Why do cats hiss at each other?

Hissing is a relatively common behavior in cats. We generally associate it with negativity; a defensive noise used to deter possible danger. However, cats may hiss for a number of reasons, not only to defend themselves. This article will explore how and why cats hiss, in particular why they often hiss at each other.

How cats hiss

Hissing occurs when a powerful stream of air is channeled rapidly through the mouth. In cats, this behavior is commonly paired with specific body language – often that associated with a scared and defensive cat. For example, flattened ears, hairs stood on end, a rigid tail and an arched back. This body language indicates that a cat is stressed, perhaps feeling uncomfortable or in danger. Thus, hissing is thought to be a purely instinctive action triggered by uncertainty or apparent danger; it occurs as a natural defensive reflex due to a rush of adrenaline and a mix of unknown feelings (such as shock, fear and confusion).

Origin of hissing

Hissing is most commonly associated with snakes in the wild where it is similarly used as a defensive mechanism to deter any potential danger (e.g. other animals). It is thought that wild cats perhaps initially developed their own hiss by mimicking wild snakes. Mimicking the noises of other, more dangerous species is, in fact, a relatively common survival technique in the animal kingdom. For example, some birds are also known to mimic the snake hiss to deter intruders from their nests. This is known as Batesian mimicry.

Reasons for hissing

  • Warning and self-defense

Cats hiss for a variety of reasons. Primarily, hissing is used as a warning signal to deter other animals – be that cats, different animals or even humans. The sound is made to indicate the presence of the defensive cat, to warn others that he is there and, in doing so, deterring the animal from intruding or disturbing. In busy neighborhoods where many cats live it is common to hear loud, hissing cats (particularly during the night). This is effectively a stand-off between cats; the precursor to a fight. Hissing noises and other sounds and body language are used to try to prevent the situation escalating into a fight.

  • Fight or flight response

Like many animals, cats have a fight or flight response. This is an innate survival mechanism, which causes a large rush of adrenaline when triggered. This occurs in situations that a cat perceives as stressful – thus, it must prepare to fight (and win), or flee the situation. When triggered, the rush of adrenaline causes the cat to become highly alert and stressed, resulting in the typical behaviors (noises, body language etc) that we often hear and witness. This includes hissing, intended to deter the oncoming threat (e.g. another cat) before a fight ensues.

  • Uncertainty

Another reason behind hissing can be uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Again, this relates to a cat feeling stressed or anxious in a given situation. The hissing is used instinctively by the cat to try to protect itself and prevent anything negative or dangerous from happening. For example, given a new environment, a cat may act unfriendly and, in turn, is likely to hiss at you if it feels uncomfortable. This could occur when a cat moves house or changes owner, or even just when a fresh bed is provided for him. Changes that seem small to us could be significant to a cat, depending on its individual nature, thus triggering such behaviors as hissing – at least until he (hopefully) relaxes and feels at home again.

One particular behavior in cats, again triggered by uncertainty, is known as non-recognition aggression and is often associated by hostile behavior, including hissing. This typically occurs between cats in the same household after a period of separation – for example, if one cat returns home from a vet visit, likely accompanied with unfamiliar scents. If the behavior is ongoing, it might be necessary to bathe both cats to avoid any continued hissing and potential aggression.

  • Annoyance

A cat that is being annoyed by its owner or, for example, another animal will often hiss. A human might not intentionally be annoying the cat; in fact, often what we perceive as loving and caring is simply not taken that way by a cat, thus sometimes making it difficult for us to bond. Being overly affectionate, expecting cuddles and attention from your pet cat all the time, for example, can trigger unfriendly behavior and hissing. This is simply your cat warning you to leave him alone, despite you only trying to treat him well and look after him. As with hissing, feline body language can be very telling – rigid backs, teeth on display and twitching tails, for example, are all key signs that your cat is not happy with the current circumstances.

  • Discomfort

If your cat is in pain, he is likely to hiss, particularly if you try to investigate the injury. This is common in veterinary clinics, where vets are trying to find the root of a problem. Cats can be very difficult to examine, often displaying strong stand-offish behavior and body language. This largely comes down to fear and uncertainty, as discussed previously. If the cat thinks you are going to hurt him or perhaps make an injury worse, he will, of course, try to prevent this – and hissing is effective here because it acts as a warning signal and, therefore, deterrent. The cat does not want to hiss and hurt you – fighting is, in fact, the last resort in the fight or flight response – however, if he feels vulnerable and sees no other option, hissing and (potentially) attacking will occur as an act of protection and self-defense. But, ultimately, a cat does not want to hurt you and will therefore not hiss or attack unless it is really necessary.

Conclusion

Hissing occurs for a number of reasons, but the underlying triggers are generally related to uncertainty and stress, when a cat feels insecure and uncomfortable in a given situation. In this sense, hissing is used as a means of self-defense, helping a cat to maintain his stance and territory.

 

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