Issue 21: March 10
Dear Fancy,

Our cat Clea is normally very mild-mannered, almost prim and proper. Today, however, while in the lobby of the veterinary clinic, she showed what I think is a glimpse of another side of her personality. The clinic’s office cat, Powder, who seems to be totally unfazed by all the goings-on around her, sauntered over toward Clea’s carrier. She seemed friendly enough. But Clea made a snake-like face and let out a serpentine hiss, which made Powder turn around. Now I’m curious about this hissing communication. Powder certainly seemed to get the message. It sounded serious.

Rae in Texas

Dear Rae,

In the situation you described, Clea’s hissing meant “back off.” And yes, she meant business. In a playful context, hissing may only be intended as a bluff, but more often cats hiss to say, in no uncertain terms, “don’t mess with me” when they feel threatened or are angry.

When we hiss, we quickly force air out of our mouths to make a snake-like sound. You can even feel the air being expelled if you put your hand in front of a hissing cat (though that's not recommended). It is a very deliberate and to-the-point vocalization.

Cats hiss:

  • when we feel threatened—we hiss to ward off an attack by a rival cat or other animal
  • to protest against an intruder, in hope that the intruder will leave, or at least know who's boss
  • when we're "hissed off" at a cat, human, or other pet and let off some steam by expressing their disapproval
  • For extra emphasis, when we're particularly perturbed or angry, we spit in addition to hissing. If a hiss means "back off," the added spitting means "now!" or "I mean it!"

    Some humans speculate that cats developed the hissing response over time, from being scared by a snake's hiss and copying that maneuver. When hissing, we typically flatten our ears also, and do take on a rather menacing serpentine look.

    We may hiss when a new cat moves in, when encountering a strange cat on a leash walk, when a familiar cat is being bothersome, and in a multitude of other situations that produce defensiveness, aggression, or exasperation. Hissing is part of our repertoire of verbal communications, which we use in conjunction with scent and body language to exercise control and maintain security and peace of mind in our world.



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