Hearing your cat hiss or growl can be scary. You might worry that they are going to harm you or your other pets. Hissing and growling is aggressive behavior, after all, so it needs to be stopped immediately, right?
Vocab of the Day: Ritualized Aggression
Before diving into why your cat might be hissing or growling and what to do about it, let’s explore the idea of “ritualized aggression.” This is behavior that an animal uses to communicate and is actually about preventing greater conflict. By making their feelings and boundaries clear, cats can warn one another (or humans) and hopefully avoid potentially dangerous escalation.
When viewed as ritualized aggression, your cat’s vocalizations don’t have to be seen as scary or dangerous but as information about their state of mind. As long as you respond in a way that respects that, they are less likely to escalate and cause physical harm. Hissing and growling is generally about avoiding fights and injuries.
Why Is Your Cat Hissing or Growling
If you see them as communication, your cat’s noises can take on new meaning that will help you decode their feelings and improve the situation. These vocalizations can mean different things, depending on the cat and the circumstances, but in most cases they are a “stop” signal.
Your cat is warning you and others that they are uncomfortable or fearful. By giving a warning, they are trying to change things so they can feel safe while also avoiding further aggression. You can also think of it as setting boundaries and communicating their needs. While hissing and growling can seem scary to you, these sounds are typically a sign that your cat is feeling scared themself.
What To Do
Avoid trying to punish your cat for hissing or growling. This won’t help and can make things worse. Since your cat is communicating about their fear or discomfort, punishment will only increase those feelings. If you want to change your cat’s behavior, you’ll have to help them feel safe.
Respect your cat’s feelings by backing away and stopping what you are doing if your cat hisses or growls at you. In the moment, you want to prevent your cat from escalating to more significant aggressive behavior and to let them know that their communication is effective. Cats who trust they can use vocalizations are less likely to resort to their claws and teeth. If your cat’s behavior is directed at another pet, call that pet away and give your cat a break from their attention.
If your cat frequently shows signs of fear or stress, including hissing or growling, check in with all parts of their life, such as their daily routine and home environment, to minimize stress wherever you can. This will help in general and when they are faced with more significant triggers. You can learn more about across-the-board stress reduction here.
Finally, if they can’t be avoided, teach your cat to feel safe with situations that worry them. This might include counterconditioning them to care tasks (like brushing or nail trims) or building positive associations with other pets or family members. Food rewards can play a big role in this, as long as they are used thoughtfully (learn more here).
When To Get More Help
In many cases, hissing or growling is communication used to avoid bigger conflict. That doesn’t mean you should never be concerned by it. Your cat is still giving signs that they don’t feel safe or happy and that means something needs to change. Often you can help the situation by following the steps above, but don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you aren’t seeing improvement.
In some cases, you’ll want to reach out for help sooner rather than later. This includes situations that escalate very quickly to greater aggressive behavior (scratching, biting, chasing, etc). If you or your other pets don’t have time to back away and respect your cat’s warning before the behavior intensifies, then professional support from a behavior consultant is important.
Other situations that would benefit from help include if the hissing/growling is happening more and more frequently, if it happens repeatedly during a single interaction (particularly if other pets are involved), or if other behavior changes or concerns are present (litter box avoidance, hiding or withdrawing, etc).
Don’t Panic But Listen
While having a cat hiss or growl at you or your other pets can be concerning, it is valuable communication about how your cat is feeling. Cats generally want to avoid fights and warning signs are a valuable part of understanding how they are feeling before things escalate. Listen to your cat, help them feel safe, and you’ll be on the path toward a happier, more peaceful household.
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.