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My Pet World: When a cat hisses, does that mean he doesn't like you?

Cathy M. Rosenthal, Tribune Content Agency on

Dear Cathy,

The stray tabby that showed up at our door some 10 years ago (he was six months old at the time) has been well cared for, gotten all his shots, and made annual visits with the vet. All in all, he’s had a very spoiled (normal) life here. He has all his claws and is an indoor/outdoor cat who enjoys both environments.

My question is, he recently started hissing. Not at anyone, but he'll amble down the hallway and let out a Metro-Goldwyn Mayer lion-type yawn with a hiss. When it started, a friend with lots of cats scoffed, and said, "It's hairballs." But its frequency increased so much we took him to the vet. Our regular doctor was out of town, and the doctor on duty could find nothing wrong. They took x-rays and examined him, and everything looked great: no blockages, fish bones, or whatever stuck in the passageway.

That was about three weeks ago, but now the yawn/hiss is becoming regular. It's not in anger (necessarily), as he can be in your lap and hiss as you pet him. Is he just becoming a "grumpy old man," or what? Should we revisit the vet, albeit the one that's known him for 10 years?

— Peter, Monkton, Maryland

Dear Peter,


Very often, people think that when a cat hisses at them, the cat must not like them. That’s not true because cat hissing is considered an involuntary reaction that occurs when a cat is startled, stressed, afraid, overstimulated, or in pain. So, I am glad you realize that it’s nothing personal and are considering all the possibilities.

First, rule out illness and pain. So, yes, please visit your regular doctor who may suggest bloodwork. Veterinarians recommend that every dog and cat get bloodwork done annually when they become a senior pet, which happens around 10 years old for cats. Even if they don't find anything, this is an excellent way to get in front of future health issues.

Your friend is also right that it could be hairballs even if he didn’t vomit any. Cats that are losing their hearing also startle easily and will hiss, so please talk to your vet about both these possibilities.

Next, if there’s no health problem, is he getting startled by something? Pay attention to when he is hissing. Has he been overstimulated or overwhelmed right before this happens? Did someone make a loud noise, drop something, or run through the house? If yes, that is something you can manage for him.


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