Why do cats hiss?

One of the scariest vocalizations made by cats is hissing. Sometimes, if you enter an empty room and hear a sudden hiss, your skin or your neck may crawl. It’s that scary for a good reason. This is connected to the reason why cats hiss in the first place.

But have you ever got upset at your cat’s hiss feeling like it’s aggression by your cat? It comes naturally because we tend to assume a cat hissing is a sign of aggression and call our cats ungrateful for feeding, caring, and loving them unconditionally.

A grey and white hissing kitten because she is scared.
Hiss. You scared me !

So why do cats hiss?

It’s important to know that you can’t blame your cat for hissing, it’s beyond their control.

Hissing is an involuntary reflex exhibited by cats when they are scared or surprised. “Involuntary” means it is controlled by your cat’s nervous system and your cat can’t help but hiss. It’s like when a bright light hits your eyes, your eyelids close and your pupils shrink in size. It’s a defensive reflex.

But do you know what is common for most reflexes? For the most part, reflex actions have something to do with the survival of an animal. For example, a new kitten may hiss at something that scares them, like the vacuum cleaner (yes, I’ve seen that behavior in my own kittens). If this is your cat’s issue, please see our article on Training a cat not to be scared of vacuum cleaner.

Another example is when something tickles your nose, you sneeze to move it away from your nose. If something you eat blocks your airway, you cough. If a cat is scared or surprised, they will hiss.

Why is a cat hissing scary?

How can a cat hiss save a cat when they are in danger?

Think about it. What other sound in nature sounds like a hissing cat? That’s right. A snake. A snake hiss is a terrifying sound. Even if you’ve never been attacked by a snake, that sound will make you back off in a hurry. So a cat hissing sounds like a snake. That sound is your cat not exhibiting aggression, rather they are trying to scare away whatever is bothering them.

If however, you see your kitty acting aggressively out of seemingly nowhere, that may be redirected aggression. This is where your cat is fine one minute and attacks or acts aggressively the next. Weird? Actually no. Something or someone bothered your feline and your cat just got triggered by something else. You’ll want to find out what is triggering your cat in the first place. Please read our article on Why does a cat suddenly attack for no reason? for tips on this. Work with your Veterinarian if you can’t find the basis of your cat’s aggressive behavior. Please check out our post on Causes of cat aggression towards humans to help figure it out the cause.

Hissing isn’t the only defensive reflex

Many animals, including cats, have another reflex developed. If they hear a hiss of a snake, they will either jump up, jump back, freeze or flee. And they will this instinctively as a reflex to the hiss. Why?

Because any animal that makes a hissing sound like the snake, can send other animals over the “rainbow bridge” with one bite. Just one bite. Thus, the animal will not have a chance to jump back, freeze or run away if a snake attacks. Thankfully most snakes don’t look for opportunities to attack animals larger than them. They use their bite (and venom) to attack their food sources. This is why they first hiss, to warn others to stay away. They would rather conserve their “weapons” for their main purpose, to feed themselves.

Mother nature gave our cat the ability to replicate this sound. When a cat is surprised by a larger predator, they hiss. Or in our new kitten’s case, the scary vacuum. Hopefully this makes the attacker freeze. This gives our hero the cat, enough time to retreat to safety. And it’s all thanks to two involuntary reflexes – hissing and freezing.

Why is my cat hissing at me?

As a loving cat owner, you provide shelter, food, water, and most importantly, love. So why is your cat hissing at you? If you have a hissing cat, you know now that it’s an instinctive response, not out of aggression as validated by PetMD.The top reasons for your hissing cat’s behavior are:

  1. Stress. Has your cat’s environment changed recently? Has your schedule changed? Is there something going on outside your home like a building project? Did you just get a new cat?
  2. Illness. Could your kitty be injured or not feeling well? When a cat is ill, they become defensive as they know they are vulnerable when sick. Could your cat be in some sort of pain? If you can’t confirm that your cat is healthy, please consult with your Veterinarian.
  3. Fear. As stated, this is the number one reason that may explain this cat behavior. Try to find what may be scaring your cat. Could there be a stray cat bothering your cat from outside your house?
  4. Defensiveness. Cats are territorial animals. This means if something or someone is seen as invading their territory, they may hiss. This is called “territorial aggression”. If your cat has reached their limit of petting, they may hiss. If you have a mother cat, she may be defending her kitten.

Final thoughts on “Why do cats hiss?”

But your cat? He or she can’t help but do that. They hiss out of instinct. They don’t want to hurt or attack, they are just scared or surprised. This is the answer to the original question, “Why do cats hiss?”.

So, next time when your cat hisses at you, don’t be surprised when it makes skin or your neck crawl. It’s an instinctive response. Remember, in the wild, this sound could send you over the rainbow bridge in a matter of a second. Thankfully domestic cats aren’t snakes and don’t have fangs and deadly venom.

You now know and understand your cat’s hissing isn’t aggression focused at you. Something else is bothering your cat. Finding that root cause will go a long way to making your cat happier.

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