Does a hissing sound actually attract cats?
June 12, 2021 12:54 AM   Subscribe

I have been hearing people, occasionally over the years, make little hissing noises at cats in an effort to attract them. Does this work? How do you know?

This goes very counter to my expectations: cats hiss to warn off other animals and people, and I think I've seen them flatten their ears at the sound.

The "attract hiss" sound people make is produced slightly differently than a cat's hiss. Is it possible that this is actually inviting to cats? Why do people do this?

See for example this kitten rescue video. These are fairly experienced, well-known rescuers; do they know something about hissing at kittens that I don't?

Do you? Thanks for any insight.
posted by amtho to Pets & Animals (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's a pspspsps sound!
posted by Neely O'Hara at 1:22 AM on June 12, 2021 [11 favorites]

Does this work?


How do you know?

Many, many trials on many, many cats over many, many years.

Cats can hear even a fairly quiet pspspsps at quite implausible range. As an attractant it works better on cats I know well than on cats I don't, possibly because the cats I know well have better reason than most to interpret it as a reliable offer of cuddles and snuggles and/or breakfast.

Pspspsps is a completely different sound to my approximation of the cat's own ears-back fangs-bared warning hiss, which I've also had occasion to perform a few times and which has always reliably done the job of persuading the cat I'm aiming it at to leave the scene in favour of other pursuits.
posted by flabdablet at 2:20 AM on June 12, 2021 [19 favorites]

Yup, it works on many cats! For whatever reason I’ve developed more of a tongue-click with my own cats. Really any sort of repetitive sound different enough from human speech to be worth noting will get cats’ attention.

And to my ears sounds quite distinct from a hiss. A cat hiss isn’t really a ssssssss sound at all, it’s a back-of-the-throat thing that sounds more like a German “ch”. The pitch is also quite different. I wouldn’t expect a cat to confuse them.
posted by Stacey at 3:21 AM on June 12, 2021 [5 favorites]

We have a repetitive 'pspsps' sound for attraction, in a sweet-sounding, high-pitched voice, and a 'ktssssss' sound, low pitch and lingering on the 's' until you sound like Kaa in the Jungle Book, for repelling.

Works frequently, the repellent more so.
posted by doggod at 4:08 AM on June 12, 2021

My theory is that high-pitched noises arouse curiousity in cats because they sound like the rustling and the vocalisations of mice and other small prey animals.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:34 AM on June 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

My theory is that cats are completely unable to spell, and therefore have no natural inclination to lump the gentle pspspspsps calls that humans sometimes emit into any category that also includes their own warning hisses.
posted by flabdablet at 4:52 AM on June 12, 2021 [22 favorites]

My theory is that high-pitched noises arouse curiousity in cats because they sound like the rustling and the vocalisations of mice and other small prey animals.

That makes sense, and also works with Stacey's (and my) tongue-click as an attractor - it sounds like a squirrel or a bird.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:50 AM on June 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Funny! Our cats aren't particularly attracted by pspspsps because we've never used it. Very rarely we'll hiss if they're being extraordinarily bad/dumb but they're really good cats so that hasn't happened I think in years. We just call them by name, and they come. (Really.) Also they understand a gentle "no." Such good cats.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:32 AM on June 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I can certainly imagine it getting cats' attention. If they know you and trust you to reliably give them affection or treats, then once their attention is drawn to you, they will naturally come toward you.

However, a cat who has never met you, or who hasn't had that association built up over time -- in that case, it seems like a "rustling sound" (essentially high-pitched white noise) would scare them.

I do get that it has a different sound from cat aggressive hissing.
posted by amtho at 7:00 AM on June 12, 2021

in that case, it seems like a "rustling sound" (essentially high-pitched white noise) would scare them

First off, rustling and white noise are quite distinct sounds, even for creatures like us whose hearing cuts off below 20kHz; they would be even more distinguishable for cats.

As for cats being scared by pspspspsps: in my experience, every cat who has reacted with fear to my making this noise has first had their attention attracted in my direction by it, then bolted after spending a second or two checking me out. It's apparently not the sound per se that's scared them, more the awareness of the presence of a gigantic hairy beast potentially intent on invading their personal space.
posted by flabdablet at 8:50 AM on June 12, 2021

“pspsps” happens in the front of the mouth, with the lips, teeth and tip of the tongue. The “mean hiss” happens back on the soft palate and sounds more like the ich-laut in German.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:12 AM on June 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Not an answer, but this mail cat proves its a widespread thing (federal government approved even!)
posted by vespabelle at 12:09 PM on June 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Cats have a very rich and often subtle language of body posture and facial expressions which is more complex than their vocalizations. Some of this non-verbal language can be communicated between human and cat, such as slow blinks.

Cats do not make an analogous pspsps sound, thus I think pspsps works because it makes an intriguing sound that is similar to small prey, which cats are wired to investigate. Mouth generated pspsps can also substituted with the sound your fingers make if you quickly rub the pad of your thumb several times across the pads of your index and middle fingers or scissor your index and middle fingers against each other so the attraction appears to be specific to the sound, not body posture.

During mouth pspspsp the cat will see a neutral expression on the human's face: minimal teeth showing, mouth mostly closed, and assuming the cat has been socialized to human presence, associate it with past reward even when performed by a new human contact. For unsocialized cats, it works as an initial attention getter but in line with flabdablet's experiece, not an enticement to stay.

I can call friendlies and ferals with either mouth or finger pspsps but ferals are more likely to stay and continue to observe if I use mouth pspsps so perhaps there is some feline suspicion around hands or my face is more neutral with mouth pspsps.
posted by jamaro at 2:00 PM on June 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Neely O’Hara, from that RD article: “It’s likely the “pspspsps” has roots in English: A “here, pussy, pussy, pussy” call devolved. Texas western swing band The Light Crust Doughboys helped popularize the phrase when they crooned it to the masses in their 1938 jukebox hit “Pussy, Pussy, Pussy” about a girl trying to track down her lost cat.”

posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 2:20 PM on June 12, 2021

I mean, there's a reason why "curiosity killed the cat" is a thing. Cats are smart, curious animals by nature. When they hear a sound that they don't hear very often (as noted above, pspspsps doesn't really sound like anything else), they will investigate. If you reinforce this by giving them a reward when they hear it (treats, pets, attention, etc) they'll come to associate that noise with something good and will come more often.

You could probably do this with any noise if you cared to train them to do it (lots of cats know their own name for instance), though given how often they hear human language something that just sounds like another word instead of Strange Unknown Noise is less likely to get their attention.
posted by fight or flight at 3:30 PM on June 12, 2021

Thank you for asking this question. I have been completely baffled by this sound and how it became the default of animal rescue videos the past few years. I’d never heard it before them and I’ve never once seen it deployed effectively, either in person or in the videos I watch. Certainly my lil guy had no idea or interest in it.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 8:00 PM on June 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Outdoor cats who've met different humans will have come to associate the sound with positive attention.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:31 AM on June 13, 2021

I know we're talking about a different non- aggressive sound compared to hissing, but my cats will run to the sound of outdoor cats scream-shrieking at each (safely behind a window). They are oldish, small, and would get crushed by these neighborhood cats so it doesn't make a ton of sense to me to try to get closer to a spat. But cats I guess.
posted by rawralphadawg at 12:03 PM on June 13, 2021

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