbal responses to those situations. (“Will you STOP!”, “Could you PLEASE back up?”, “Ow-ow-ow-ow!”) Cats have just one: hissing.

So hissing isn’t a cat saying they don’t like you. It means they don’t like a situation they are in with you. It’s not really personal, and it’s more about them than it is about you. So if a cat hisses, whether they are a stranger or one that is familiar to you, don’t take it personally. Instead examine what is going on at that moment.

Reasons Why Cats Hiss

Anxiety or Stress

This most commonly happens when a cat is faced with something or someone unfamiliar. It could be a person or a dog or another cat they don’t know. In this case, a hiss means, “Keep your distance. I don’t know your intentions. You are making me uncomfortable.”

Fear

Like anxiety, only more intense, and often accompanied by other body language like flattened ears, raised fur and a puffed up tail. In this case, the cat feels that whatever is in front of them is a threat to their safety. They could also be hissing at an inanimate object that appeared suddenly in a familiar place, or a machine that activated without warning and startled them. If a cat is scared, hissing could be a warning that more aggressive behavior is possible, and they feel a need to protect themselves.

Petting Aggression

If your cat is one of those who gets overstimulated when petted or handled too much, they may hiss when they’ve had enough. They will almost always have given you signals before they hiss that your touching has gotten to be too much for them. And if you continue to handle them after they are hissing, you’re risking them lashing out. So be more mindful of your cat’s signals when you are petting them, and stop as soon as they start showing signs of being uncomfortable.

Pain

Cats may hiss when they are hurt. It could be as benign as two kittens playing and one hissing because his friend got too rough. Or it could be as serious as a cat hissing because you touched them in a place they are seriously injured. If your cat does the latter, or hisses in pain because you are handling them in any way, take them to the vet immediately.

Chronic Illness

If a cat is sick and in constant pain, they may hiss often. In these cases chances are you are already probably taking them to the vet for treatment. If this is new behavior, discuss it with your vet. Ask what it means in your cat’s illness, and find ways to make them more comfortable.

Some Cat Hiss More Than Others

black and white photo of a longhaired calico cat

Some cats, like me, hiss rarely. Others use it as an alternate language. My human’s other heart cat, Harlot, was like that. Anytime my human did something that displeased her, she hissed. Once my human told her no to something, like going out after dark, and she just looked at my human and hissed. She was a feisty little thing! But she was also completely devoted to my human.

So if your cat hisses frequently at the family dog, or other cat members, or even you, consider the situation. If you already know your cat is in good health, and whoever is being hissed at hasn’t really done anything, it’s probably just their personality. When they’re being hissy, just make sure everyone keeps their distance for a while.

Never Push a Hissing Cat

If your cat is hissing out of fear or stress, the best thing to do is give them space. Trying to make them feel better will do just the opposite, and amplify their anxiety. A cat that is hissing wants to be left alone…so do that. Eventually they will calm down and be peaceful again. The exception, of course, is in case of injury or illness, when you need to take them to get checked out.

If the hissing cat is one you don’t know, just leave them alone. Especially if the hissing is accompanied by other postures like hunching or an arched back, backing up, and flattened ears. If this is a cat you are trying to socialize, leaving them alone is especially important. Being too forward while they are overstimulated and fearful will do damage to any progress you’ve made.

I hope this has answered any questions you might have about cats hissing! If you want to know more, or have stories of your own, tell me in the comments.

Here are more posts about cat behavior that you can check out:

Hissing Isn’t Hating: Why Cats REALLY Hiss

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