The first time you hear your cat hiss will probably give you a real start, especially if they are a cute bundle of fur who plays and cuddle with you. But no matter how placid and friendly a cat is, something will occasionally make them react in a way that a good hiss is the appropriate response to. But what is that? And why do cats hiss?
How Cats Hiss
Hissing is something that is traditionally associated with snakes but in cats, it is created when the cat forces a burst of air through their arched tongue. If you happen to be close enough when they hiss, you can feel the air being shot through, though not an experiment worth trying on purpose, as you are liable to get a scratched nose at the same time!
When hissing, the ears are pulled back and flattened to the head as much as possible. Body positioning typically associated with hissing behaviour is an arched body and the fur will also stand up using something called piloerection of haircoat.
Why Cats Hiss
For cats, hissing is a warning. Cats don’t like to engage in messy physical altercations if possible so they use body language and sounds to convey to other cats what they are thinking. A hissing cat is saying to the target of her hissing that she is not happy. It is a defensive reaction that means something around her has made her feel in danger or frightened. This could be another cat, a person or being put into a situation that they don’t understand. The hiss says aggression is coming if you don’t back off.
A mother cat will often hiss when she has kittens and someone is too close to them. Again, this is a frank warning to get away from her young or she will attack. Similarly, a cat may hiss at a newcomer to the house, even a human, because they are invading the cat’s territory and they are afraid. Trying to force a cat into doing something, such as going into a carrier or taking a tablet, is another way to get a good hissing.
Some experts believe that the hissing sound was originally mimicked from snakes as this kind of copy what works behaviour is common in the animal world. Snakes hiss and other creatures back off so somewhere in the past generations, the cat may have took up this trick and made it their own. Or it may be simply a vocalisation that they have always had, along with meowing and screaming.
How to react
The first thing to do when a cat hisses is to judge if you are the cause. Back off and give them some room as well as time to settle down. If you are approaching him or her, make sure they can see an escape route as well so if they don’t want to interact with you, they don’t feel cornered. Offer a hand so they can check your scent and know you before trying to touch them and never tell them off for hissing or punish them – it’s a natural behaviour like us shouting when something startles us. Finally try to figure out what upset them so you can prevent it happening again if possible.