Why Hissing at Your Cat is a Bad Idea

What Does Hissing Mean for Cats?

Hissing is a defensive behavior and communication tool for cats. When a cat hisses, it mimics the sound of a hissing snake in order to appear threatening to potential predators. The hiss serves as a warning sign to back off or risk being attacked. It signals that the cat is feeling fearful, anxious, or aggressive in the moment (Purina, 2022).

Cats mainly use hissing when they feel their space has been invaded by an unknown or unwelcome animal or person. It’s an instinctive reaction meant to scare off the potential threat. The sound is created by forcefully exhaling air through the cat’s mouth while exposing its teeth. This creates an intimidating effect. So in essence, hissing communicates “go away and leave me alone!” from the cat’s perspective (Cat Friendly, 2021).

Should You Hiss Back at a Cat?

Generally, hissing back at a cat is not recommended. Hissing is a form of communication for cats, often used to express fear, anxiety or aggression. By hissing back, you may actually reinforce aggressive behavior in the cat or trigger a fearful response.

It’s better not to engage if a cat hisses. The best response is to ignore the hissing, avoid eye contact, and walk away. This removes the stimulus that is causing your cat to be upset. Engaging with aggressive behavior like hissing can encourage the cat to continue this behavior in the future.

While it may be tempting to hiss back at a bitey or upset cat, this will likely only escalate the situation. It’s more effective to redirect and distract with toys or treats. Over time, positive reinforcement can help curb aggressive tendencies.

If your cat is hissing frequently, try to understand the underlying cause. Medical issues, stressors in the home, lack of enrichment and more can cause cats to lash out. Addressing the root problem will lead to a happier, calmer cat.

When Cats Might Hiss

Cats tend to hiss when they feel threatened or uncomfortable with a situation. Some common triggers that may cause a cat to hiss include:

When strangers get too close – Cats can be very territorial, and unfamiliar people invading a cat’s space can cause them to feel threatened. A cat may hiss at strangers who approach or try to pet them (Purina).

New environments – Introducing a cat to a new home or environment can be stressful. The unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells may cause a cat to feel uneasy and defensive, leading to hissing as a warning sign (Bottle Tree Animal Hospital).

Other cats encroaching on territory – When an unknown cat enters a resident cat’s territory, they may hiss as a way to indicate the intruder is unwelcome. Cats are very protective of their home turf and resources (Purina).

How to Deal with a Hissing Cat

When a cat is hissing, the best initial approach is to give them space and avoid staring or approaching them directly. As explained by Rover.com, “The best thing to do when a cat hisses is to back away and give them the space they’re asking for. Rather than petting your cat or picking them up, talk in a soothing tone and blink slowly to communicate you’re not a threat.”

Once your cat has calmed down, you can attempt to redirect their behavior with treats or toys. The Cat Friendly Homes Guide recommends keeping high-value treats on hand and offering them to an agitated cat to shift their focus to something positive. You can also encourage play with wand toys or laser pointers as a constructive outlet for that agitated energy.

When introducing pets or people that may trigger hissing, go slowly and don’t force interactions. Let the cat warm up at their own pace and provide treats as positive reinforcement when they remain calm. As explained by CatFriendly.com, “Do not hold your cat or comfort him. Let your cat feel secure. Do not stare at him. Give your cat time. Cats may take days or weeks to fully accept a major change.” With patience and rewards, the hissing should subside.

Redirect Aggressive Behavior

One way to deal with a hissing cat is to redirect their aggressive energy towards more positive outlets. Provide appropriate scratching posts, toys, and play time to give them a harmless way to work out frustration or excitement (Feline Behavior Problems: Aggression). Engage the cat in active play when they seem agitated. You can also try clicker training or food puzzles to redirect their focus. Praise calm, friendly interactions to reinforce these behaviors. If aggressive or fearful reactions persist, consult your veterinarian to rule out potential medical issues (Feline Behavior Problems: Aggression). With patience and consistency, you can teach your cat more acceptable ways to expend their energy.

Establish Your Role as Leader

To establish your role as the leader to your cat, you need to reinforce that you are the provider of resources. Be the sole provider of their food and treats. Only give treats and meals on your terms. If your cat begs for food outside of mealtimes, do not give in.

Petting and grooming should also be on your terms. Initiate contact and end the petting session when you are ready. Do not allow the cat to demand attention through nudging your hand or jumping into your lap.

Additionally, set house rules and stick to them consistently. Choose where your cat is allowed to be and when – such as no counters or tables. Provide appropriate scratching posts and vertical territory for the cat. Redirect any undesirable scratching or climbing behavior immediately and consistently.

By being the provider, initiator of affection, and rule maker, you reinforce yourself as the stable leader in the house. This gives cats the security and guidance they naturally seek from leaders of their social group. For more tips, check out this article on establishing leadership with your cat.

When to Be Concerned

While occasional hissing from a cat is normal, there are some behaviors that warrant concern. Prolonged, frequent aggression and unprovoked attacks on people or other pets should be addressed (https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-behavior-problems-aggression). If your cat is suddenly hissing frequently when it did not in the past, this noticeable change in behavior is a red flag.

According to the ASPCA, aggressive behaviors that persist for longer than a month with no improvement require veterinary assistance (https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/aggression-cats). There may be an underlying medical issue causing the aggression, such as dental disease, arthritis, or neurological problems. It’s important to rule these out.

Work with your veterinarian and an animal behaviorist to identify the triggers for frequent or prolonged hissing. With their guidance, you can address the root cause and help curb aggressive behaviors that negatively impact your cat’s quality of life.

Medical Causes

Sometimes hissing can be caused by an underlying medical issue like illness, injury or cognitive dysfunction. Cats that are in pain or discomfort due to an injury or illness may hiss as a way to express their distress. Common sources of pain that can lead to aggression include dental disease, arthritis, infections and gastrointestinal issues. Treating the underlying medical cause can help resolve the aggressive behavior.

Senior cats can develop cognitive issues as they age, which may cause increased disorientation, anxiety and aggression. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome in cats is similar to dementia in humans, causing personality changes and confusion. A trip to the veterinarian can help diagnose potential medical issues, especially in older cats. Managing medical conditions and providing pain relief if needed can help minimize reactive behavior in cats.

Prevent Future Hissing Incidents

Proper introductions between your cat and new pets or people can help prevent fearful or anxious hissing in the future. When introducing a new pet, do it slowly over multiple days or weeks, keeping them separated at first and allowing brief supervised interactions. Give your cat plenty of affection and dedicated playtime so they don’t feel left out or insecure with the new arrival. Similarly, have new visitors come over briefly at first so your cat can get used to them gradually, while also ensuring your cat has places to retreat if they feel overwhelmed. According to the ASPCA, “Start introductions at a point where your resident cat feels most confident.”

Establishing a calm yet consistent leadership role with your cat can also curb reactive behavior like hissing. Set up a predictable routine, use positive reinforcement for good behavior, and redirect inappropriate behavior calmly and consistently. Avoid scolding or yelling at a hissing cat as this can make them more fearful and anxious. According to wikiHow, “Assert your role as the leader of the house by ignoring bad behavior and rewarding good behavior.”

Providing an enriching home environment can help minimize stress-induced hissing. Be sure your cat has tall cat trees, scratching posts, hiding spots, and interactive toys to expend energy. Cats also benefit from daily playtime and positive interactions with their owners. Keep their schedule consistent in terms of feeding times, play time, routines and interactions. According to Rover, “Environmental enrichment through exercise, playtime and mental stimulation can help curb inappropriate behaviors that are often rooted in boredom or stress.”

The Takeaway

Hissing is a form of communication for cats, not necessarily a sign of aggression. While startling, it’s important not to overreact or hiss back at a cat as this can reinforce the behavior. The best approach is to remain calm, then try to understand the trigger behind the hissing. Oftentimes, an underlying stressor like pain, change in environment, or lack of socialization is the root cause. Addressing those fundamental issues through vet visits, providing stability, and proper training is key. With time, patience and care, hissing behaviors can usually be curtailed. Remember that cats use hissing to signal boundaries and discomfort. Don’t take it personally. Instead, be the leader they need and get to the source of their distress. Hissing doesn’t mean your cat dislikes you, but rather that something requires attention. Meet those needs, and both you and kitty will be happier.

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