The other day, a kitten came into the clinic for his 4 month exam and vaccines. He was a ball of energy and wanted to climb up me so I took out a toy from one of the cabinet drawers to play with him. This toy was a small wand with bells and feathers on it. I whisked the trailing feathers on the floor by him.

Poor fellow – the toy must have startled and scared him – he puffed up and hissed. I put the toy on the floor for him to examine – he approached tentatively, smelled the feathers and hissed again, so I put the toy away.

Later, when the doctor came into to do his examination, I pulled the toy out of the cabinet to show her; the kitten saw it and hissed again.

Why do cats hiss? What does it mean?

Domestic cats are capable of making at least 21 discrete vocalizations; our cats use these sounds to communicate with us – each cat has his/her own repertoire of sounds to tell us what he/she wants or feels.

How the hiss is made

The hiss is a long forceful exhalation made with the mouth open and the teeth bared. A hiss is a hiss – hisses among cats sound similar – it is a “voiceless” communication. The hiss can be made in a number of situations – we must look to the context and body language to interpret it.

When do cats hiss?

  • when they are afraid: Although we may associate hissing with anger and aggression, cats are more likely to hiss when they are afraid; it is usually the defensive cat who hisses in the cat fight. When accompanied by the fur standing on end, dilated pupils, and a cringing posture, the message is “I am afraid; leave me alone. I will defend myself if I have to.”
  • when they are startled – the “fight or flight” response is triggered; fur may be standing on end while the cat assesses the situation – is there danger?
  • when they are in pain – a hiss might mean don’t touch my “ouchy” spot – it hurts!
  • when they are frustrated/displeased – a cat may hiss when things are not going his way. My cat, Gus, will hiss when waiting for dinner (if service is slow!) or when another cat gets in his way. These hisses tend to be short and are not accompanied by fur on end, dilated pupils or change in posture.

Other thoughts on why cats hiss

  • Some experts think that cats hiss to mimic a snake and scare off attackers. Early mammals evolved in a landscape dominated by reptiles, which could be deadly. Evolutionarily, the hiss is coupled with fear for many mammals.  Perhaps, cats are taking advantage of this connection of the hiss with fear.
  • While we may hush a baby to soothe it or shush someone to keep them quiet, your cat may not interpret these sounds the same way. Instead, shhh and hush may sound like a hiss to her, perhaps triggering a fearful/anxious response.

Back to our kitten friend, his initial hiss with his fur puffed up was due to being startled, with the accompanying rush of adrenalin as he did not know if this toy was dangerous.

When the kitten smelled the toy, he hissed again but without fear (no puffy fur) – perhaps he could smell other cats on this toy and this made him a little anxious (are these other cats who played with this toy friendly?)

He hissed again on seeing the toy from across the exam room, letting us know he did NOT like that toy!

In the video below, Gus and Marley are waiting for treats. Gus swats Marley and then gives a long hiss. His body posture is not tense, although he turns to the side to look more threatening; his fur is not puffed up. He is warning Marley to keep his distance (“and don’t even think of going for my treats!”)

Humans may curse or swear when they are annoyed, startled, excited, or in pain – cats, on the other hand, hiss. The hiss tells us the cat is experiencing a negative emotion.  Before handling him, look to his body language to see if he is afraid, reacting to a painful stimulus or merely annoyed.

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Cat with half-closed eyes

You’re reading a book in bed, your cat curled up alongside you. You look over at him and he meets your gaze with several blinks, half-closing his eyes. The feline “slow blink” has been likened to a smile; the meme “i slow blink you so much” infers that the “slow blink” is a sign of affection, of positive feelings when cats slow blink.

Cats don’t “smile” in the way humans do. Humans are said to have up to 19 different smiles, due to our faces having 42 muscles to shape them. Does the feline “slow blink” fill the same role as the human smile?

the duchenne smile in humans

The so-called “Duchenne” smile, which some think indicates genuine happiness, can be accompanied by activity in the left frontal cortex of the brain, a part of the brain associated with enjoyment. The Duchenne smile is that smile that reaches the eyes, wrinkling the skin around the eyes into “crows feet”.

Does the “Duchenne” smile signal true happiness? Skeptics point out that it can be faked; the smile may just be  a way of sending a message to those we are interacting with that we are friendly, willing to work together or want to go out on a date. We may not be genuinely happy at the time.

Cats slow blink – a cat smile?

Tasmin Humphrey and her colleagues set out to learn more about the “slow blink”. They designed two sets of experiments to answer:

  • Do cats respond to humans that slow blink?
  • Are cats more likely to approach an unknown human after a slow blink interaction?

To answer the first question, cats were tested in a familiar room at home. The owner was instructed to sit in front of the cat and, once the cat made eye contact, do a series of “slow blinks”. Cameras were set up to record the cat’s face and the owner’s face. The slow blink trials were a paired with a “no interaction” trial, where the owner was in the room but did not sit in front of the cat or interact with the cat.

The second set of experiments involved an unfamiliar person in place of the owner. In this experiment, the control was a neutral face and no direct eye contact. The owner remained in the room during these trials but did not interact with the cat.

Humphrey and her colleagues found that:

  • Cats were more likely to “slow blink” back if their owners “slow-blinked” them
  • Cats were more likely to approach an unknown human who “slow blinked” them

The slow blink and the cat-human bond

Direct stares are hostile in the cat’s world – he needs to keep a steady, open eye on possibly dangerous people, animals and situations. When one cat fixes another with an unblinking stare, trouble is brewing – the passive aggressive stare can precede active aggression.

Breaking the stare with blinking, shows that the cat is relaxed and not on high alert. Cats not only “slow blink” humans, they have been seen to “slow blink” other cats. The “slow blink” may indicate a level of trust between human and cat or between cat and cat.

Like the Duchenne smile in humans, the “slow blink” may indicate that the cat is feeling relaxed, calm and happy or it might also just be a message, like the “solicitation purr”, asking for food, head rubs, or just more interaction.  But perhaps cats slow blink us because they trust us and share a bond with us.

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Why do cats purr? What does a purr mean? I would say that most of us think of a purring cat as contented. I wondered if there was more to the purr – my ex-street cat, Gus, does not seem to purr at all.

Contented Cat

How cats purr

Purring seems effortless. People who study purring say that the opening and closing of the vocal folds (vocal cords) in the cat’s larynx while he breathes in and out produces the sound we call “purring”.

Purring is different from other vocalizations such as meowing because it occurs not only when the cat breathes out, but also when he breathes in. Meowing, hissing, chirping, for example, occur only on expiration, when breathing out.

Purring is a low frequency sound (25-150 Hz) and does not vary much in frequency. Vocalizations like the meow are higher frequency sounds. They are generated by vibrations of the vocal folds in the larynx. Changes in the tension (length) of the vocal folds produce sounds with a range of several octaves at frequencies exceeding 100 Hz.

The cat can control the separation of his vocal folds independently of their length (or tension).  So the cat can purr while he is meowing!

the cats that roar and the cats that purr

Around 1916, Reginald Innes Pocock divided the cat family into the “cats that roar” (lion, tiger, jaguar, leopards) and the “cats that purr” (domestic cats, cheetahs). This classification was based on the anatomy of the hyoid bone, a u-shaped bone in the neck that supports the tongue. Currently, the hyoid bone is not thought to determine whether or not a cat can purr (indeed, snow leopards can purr).  The classification of cat species is now based on molecular characteristics, eg. DNA.

when cats purr

So, cats purr as they breathe in and out and their vocal folds open and close. When do they purr?

Feline guru John Bradshaw notes that cats may purr:

  • when being groomed by another cat
  • a cat may purr while grooming himself
  • kittens purr while nursing and often their mother joins in
  • some cats purr when they are just walking around
  • when greeting a friendly cat
  • when in contact with another cat

Purring is not particularly loud (when compared with a howl!) and is heard over short distances; it most likely originated as a sound made by kittens, to induce their mother to feed them. Purring kittens with mama cat is the ultimate picture of contentment!

the healing purr

Cats are know to purr when they are in pain or anxious, for example, at the veterinary clinic. The purr ranges in frequency from 25 – 150 Hz. The purr of domestic cats, servals, ocelots, and pumas produce strong frequencies at 25 Hz, 50 Hz and 100 Hz.

In human medicine, the application of low frequency vibrations (25-50 Hz) has been found to inhibit bone loss and initiate bone repair.  Frequencies around 100 Hz are used to treat pain, swelling, and wounds .

Are cats able to heal themselves by purring ? Is purring a “feel good” (self-soothing) behavior? (So why isn’t Gus purring?)

The “solicitation purr”

Earlier, we noted that a cat can vocalize and purr at the same time. Cats have taken advantage of this and have developed a “solicitation purr”,  one that has a meow embedded in the purr. Cats have discovered how to use this to alert their owners to their needs, like “I want food”.

Acoustical analysis of the “solicitation purr” shows a peak around 380 Hz in the purr spectra. This frequency is more typical of a cry or meow, not the low frequency purr and is close  to the frequency of a human infant’s cry (300–600Hz)

This cry gives the “solicitation purr” its urgency that drives us to attend to the cat, giving her head rubs, food or whatever else we think she needs. It taps into our inborn sensitivity to the cries of infants, making it hard to ignore.

The purr is a lot more than the sound of a contented cat. It can also be a greeting, a self-soothing behavior or healing mechanism, or a request for someone to do something for the cat. It is a quiet sound so make sure you don’t miss it!

And back to Gus, maybe that rumbly sound in his meows when he rubs against my legs are “solicitation purrs”.  I will keep listening!

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Needs of Domestic cats

Abraham Maslow first introduced his concept of a hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. In this paper, he postulated that people are motivated by five types of needs.
He assigned a hierarchy to these needs, which are often shown in a  pyramid diagram, with physical needs at the bottom. Applying this to our cats can give us insight into the cat-human bond.

Needs and motivation

The five categories that Maslow came up with are:

  1. Physical needs (food, water)
  2. Safety
  3. Love/belonging
  4. esteem
  5. self-fulfillment (be all that you can be)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

As an individual satisfies needs in one of these categories, he is motivated to tackle the next level.

  1. What motivates behavior at the most basic level is the need to survive. We need to eat and drink to stay alive.
  2. Having satisfied these needs, the next step is to ensure that we will continue to have food and water. We need shelter and a job.
  3. Once fed and secure, we can address the need to be part of society – to belong to a group.
  4. The next level of needs is esteem: we need to value ourselves and feel that other people value us.
  5. We are now at the top of the pyramid. We can work on reaching self-imposed goals: maybe become a writer or artist, nurture extended family, or climb mountains.

Of course, there is flexibility in this hierarchy- some needs are met at the same time; for some individuals, reaching your full potential may be more important than the esteem of others.

what do cats need? wild cats

  • A wild cat’s needs begin with having prey to eat.
  • Once fed, he will find a safe place where he can sleep, eat and retreat from danger – like a den.
  • He must establish his territory where he can hunt regularly and have access to food.
  • A well-fed wildcat who hunts successfully has good prospects for mating. 
  • As far as Nature is concerned, the wildcat has reached his or her full potential once he or she has ensured that there will be another generation to hunt and mate, continuing the species.What does a wildcat need?


what do cats need? Domestic cats

Things are a bit different for the cat who lives with humans. Hunting and establishing a territory have become separate from getting enough food; our house cats are spayed and neutered, so do not have a drive to mate and reproduce. We can construct a hierarchy showing what do cats need for the cats that live with us.

the 5 pillars of a healthy feline environment

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) list five things that make a healthy environment for a cat. We can assemble these into a hierarchy of needs.

  1. Resources : food, water, litter box, shelter
  2. Safe access to resources
  3. Belonging: territory
  4. Human interaction: predictable
  5. Full potential: predatory behavior

Needs of Domestic cats

  • At the bottom of the pyramid are the needs for survival: food, water, and litter boxes.
  • The next level ensures that these essential resources are available to each cat to use safely, without fear. The cat owner should provide multiple, separate feeding and watering stations and litter boxes.
  • One of the AAFP requirements is an environment that respects the cat’s sense of smell.  Such an environment is the cat’s territory. Cats will mark walls and furniture in the home with facial pheromones and scratching posts with pheromones released when scratching. Your cat belongs to his territory.

The old way of thinking about cats as aloof and independent, would most likely consider the cat’s needs are met at this point.

What do cats need and the cat-human bond

Our cats share basic physiological needs with their wild relatives. But the domestic cat has chosen a different path and has some different needs because of his bond with his human caregiver. The two final levels of the pyramid are 4) positive and predictable human interaction and 5) the opportunity for predatory play.

  • Human Interaction: To truly feel safe and secure in her territory, a housecat needs to know how the humans in the house will behave: when will she be fed? Will they approach quietly and greet her? Will they swoop down on her and pick her up when she least expects it and hold her dangling in the air?
  • Predatory Play: The need to hunt defines who your cat is – this is what he was born to do.  We need to provide our cats with an opportunity to hunt – if it is fishing kibble out of a food puzzle or chasing a stuffed mouse at the end of a wand toy.

These last two needs bring us to the heart of the cat-human bond.

Positive and predictable interactions  allow us to communicate with our cats; predatory play helps us recognize the cat’s nature as a born hunter and allows us to share this essential part of his life.

In return for helping our cats satisfy their needs, we humans enjoy the pleasure of our cats’ company, better heart health and reduced stress and anxiety. 

“Time spent with cats is never wasted.” – Sigmund Freud

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