Animal IQ

Why Do Cats Love Boxes?

One long-suffering rule of cat ownership is the more you pay for something, the less interested in it your cat will be. Automatic laser-pointer toy? She'll have the cap from the milk jug, thanks. Scratching pad that looks like a DJ turntable? Meh, the sides of the couch are much more satisfying. Cat-sized hammock that took you an hour to set up? She'd rather not, but that box it came in — now that looks tempting. Why are cats so crazy about boxes? Science has a few answers.

It Reminds Them of Mom

To understand the behavior of domesticated cats (and we use that adjective loosely), it's good to take a look at how their feline cousins act in the wild. When mother cats are about to give birth, they make a nest in a small, secluded area that's protected from predators. Domesticated cats do this too — if you've ever had a pregnant cat on your hands, you may have noticed her take up shop in a guest closet or some other hard-to-find spot. Once the kittens are born, everyone snuggles in those cozy quarters together.

But snuggling isn't just nostalgic; it also triggers morphine-like chemicals in the brain called endorphins. Many animals can get the same effects from a gentle squeeze. In 1989, Temple Grandin, along with Nicholas Dodman and Louis Shuster, demonstrated when they applied "flank pressure" to piglets by gently squeezing them in a padded chute, the animals quickly relaxed. But when another group of piglets was given a drug to block the effects of endorphins and then got the same squeeze test, it took them nearly double the amount of time to calm down. The cozy confines of a nest or box may provide that same endorphin-boosting squeeze for a cat.

It Helps Them Stalk Their Prey

As hard as it is to believe when they gingerly paw at a spider you'd like them to kill, cats are ambush predators. You can't exactly sneak up on something when you're out in the open. A box gives them an excellent hiding space from which to watch their prey before they pounce, then retreat when the work is done.

It Lets Them Be the Introverts They Are

Cats are not exactly outgoing creatures. There's a reason people don't hook their cats up for playdates the way they do with dogs. According to "The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour," "Cats do not appear to develop conflict resolution strategies to circumvent agonistic encounters by avoiding others or decreasing their activity." A 1999 study found that in households with two cats, half of the cats' time was spent out of each other's sight, even though they were usually within 10 feet (3 meters) of each other. If I can't see you, you can't see me!

It's no wonder, then, that when you give shelter cats boxes to hide in, they're a lot happier for it. In a small 2014 study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Dutch researchers demonstrated that cats who were given boxes to hide in adapted more quickly and were less stressed than cats who didn't have the boxes. When you're an introvert forced to be around a bunch of strangers, it's nice to have a place to chill out by yourself every so often. If only college dorms came with hiding boxes.

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For more help understanding our feline friends, check out the National Geographic publication "How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language," by Aline Alexander Newman and Gary Weitzman DVM MPH. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer October 28, 2017

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