Have you ever heard your cat hiss at someone who enters your home or does your cat run off and hide? While it might not make any sense to you, your cat is trying to communicate with you.

When your cat hides, he is doing so to stay safe and warm, and when your cat hisses he is saying, “Back off — this is my personal space.”

cat hissing

Hiding Makes Cats Feel Safe

In the wild, cats hunt alone. They depend on stealth to survive; not only to avoid enemies, but also to hide from prey they want to catch. Cats like warmth and small places help to retain their body heat. Smaller spaces that protect a cat’s back are also easier to defend. However, cats also always want an emergency exit. That’s why your cat loves that new basket you bought or the cardboard box you just unpacked.

Misconceptions About Hissing

Hissing in cats is a commonly misinterpreted behavior. Contrary to popular belief, hissing is not an aggressive behavior, nor is it generally exhibited by an aggressive cat. Hissing is a defensive gesture. It is almost always exhibited by a cat that feels victimized, antagonized, or threatened in some way. Hissing is often a way to avoid a physical confrontation. In cat-to-cat dynamics and inter-cat aggression, the cat that hisses regularly is almost always the victim cat or the one to be chased or antagonized. Hissing is simply an emotional expression of discomfort, fear, or stress. A hissing kitty feels threatened, insecure, and uncomfortable. The common misconception is that the cat that hisses is “teasing” or “taunting” the other cat, dog, or person.

What is Your Cat Saying When He Hisses?

Hissing is simply an expression of emotion; “I’m upset,” “I feel threatened,” “I’m uncomfortable,” or “I’m scared.” Whether your cat is hissing at veterinary staff or a newcomer to the household, your cat is feeling vulnerable, threatened, or insecure. If you try to “correct” or punish your cat for hissing, you will only make a bad or scary situation worse, and make your cat more upset.

What You Should Do When Your Cat Hisses or Hides

  • Give him space. Do not try to hold your cat or comfort him.
  • Let your cat feel secure. Do not stare at him. Let him hide.
  • Give your cat time. Cats may take hours to calm down, not minutes.
  • When he is calm, coax your cat out with food and/or catnip. Remember: do not look him directly in the eyes and approach from the side. You are less threatening this way.

Obviously, there are many things that your cat may be upset by or dislike. By being aware that when your kitty hisses, he is feeling afraid, threatened, or uncomfortable, you can change or modify the way you interpret your cat’s behavior or inter-feline dynamics.

Contributed by Dr. Evelyn Richer, DVM and Alana Stevenson, MS