Step away from the kitty. Do not touch the kitty. If you are holding the kitty; put it down and back away; now. This would be a good rule of thumb to follow if confronted by a growling, hissing and spitting cat if you wish to keep the thumb. For whatever reason, kitty is in attack mode. In all probability it will attack if someone steps towards it or tries to touch it. Kitty has warned you. If you move forward kitty will perceive you as an aggressor to be fought off.
That is an extreme situation. Not every growl, hiss or spit on its own means you are about to be ripped to shreds by kitty. It is still wise not to touch. The cat is communicating to you. It feels threatened, is afraid, in pain, protecting kittens, territory or food, or simply wants to be left alone. A combination of two or more of these vocalizations increases the threat exponentially.
Body language accompanying the sounds can show how intense the mood is. Ears back and flat against the sides of the cat’s head, wide eyes with dilated pupils, tail slashing side to side and maybe fur puffed up and the arch-backed witches cat pose would, on a scale of 1 – 10, be a definite 10. Ears back and lashing tail accompanied by a growl may fall into the 5 category.
Some cats growl as part of play especially if they have just ‘caught’ the catnip mouse thrown for them and consider it is their prey; no one else is going to have it. Others will growl while they are eating to show possession. This happens more in multi-cat households. A surprised cat, or two cats suddenly meeting, may emit a sharp hiss or spit and then go merrily on their way. Cats or kittens playing together may growl and hiss as part of the activity. Kittens are honing their skills for the real world of hunting and fighting.
Know your cat and its moods. Sometimes a cat needs to be handled and held for purposes it might object to. Nail clipping, grooming, medicating and putting the cat into the carrier are some occasions kitty may need to be handled but would prefer to be left alone. If in doubt, stop what you are doing and let the cat go. Have someone experienced in handling cats do what needs to be done.
If you do have to handle kitty, watch the cat’s body language. Is there a low, quiet rumbling growl accompanied by the end of the tail twitching or the whole tail moving back and forth slowly, ears back? Kitty is probably deciding whether to bite the hand that feeds it or not. Watch out and be ready to get out of the way when the decision is made. Deep, rumbling growl, tail lashing back and forth, ears back and close to the head? Stop, let the cat go and leave it alone to calm down.
Always remember, a growl, his or spit is a warning. Ignore it at your own risk.