What does it mean when a cat randomly hisses at you?

Cat hissing is totally normal behavior, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t uncomfortable when it happens. There are many reasons your cat or any other cat may hiss at you, but not all of them are death alarms.

Cats have evolved some coping mechanisms for living with humans. In some cases, these bits of communication may seem threatening, but it’s important to know what might be behind that behavior so that you can deal with a hissing cat properly. You can modify your behavior or the circumstances and get back to feeling like normal.

Scary striped cat hissing
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What is a hiss?

Hissing is an innate behavior seen in all cats, including large wild cats such as lions and tigers. The sound of hissing is made when cats force air through their tongue while it is arched upward toward the center of the mouth. A puff of air is released as a cat hisses. Generally, while hissing, a cat will also arch their body, pull back their lips, and flatten their ears against the head.

A cat’s fur stands up as another reflexive response to whatever caused the cat to hiss. You might get nervous when your cat hisses — and you’re meant to. Hissing is believed to be a defensive instinct. It serves as a warning, letting subjects know that if they don’t stop what they’re doing, the cat may lash out at them.

Why cats hiss

Here are six common reasons why your cat is hissing.

A preemptive warning

Cats don’t want to get into fights out in the wild because an injury can often mean slow death. If a cat in your neighborhood or your household hisses, that can mean a warning to avoid conflict.

If it’s your cat, you may be doing something threatening. Your cat might be tired or feeling a little more territorial than usual. If you’ve recently rearranged the furniture, for example, your cat may be missing its familiar spots.

You might also consider if you or a family member are handling the cat a bit too roughly. This may not be an aggressive move, but it’s merely a way to communicate. Allow your cat to escape and have some time to cool off.

If it’s a cat in your neighborhood, that could mean that the cat isn’t that into you. As long as you move along without continuing to approach, you should be fine. Cats rarely attack humans without absolute necessity.

A sign of pain

Animals in the wild try to prevent being taken advantage of by hiding any vulnerability. Cats won’t immediately show discomfort and pain unless something is really wrong. Hissing could be a sign that your cat is feeling some pain.

Cats will hiss because they’re trying to minimize contact with humans (especially children) and other pets. If you notice your cat spending more time alone or sneaking off to places where you can’t quite reach, those hisses could also be part of their plan — basically, “stay away from me!”

Redirected aggression

If your cat is watching an animal, especially another cat, and feeling a bit territorial, you may be on the receiving end of that hiss. This accidental cat behavior may transfer as the cat is totally focused on the territorial feelings for that strange cat outside, and you happen to walk by.

This can happen in other ways. Got two cats, and one is trying to take the other’s toy? You walk by, and you get the hiss. It’s nothing against you and everything to do with your cat’s feelings at that particular moment.

Protecting kittens (and other precious things)

If a cat has recently given birth, this could be a time of hissing all around. The mother cat may not even let trusted humans touch kittens until she’s entirely sure they’ll be safe. If the cat is unfamiliar with humans, the hissing may be followed by aggressive action.

House cats may transfer this energy onto a new toy or a treat, as well. Since house cats don’t get as much stimulation as cats in the wild, a favorite toy could be a very sticky situation if the attachment is strong enough — enough to cause a protective hiss.

A display of fear

If a cat is afraid of something new, a hiss could be less about aggression or protectiveness and more a display of intimidation. Again, cats don’t want to get into conflict in most cases. Hissing could help warn away the frightening party (or new person or new item) until the cat is comfortable again.

If you’ve moved homes, your cat may be feeling the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment. If your cat is a timid one, anything new could trigger this hissing. One way to help alleviate this behavior is to use small treats, gentle affection, and playtime to help distract your cat and teach it that not everything is a threat.

You’re just bothering them

Cats aren’t the people pleasers dogs are. If you’re trying to get your cat to do something, say sit in your lap, and your cat doesn’t want to … hiss. If this happens to you, it’s not a big deal. It may be time to leave your cat alone for a few hours or get out of the chair it’s trying to occupy.

If you have small children, you might need to supervise their time together to ensure your children treat your cat well. Small children often don’t know or understand boundaries with animals, and cats may hiss as a warning. If it happens often, your cat may just preemptively hiss the moment your child walks into the room.

Cat with large eyes hissing
schankz/Shutterstock.com

What to do when a cat hisses

When your cat hisses, it’s important to recognize what’s prompting the behavior and then take appropriate steps to make your cat feel comfortable. If you’ve cornered your cat or surprised her with a pat, chances are she’s hissing out of fear.

If you have a new cat, she might hiss when you approach because she feels threatened. It takes time for cats to settle in and get to know you and your family, so it’s important to get your whole family on board in this situation. Give your new cat a place in the home that’s all her own, such as a room where no pets or other family members are allowed.

How you react when a cat hisses is very important. Here are the steps you should take:

  • If a cat hisses at you, back up and give them space. Make sure that everyone else in your family does the same.
  • Ensure that there are places in your home where your cat can hide for a little peace and quiet. (We all need that sometimes, right?)
  • Assess their behavior and try to determine what’s causing their hissing. Once you do that, you can work to find a solution.

Cat hissing may not be a big deal. Consider what’s happening in your cat’s life to see what may be causing sudden hissing. Remove any issues or problems that might be causing discomfort. It could be a simple matter of putting the toy back.

If you can’t otherwise explain why your cat is hissing, then it’s best to bring her to the vet for a checkup. Your vet might find a source of pain, such as an infection or arthritis, that has developed without your knowing, especially if you have a senior cat who has different health needs. Treating the pain should make your cat comfortable again, and the unusual hissing behavior should stop.

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