Reading a cat’s body language is one of the hidden talents of experienced owners. When your ordinarily sweet kitty tucks her ears back, makes direct eye contact, and releases a powerful hiss, you hear the message loud and clear: Stay away! But why do cats hiss at each other?
Cats hiss at each other to send a warning. Some cats view others as possibly threatening, hissing to say, “Keep your distance, or I’ll attack.” This warning can stem from fear, territorial instincts, or a desire to maintain social order. In other words, hissing keeps other cats’ behavior in check.
While it’s relieving to know your cat isn’t directing this sentiment toward you anymore, relentless hissing can disrupt the harmony in a multi-cat household. To learn about why cats hiss at each other and how to redirect this perceived aggression, read on!
The ‘Body Language’ Behind Hissing
A cat’s “soundboard” is far more extensive than most people realize, with a noise collection including the hearty yowl, soothing purr, and mysterious chatter. Without a doubt, the hiss sends the most concise message of all feline communication — anger, fear, stress, or annoyance.
A hissing cat is rarely feeling carefree or willing to socialize. Yet, these negative emotions and ensuing scuffle deliver this coded message in two ways:
- Via Sound: It’s no surprise that a cat’s hiss sounds eerily similar to that of a snake. Animal experts theorize that felines picked up on this cue from wild snakes, who hiss at predators like coyotes and foxes to scare them away and evade capture.
- Via Posture: A hissing cat might be downright terrified, but their posture says differently. With lips pulled back, sharp teeth exposed, ears flattened, and back arched, a fearsome feline can look larger and scarier to an encroaching cat.
The stigma that hissing cats are inherently aggressive is only half-true. A cat who hisses is firing off a warning shot that says, “If you don’t stop what you’re doing, I will become aggressive.” Leaving the cat alone and backing away will usually deescalate the aggression.
Why Cats Hiss at Each Other
Adult cats may reserve meows for “talking” with their favorite humans, but kitties are far less particular about their audience while frustrated. Let’s take a look at four reasons why cats may hiss at one another — even if they’re not mortal enemies!
Cats may thrive in feral colonies and cohabitate nicely in shared households, but felines are historically “solo creatures.” Even the most docile and easygoing cats enjoy having their own “territory” to call their own, where they intentionally deposit their scent via rubbing or spraying. Some cats will claim a blanket, cat tree, human, or water bowl for themselves.
A problem arises when another household cat disregards a cat’s staked claims. The territorial instinct may trigger a cat to hiss as a warning: “This is my [item or location]. Please stay away.” This hissing is particularly common when introducing a brand new kitten to a previous one-cat household. A cat who once owned the entire lot now suddenly has to share it with an invader.
With retractable claws, sharp teeth, and terrifying hisses, cats exude a sense of mental and physical toughness that can keep even 200-pound humans at bay. Yet, cats are just as wary as “strangers” as you or I may be. Unsocialized cats — whether feral or merely sheltered from other felines — may hiss at one another to say, “I’m scared. Please leave me alone!” These unmistakable fearful hisses have several possible triggers, including:
- A glaring size difference
- An unexpected or surprise interaction
- A scuffle that leaves one cat pinned down
- An unknown cat with unpredictable behaviors
- A body language miscommunication (both cats perceive the other as aggressive)
Cats with past traumatic experiences or skirmishes with other cats may be particularly skittish and fearful of new introductions. The hissing is not necessarily a signal that the other cat is being aggressive or intimidating, but instead that your kitty is in defense mode and “on guard.”
No matter how rich the harmony in your home appears from the outset, most multi-cat households boast a secret (or sometimes not-so-secret) social order. One cat adopts that dominant or alpha role, while the others fall into place in that submissive slot. Felines like to send reminders of this power imbalance are often overlooked ways, such as grooming other cats or blocking their pathway as they scatter down the hall.
Yet, this quest for dominance sometimes develops a more aggressive tone. An alpha cat may hiss, growl, or spit at another cat to “correct” its behavior to be in-line with the dominant kitty’s expectations. This hissing could be a cat’s way of saying, “Get off of my bed” or, “You’re done eating. It’s my turn.”
While most cats are well-adjusted and outwardly friendly, some develop an aggressive streak if they’re not socialized early on and properly. It’s not unusual for cats to misread another kitty’s body language, perceive normal behaviors as “threatening,” or allow their hormones to control their actions. Tomcats (unneutered males) are more likely to hiss, growl or swat to instigate flights with other unsuspecting kitties.
Want to learn more about the inexplicable rivalry between cats sharing a household? The Jackson Galaxy video below will explain how to break out of this rut:
How To Stop Hissing Between Cats
Hissing will forever be a part of your cat’s defense mechanisms, but the constant stand-offs and brawls don’t have to plague your household. Here are a few tips for ending this hissing and returning some joy to your home:
Very few cats are downright aggressive hissers, and punishing a cat for its fear reflexes or territorial instincts won’t deliver your intended message (“Stop!”). Instead, give your cat an “escape” (like a spare bedroom) and allow her to regain her composure when she senses these overwhelming negative emotions.
Slowly Introduce New Cats
It’s normal for cats to be territorial or fearful of new felines in the household, especially when cats are notoriously unpredictable. Introduce a new cat to your home slowly to ensure neither cat feels overwhelmingly stressed. Swap scents, give each kitty space to retreat to and don’t force a quick introduction.
Use Pheromone Plug-Ins
Stress is the undercover menace triggering many of these hissing matches. Pheromone plug-in diffusers will release synthetic “pheromones” within the home. Unlike natural pheromones that allow a cat to claim a territory, these plug-ins induce calmness and stress relief. It can also eliminate the desire to instigate scuffles or mark with urine.
Get Your Cat Fixed
Territorial instincts aren’t a male or female issue in cats — it’s a species (and often hormonal) problem. The raging hormones in unneutered and unspayed cats enhance the need to be territorial and nurture the resulting aggression. Getting your cat fixed as soon as possible can reduce or outright eliminate these inappropriate hissing matches.
Though hissing is an entirely normal response to fear or territorialism, it can be a sign of something more sinister. Some cats hiss when they’re feeling discomfort or unwell (i.e., Abscesses, dental disease, or even something as mundane as arthritis). If your cat’s hissing escalates without cause, take her to the vet for a medical evaluation.
Of course, many cats hiss at one another as a form of self-expression. The best way to subdue the persistent hissing between cats is by introducing them properly, giving them time to adjust, and allowing them their own space!
- The Humane Society of the United States: Understanding feline language
- Cat Behavior Associates: How Cats Use Scent Communication
- Jackson Galaxy: The Do’s and Don’ts of Introducing Cats
- ASPCA: Spay/Neuter Your Pet
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.