The question is interesting because living, newborn kittens don’t learn to hiss. I would say that newborn kittens know how to hiss the moment they are born. They have inherited that vocal ability from their parents and grandparents and so on. This genetic history is handed down from one generation to the next. It is called genetic memory. It is the memory of the evolution of the cat. Other animals have exactly the same memories and so do humans.
So, when a cat is born, they are born with these memories in place in their brains. And therefore, a young kitten will hiss defensively at something which they think is hostile even though the kitten has never heard or seen the hiss before. He doesn’t need to be trained by his mother and he doesn’t need to observe his mother hissing at a hostile creature. It’s preprogrammed in his DNA in exactly the same way, for instance, a cat’s ability to swim is preprogrammed.
An awful lot of behavioural traits are preprogrammed like this and held in genetic memory. It is suggested, and this makes a lot of sense, that through the evolution of the cat which has taken millions of years, the cat learned that the snake’s hiss was a good deterrent to predators. This is because animals associate the hiss of a snake as something dangerous.
So perhaps, 5 million years ago an early species of cat-like creature learned to hiss through observation. Over the intervening 5 million years that skill or characteristic became embedded into the genes of all the species of cat, wild, feral, stray or domestic. So, this genetic memory must have been built before the various species of cat followed their own evolutionary path. It is at the fundamental root of the tree of the cat family.
For instance, the tiger can hiss just like the diminutive domestic cat or the even more diminutive rusty-spotted cat, the world’s smallest cat species. They all hiss. This evolutionary trait must go back millions of years. I suspect that an ancient cat called Proailurus may have learned to hiss and it gave way to what are considered to be the first members of the modern cat family, Pseudaelurus. They were prehistoric cats. They inhabited Europe, Asia and North America about 8 to 20 million years ago. They looked like modern cats. They were digitigrades – they walked on their toes and they bloody well hissed to defend themselves by scaring away predators who wanted to eat them.
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