Why Do Cats Hiss?

He's not necessarily angry!

cat arching his back and hissing

It might seem like your cat’s ready to fight when he hisses at strangers, the vet or even your dog.

But it turns out cats actually hiss to tell others to stay away.

“Hissing is not an aggressive behavior,” Dr. Sarah Wooten, a veterinarian with Pumpkin Pet Insurance, told The Dodo. “It is a defensive behavior. It is the way the cat is telling you, ‘I’m mad,’ ‘I’m scared,’ ‘I’m uncomfy,’ ‘I don’t like what you are doing,’ or ‘I feel threatened.’”

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Wooten and Dr. Brian Evans, clinical director of Dutch, to find out what your cat’s trying to say when he hisses.

He feels afraid or threatened

Your cat might hiss if a person or another animal comes onto your cat’s territory and makes him feel uncomfortable.

For example, if your cat runs into another cat in your yard, he might hiss as a warning to let the intruder know that it’s his space. He’s letting the other cat (or person or dog) know that he’s afraid or stressed out and wants to be left alone before resorting to fighting.

He’s stressed

Cats can get easily stressed out by changes in their environment, and your cat might hiss at new objects, toys or pets in the house that are unfamiliar. He might also hiss during stressful situations, like going to the vet.

Whether you’re moving, introducing new cats or training your cat to use his carrier, it’s best to do so very slowly so your cat has a chance to become familiar with any changes to his routine.

He’s uncomfortable

If your cat hisses every time your friends try to pick him up, he probably doesn’t like unfamiliar people touching him.

“Your cat can hiss when uncomfortable with the person attempting to carry them, especially if there is not a bond yet,” Dr. Evans told The Dodo.

Your cat might also hiss (and even use his claws) if you’re rubbing him too much or in a spot that makes him uncomfortable — like his belly.

He’s in pain

According to Dr. Evans, “Hissing when being picked up can also be a sign that they experience pain when touched in certain areas of the body.”

If you think your cat could be hissing from pain, try to determine what’s causing the hissing (if he hisses when you touch his stomach, for example), and look out for any other symptoms.

“Make sure to contact your vet if you suspect your cat is in pain from regular activities like petting, brushing or jumping around,” Dr. Evans said.

He’s annoyed

Some cats will hiss when they’re annoyed. For example, if you try to pick your cat up when he’s taking his afternoon nap.

To show dominance

Your cat might hiss when playing to show that he has the upper hand.

“They can also hiss as a sign of dominance or intimidation during playtime or fighting,” Dr. Evans said.

What to do if your cat hisses at you

Hissing is a totally normal cat behavior. But since cats usually hiss when they’re feeling scared or threatened, there are some things you should do (and not do) to make sure your cat’s hissing doesn’t turn into a fight.

  • Don’t make eye contact Don’t look directly at your cat because cats (and other animals, such as dogs) see direct eye contact as a sign of aggression. “Approach your cat from the side and look down, not at your cat’s face,” Dr. Wooten said.
  • Back off Because cats hiss as a warning sign, you should back off if your cat’s hissing. “Give your cat some space,” Dr. Wooten said. “Do not try to hold your cat or comfort your cat.”
  • Don’t punish your cat And since hissing is a normal behavior that tells you how your cat is feeling, Dr. Wooten says you shouldn’t punish your cat if he hisses. “This will create conflict in your relationship and may likely escalate aggression.”

So if your cat’s hissing at you, don’t freak out. Just let him cool down, and follow the steps above to make sure he doesn’t feel scared the next time you try to pet him. And if you do it right, don’t be surprised if he ends up wanting a cuddle — like this cat did.