A kitten making a face at the camera

If you ask a child what sound a cat makes, you're likely to get the answer, "Meow." And while this is correct, it's not the only sound cats make. The distinctive hiss that comes with the feline species is an important communication tool for cats, and understanding what that hiss means can help you better relate to your cat. You may think that hissing means that your cat is upset, and this is true, but there are other reasons a cat may hiss as well. Learn why cats hiss and what it means when a cat is hissing at you.

What Is a Cat's Hiss?

A hiss is a distinctive cat sound, and while we can mimic it as humans, our version isn't exactly the same thing. When a cat gets scared or threatened enough to hiss, she releases a sharp burst of air through her mouth. As the burst of air comes through the windpipe, it makes the hissing sound. Hisses are usually paired with other negative body language signs, including ears being held flat against the head, bared teeth, fur standing on edge and an arched back. Any of these signs is an indication that your cat isn't happy and may end up biting or scratching if she continues to be provoked.

Why Do Cats Hiss?

Cats hiss for many reasons, and yes, most of them are to communicate that they are unhappy in some way. However, hissing is often exhibited in different situations, and it's important to understand what a hiss could mean in each scenario to understand how to respond. Remember that a hiss is just another way for your cat to communicate, just like a meow. Here are a few of the most common reasons a cat hisses.

1. She's Giving You Fair Warning

One of the main reasons that a cat hisses is to warn either a person or another animal that they need to back off and give her some space. It's similar to a rattlesnake rattling before striking or a dog growling before attacking. It's a warning shot before the cat goes into full attack mode with bites and scratches. Hissing like this also happens in unneutered male cats who hiss as a warning to other males that they shouldn't be messed with.

If a cat is hissing, it's best to back away if at all possible and give her some space to feel safe and calm down. In some situations where this isn't possible, such as the vet office, it's a good idea to get prepared with a towel or some other barrier between you and the cat to protect yourself if the cat decides to strike.

2. She Is in Pain

Cats may hiss in reaction to pain. For example, if a cat has injured her leg and you touch it, she may hiss to say, "Hey, that hurts. Don't do that again." If you suspect that your cat has an injury — remember that animals can be very stoic about pain and may be in serious discomfort before you are even aware there is a problem — an exam at the vet is in order.

3. She Is in an Unfamiliar Situation

Cats are creatures of habit. They like their own homes with their own humans, own toys and familiar scents. Anything that throws that balance off, such as a new chair at home or visiting a friend's house, can make a cat feel anxious. This anxiety and discomfort at being in an unfamiliar situation can then provoke a hissing response.

4. She Is Stressed Out

Cats are very sensitive, and it doesn't take much to stress them out. A new pet — or human — in the house can put a cat over the edge, but so can a change in food or even just sensing more stress from her owner. A stressed cat may be prone to problem behaviours, fighting with other animals, attacking humans and hissing.

5. She's Telling Other Cats to Settle Down

If you've recently brought home a kitten as a companion to your older cat, you may hear more hissing. This is normal and doesn't necessarily mean that the cats aren't getting along or that they are going to fight. Hissing from an older cat that is playing with a kitten can just be a way of telling the energetic kitten to settle down and not play as rough.

6. She Wants to Be Left Alone

Another common reason that cats hiss is to tell you that they want to be left alone. Many cats aren't naturally affectionate or cuddly, preferring to be left to their own devices, and may hiss at people who insisted on petting them. This type of hissing may be especially common in households where there are children who want to play with the cat all the time.

Correcting Problem Hissing Behaviour

Hissing is a natural form of communication for cats, and you won't be able — or want — to extinguish it all the way. However, if your cat is hissing a great deal or it's accompanied by other problem behaviours, there are some strategies you can use to improve the situation.

1. Let Her Settle Down

If it all possible, your first course of action when a cat is hissing at you is to back up and give her some space. This helps the cat calm down, and it can help protect you from further aggressive behaviour such as biting or scratching.

2. Giver Her Places to Retreat

Giving your cat plenty of places to retreat in the house can help stop hissing before it starts. This will ensure that your cat has somewhere she feels safe and secure, and most cats will opt to retreat instead of attack if given the chance. Cats tend to prefer to be up high, so cat trees and high hiding spots are a great option, but cat igloos or cozy spot under the bed works as well.

3. Talk with a Cat Behaviourist

For extreme cases or where hissing is being accompanied by scratching and biting attacks or fights with other animals, you may need some professional help. A cat behaviourist can help you get to the bottom of why your cat is misbehaving and give you some tips and tools on improving the situation.

As we've seen, a cat hissing isn't as straightforward as it might seem at first. Cats are complex creatures, and you can get to the bottom of other quirky cat behaviours and best practices for taking care of your furry friend in our cat care centre.

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