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Why Do Cats Like Boxes?

Cats in boxes; a cliché with scientific explanations.

Cats inside cardboard boxes . . . it's so common that it's become cliché. Why do cats like boxes so much?

There has been some research into this issue, and it seems likely that there are multiple reasons for cats to go crazy for cardboard boxes.

Boxes Provide Great Hidden Observation Posts

In the wild, cats are predators. They often find hidden spots from which they can observe an area where prey is moving around. Our domestic cats enjoy this activity as well; they like to watch their humans and housemates from a spot where they feel invisible. Cardboard boxes, with sides that a cat can crouch behind, fulfill a cat's desire to be hidden.

Boxes Are Fabulous Places from Which to Pounce

Not only are boxes great for unobtrusive observation, they are perfect for jumping out and pouncing on unsuspecting passersby. This is another behavior that harkens back to our housecats' wild roots. A predator will hide and observe, waiting for the exact right moment to leap out, surprising his prey. This gives the fearsome hunter an advantage when his target is too shocked to run for a second. Without the need to hunt for survival, your cat still likes to play "big, scary lion" and pounce on your feet or the other cats in the home.

Cats Are Curious

When you bring something new into a cat's environment, he will be sure to check it out. Nothing in his territory goes unnoticed by your feline pal and nothing goes unexplored. Cardboard boxes are no exception; part of the charm of a new empty box is that it's an exciting, unconquered property.

Boxes Are Wonderful for Scratching

Cats in boxes aren't just cute, they're happy.

Cats have an innate need to scratch. It helps them stretch their toes, paws, legs, and shoulders. It allows them to shed the outer hull of their nails, revealing the new sharper nail underneath. Cats have scent glands in their paws, so scratching also serves as a way of leaving scent trails and also visible marks for other cats to notice; it's a territory marking behavior. Cardboard boxes are very satisfying objects to scratch. Your cat's nails can sink into the material, which feels great and makes a pleasing noise. Scratching a cardboard box leaves nice visible grooves, too.

Boxes Are Warm

Cats love to be warm. They will lie in sunny spots, lounge near heat registers, and they like to curl up in little heat-conserving, furry balls. Cardboard is a great heat-retaining material. A small cardboard box that a cat has to cram himself into a ball to fit into is probably the warmest spot in your house, and your cat really digs that.

Boxes Decrease Stress

A study was recently done on cats that were entering a Dutch animal shelter. Some of the cats were given cardboard boxes in their cages and some were not. The cats were then evaluated for stress, using the Kessler and Turner Cat Stress Score, a scientific scale for quantifying stress in cats. Stress levels in the cats that were provided with boxes was much lower than in the ones without boxes. Stress decreases the response of cats' immune systems, so lower stress could result in fewer infectious disease outbreaks in shelters. Giving cats cardboard boxes in your home could decrease the chances of them developing stress-related negative behaviors during situations that normally cause cats to be upset, such as the following:

  • When you first bring a new cat home
  • When you bring new cats, dogs, or people into the home
  • In multiple cat households
  • During holidays
  • Before and after a move
  • After a trip to the veterinarian

It's Not Just Cardboard Boxes

big cats exploring and enjoying boxes, just like little cats do.

Cardboard boxes are great for their insulating factor, they are conducive to great scratching, and they are plentiful and disposable. But cats love any kind of enclosed spaces for lying in wait. These include suitcases, sinks, plastic storage bins, and cupboards. The only type of box that housecats seem to hate is the cat carrier!

And just in case you've ever wondered if domestic cats are the only members of the feline family that love cardboard boxes, check out this adorable video of big cats enjoying them too: Big Cats Love Boxes Too!

References

C.M. Vinke, L. G. (2014, September 19). Will a hiding box provide stress reduction for shelter cats? Retrieved from Applied Animal Behavior Science: Official Journal of the International Society for Applied Ethology: http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591(14)00236-6/abstract

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