Ask the Vet


Dear Dr. Schelling,

I just found a litter of baby kittens in my backyard shed. I haven’t seen the mother cat for days. What should I do?


Dear Liz,

Spring is here and it’s kitten season again! Mother cats are usually excellent mothers but sometimes things go wrong. Stress, illness, inexperience, or accidents may prevent a mother from taking care of her kittens. Single kittens wander off or get separated from the group. Fostering orphaned kittens is hard work but can be fun and very rewarding as well. Read the article, Caring for Orphaned Kittens, to learn more.

Click here to read the full article.

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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

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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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Have a question for Fancy? Email her at:
ZANIES CRYSTAL BALL: When I hear the jingle of a Zanies Crystal Ball, I know it's playtime. My human rolls or throws the ball, and I take it from there. I run down the hall, around the corner, under the table, and over the chair. Then, with a mighty leap, I pounce on the ball, and claw it, and swat it—which leads to another fun chase!

PURRFECT WISPY CLOSE-UP TOY: Around here, the kittens and the oldsters, and every cat in between—including yours truly—can't resist the flowing, fluttering feathers of the Purrfect Wispy Close-Up Cat Toy. I'll bet when you wave this colorful peacock herl and wand around your place, you get the same enthusiastic response from your family felines.

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Cats purr at the same frequency as an idling diesel engine, about 26 cycles per second.

"There are two means
of refuge from the misery
of life—music and cats."
–Albert Schweitzer
Zanies Crystal Ball Purrfect Wispy Close-Up Toy