Why do cats spit?

Expert contributor

Nicky Trevorrow

Behaviour Manager at
Cats Protection
Expert contributor

Brian Faulkner

Veterinary Surgeon
RCVS Registered

Concerned about your cat spitting? With the help of Nicky Trevorrow, Behaviour Manager at Cats Protection, we look at what might trigger this habit – and what you can do about it.


As cat owners, we’ve probably seen our pet in the classic ‘Halloween cat’ pose – back arched, tail bushy, ears flattened. And we’ve heard the noises that accompany it – the snake-like hiss, the high-pitched yowl and, for some, a forceful spitting sound.

‘A cat's spit is a sudden intake of breath and then a quick, violent-sounding exhale. It’s much shorter than a hiss,’ says registered clinical animal behaviourist Nicky Trevorrow, Behaviour Manager at leading feline welfare charity Cats Protection. ‘Although there may be some droplets of moisture, it’s classed as a sound – it’s not a physical spit with saliva.’

Cats are highly territorial, so they are likely to display this type of body language when they feel threatened by another creature on their territory. This might be a neighbouring cat or dog – or even the vacuum cleaner!

Contrary to popular belief, a cat that spits is not being spiteful. Spitting is far more likely to be a sign of stress or vulnerability than offensive aggression. ‘A spitting cat is experiencing fear, anxiety or frustration,’ says Nicky. ‘For example, they may be confronted by another cat, and there is the frustration of not being able to escape. People tend to look at this sort of situation and think “that cat’s being mean, and that one is the victim”, but actually it’s a really stressful encounter for both cats.’

‘Spitting is a heightened emotional response, so you’re not going to be able to distract a spitting cat,’ advises Nicky. ‘Don’t try to offer treats or affection. Going towards them is going to make them hiss more, so you need to back off – much like a cat in a confrontation. Don’t turn around, but slowly and smoothly retreat so they don’t give chase.

‘When cats spit at you, give them far more time to recover than you think they need. Studies have shown that levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in a cat’s body can be elevated for at least a couple of hours after they’ve felt anxious or threatened.’

If your cat is spitting and hissing at a rival, Nicky says it’s important to intervene, but never try to pick either of the cats up. ‘Owners tend to rush in and try to scoop up their own cat, but if they do this they are extremely likely to be on the receiving end of redirected aggression.’

If two cats are locked in a face-off, Nicky suggests breaking the visual contact between them. ‘Wear protective footwear and clothing, and make sure doors are open so your own cat can come back to the house. Then go out and form a physical barrier between the two cats using a big, thick blanket, towel or sheet. Wait and eventually one of the cats should retreat and run away.’

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Pain

Like biting, spitting is often a sign of pain in cats. If your cat suddenly starts spitting or hissing when they haven’t done so before, get them checked by a vet to see whether there could be a medical reason. ‘If you’re taking your cat to a vet or behaviourist because of their hissing and spitting, it’s helpful if you can take along a video of their behaviour; or, even better, a video diary,’ advises Nicky

Mating

Mating is short and painful for cats, and the queen cat may hiss, swipe and possibly spit during it.

Old age and dementia

Elderly cats can get confused and have difficulty recognising people, particularly if their eyesight or hearing are failing. They might perceive something or someone familiar as a threat and hiss or spit in response.

Motherhood

A mother cat will be fiercely protective of her kittens and hiss or spit at anything she thinks could endanger them.

Dribbling and drooling

Some cats dribble or drool when they’re feeling content. This pleasure response, often accompanied by kneading paws, is a throwback to kittenhood when they would knead while suckling to obtain milk from their mother

Missing teeth, a lacerated tongue, mouth infection or facial deformity can also cause cats to drool. If your cat starts to dribble when they haven’t done so before, take them to the vet quickly, as it could be a sign of injury or poisoning

Excess saliva or mucus

If you ever see your cat spitting up mucus or excess saliva, seek veterinary attention urgently. Excessive drooling can be a sign of serious health conditions, such as poisoning, seizures or kidney disease, so get your pet checked as soon as possible.

Spitting up

It’s quite common for cats to spit up indigestible substances, such as fur balls or grass, but if you’re concerned it’s happening too often, or your cat has suddenly started spitting up having never done it before, seek advice from your vet. If your pet suffers regularly with fur balls, regular grooming and special kibble (dry food) can help


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