Why Do Cats Hiss? 5 Reasons & Vocalization Types

Life would be much easier for pet parents if we spoke the same language as our cats. Since this isn't possible, it's our job to identify the nuances of our cat's vocabulary. Hissing is just one example of feline vocal communication, and like all other vocalizations, its meanings can be extensive.

Tara Maurer holding cat smiling

Last Updated: November 22, 2023 | 8 min read

Black and white cat hissing.

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Why do cats hiss? A hiss is often used as a defensive warning. The sound is made when a burst of air is forced through an arched tongue and open mouth with the lips pulled back. The feline creating this sound most likely hopes the vocalization will deter possible violence. Typically, aggression follows if the perceived danger persists.

While a warning is one of the most common reasons a feline hisses, there are many other reasons behind hissing. Sometimes, hissing simply means a cat feels annoyed. Are you petting them or trying to pick them up against their wishes? A hiss tells you to “back off.”

As a new pet parent, you might find a cat’s hissing confusing. Or, you may mistake a hiss with other common feline vocalizations. By better understanding your furry friend’s vocal communication, you’ll be better able to maintain a stable, happy home.

5 Common Reasons Why Cats Hiss

Cats use hissing along with other vocal communications to convey messages. As a cat owner, you’ll become more familiar with the subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—distinctions in a cat’s vocalizations, facial expressions, and body language.

Overall, hissing is a sign of aggression, but the causes may vary distinctly.

1. Cat-On-Cat Aggression

Sometimes, cats hiss to tell another kitty to back off. For those who have two felines that barely tolerate each other, you know this hissing well. The more cats you have, the greater the chance of hissing and intercat aggression. Cat-on-cat aggression is also more common with unneutered males when they’re searching for a potential mate.

To reduce cat-on-cat aggression, try to determine the underlying problem. Do you have an adequate number of litter boxes (1 per feline), and are they in accessible places? Look at food placement, the location and number of scratching posts, and sleep areas. Ideally, you’ll want to have these things a safe distance apart. It’s crucial that each kitty feels like they have secure areas and access to resources. 

If all else fails, separate your pets and reintroduce them later. Have the felines together but at a safe distance apart, especially when giving treats or during mealtime. If one cat is always the aggressor, have them wear a collar with a bell to give your other feline an advanced warning of their whereabouts. Anti-anxiety drugs, pheromone sprays, or composure treats could also be helpful. A little “sibling” hissing is normal. Still, if your cats are highly aggressive towards one another, you may need to contact your veterinarian or seek the help of a certified animal behavior expert.

2. Fear Aggression

A stressed-out or scared feline will have a fight-or-flight instinct. They don’t want to be in the situation, but they are ready to fight if necessary. You can recognize a hissing cat who is scared by paying attention to their body language. A scared feline might be crouched low to the ground with dilated pupils and flat ears. They’ll likely be facing sideways, with their head and front paws facing their “attacker.” If you approach this kitty, they may hiss and swat to keep you away. 

Many felines display fear aggression at the vet, during travel, in unfamiliar environments, or around new people. In the case of a vet visit, try using rewards to build a positive association with a trip to the vet. If your cat is showing fear towards another pet, you might need to separate them and perform a gradual reintroduction. If your pet fears another human, use behavior modification techniques to make your feline see that person as safe. Have that person offer treats, serve meals, and conduct interactive play sessions.

3. Pain-Induced Aggression

If you’ve ever accidentally stepped on your kitty’s tail, you might have been “rewarded’ with hiss. And it makes sense: Animals who experience pain will try to defend themselves. In the case of felines, they may hiss if you touch a painful spot on their body or if they are handled roughly (such as in the case of an excited child pulling on a cat’s ear or tail). 

If you notice your pet hissing more than usual, consider visiting the veterinarian to exclude any underlying health problems causing discomfort and pain.

4. Territorial Aggression

A cat hisses or shows aggression when they believe their territory is being threatened. Felines often display territorial aggression when a new kitten or furry friend is introduced into their environment. (Our article on introducing cats gives step-by-step advice on bringing a new feline into your home.)

Indoor cats may also fight over resting spots, litter boxes, scratching posts, and food bowls. I’ve even had one cat hiss when discovering the other was already lying in my lap.

The best way to stop territorial aggression is by distracting the felines to dissolve tension. If you see trouble brewing, start an interactive play session or toss around their favorite toys. If needed, separate your pets and reintroduce them using treats for positive association.

5. Play Aggression

During rough play, a feline may hiss at another as a correction. While a hiss or two is fine, any more and the play could turn into a proper fight.

Our Personal Experience With Territorial Hissing

I recently rescued an abandoned six-week-old kitten and knew it would be a challenge for my two older cats, who rule the roost. While I’ve taken the introduction process quite slowly, there’s been a lot of hissing along the way. My older kitties were certainly asserting their feline thrones in my home. Once they got used to his presence, the hissing calmed down quite a bit. Now, most of the verbal exchanges center around food bowls, favorite napping spots, and a rambunctious kitten wanting to play but not yet fully understanding boundaries. But the integration is slowly improving.

Sally Jones, Rescue Cat Owner

A Note On Cat Aggression

Nobody wants to think of the possibility of our precious kitties hissing, biting, or scratching, but ignoring these signs of aggression could be catastrophic for you, your kitty, and other family members—both humans and pets. When a feline acts aggressively, they are not intentionally being mean or spiteful. Instead, think of it as setting boundaries. A hiss says, “Don’t come any closer,” among other things. 

A cat acts aggressively because they feel like there is no other choice. A hissing kitty may feel trapped or cornered. They may feel stressed, threatened, insecure, or scared. Lumping these feelings into one category is unfair to your furry friend. What’s more productive is identifying and understanding what triggers the aggressive behavior so that potential behavior modification can be done. 

Wild cats, or our usually friendly indoor/outdoor buddies, use aggression for survival. It allows them to defend their territory, catch prey, and stay alive. For a female, aggression can keep her kittens safe. 

Usually, before aggression, a cat will display warning signs—vocalization, skin twitching, tail lashing, and paw smacking. If you find yourself in a situation where a feline is hissing or showing other signals of aggression at you, the best thing you can do is leave them alone. Any attempt at touch or comfort will likely only lead to you getting injured.

6 Other Cat Vocal Communications

Two cats playing on top of each other and adorably gazing at the camera.
Based on body language, it might be hard to tell whether your felines are playing or fighting.

If you are new to feline companionship, you might need clarification on cats’ vocalizations. For example, you may see purring as a sign of contentment, but purring can also be used to self-soothe during times of illness or fear or as a way to soothe an opponent to circumvent an attack. 

Here are some other vocalizations that you may be perceiving incorrectly. Some are relatively harmless, while others signal impending trouble:

  1. Chattering: If you’ve ever seen your indoor cat make a distinct ek-ek-ek sound at the window while watching a bird or squirrel, this is chattering. Chattering is the sound an excited cat makes when spotting prey they can’t reach. While we typically translate chattering as excitement, it could also mean your pet feels frustrated.
  2. Spitting: Often accompanying hissing, a spit is a quick popping sound made in reaction to being taken by surprise, agitated, or threatened. A cat may add a menacing lunge or slap their paws to the ground in addition to spitting. A spit is a quick, involuntary sound and doesn’t necessarily mean your feline is upset (think of how you shout when you are spooked but can quickly recover). 
  3. Growling: The dreaded growl. This is a steady, low-pitched warning sound. It is often accompanied by a snarl. Growling can be used offensively or defensively to seem more threatening to the “enemy.” When you hear this guttural vocalization, you know it’s a warning. If your pet continues to feel upset, they will follow a snarl or a big hiss. 
  4. Snarling: Often accompanied by growling and hissing is the snarl. A snarling cat will have a defensive body posture—puffed up fur, ears back, tail twitching—and will curl its upper lip and make an open-mouthed scream. Snarling is a sign of aggression that resembles a growl but is louder and higher pitched.
  5. Shrieking: The shriek occurs when a cat experiences sudden pain or during an intense attack. Shrieking is also associated with female felines, who sometimes make this sound after copulation. The male cat’s penis has tiny barbs that are painful upon withdrawal. (The spines rake the walls of the vagina, remove competing sperm, and stimulate ovulation.)
  6. Yowling: Your cat will express a yowl or moan when confused, lonely, bored, or uncomfortable. This is a loud, wailing cry. Some cats will yowl when they are feeling disoriented or home alone. (My pet, Luna, yowls when she can’t find me. Once I say, “I’m over here,” she runs to me and proceeds to purr in my lap.)

Recognizing Cat Vocalizations (Video)

If you’re a new cat parent, you may struggle to recognize the different vocalizations that your kitty makes. This video shows three common vocalizations that signal that your pet feeling aggravated: growling, snarling, and hissing.

How To Tell If Your Cats Are Playing Or Fighting

When cats are playing, one or both kitties may hiss. If the cats hiss once or twice, they’re likely playing, but if they hiss several times, anticipate a fight.

Here are 5 other guidelines to confirm if your felines are playing or fighting:

  1. Kitties at play will usually take turns in the offensive and defensive postures. When felines fight, there’s usually no role reversal—one cat acts as the aggressor while the other becomes defensive.
  2. If there is yowling or screaming, your felines are in a fight. There should be no shrieking or yowling during play. 
  3. Cats will not hurt each other during play. Accidents happen, but typically, cats take care not to injure each other during play. Fighting pets may deliver or receive scratches and bites.
  4. After the play, cats will act normally. They won’t avoid each other or display other negative behaviors. Alternatively, after a fight, one or both felines may stay out of the other’s way to appear frightened of each other. 
  5. Keep in mind the normal relationship between the cats. If you have two kitties that aren’t usually friendly to each other, chances are what looks like play is a fight. If you’re in doubt, try distracting your cats by shaking a box of treats, sprinkling catnip, or opening a food can. Your cats could be playing, so remember to keep it positive. You don’t want to discourage a blossoming relationship.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some questions we’ve been asked about hissing and felines. Don’t see yours? Ask us in the comments.

Why Do Cats Hiss At You For No Reason?

Unprovoked aggression is rare and will likely require professional support. If your feline hisses at you out of the blue, first look at the situation overall. It could be that you or something else is simply bothering your cat. Kitties have emotions like the rest of us and may feel agitated or nervous.

If hissing is abnormal for your cat, there may be an underlying medical cause. For example, elderly cats may hiss due to sore joints. Contact your veterinarian to dismiss any health problems causing the hissing.

Why Does My Cat Hiss When I Pet Them?

The most straightforward answer is that your cat doesn’t like the way you are petting them. Felines also experience petting-induced aggression. One moment, they’ll be comfortably relaxing on your lap, getting pets, and the next, they’re hissing and biting your wrist.

Pay attention to signs that your cat feels agitated. Is their tail swishing or skin twitching? Did they change their body position? For some kitties, too much petting can be overstimulating and even painful. In the future, pay attention to your cat’s body language to recognize when they are approaching overstimulation.

Other Cat Behaviors Explained

Now that we’ve covered why cats hiss, you may be curious about other feline behaviors. We answer some of the most-asked questions regarding cats, including why cats stare, why felines knead, and the difference between spraying and peeing.

Kitten painting colors on a canvas

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