No one knows for sure why cats like boxes so much, but enclosed spaces provide a number of benefits, including safety, comfort, and opportunities to surprise prey from a hidden location, all of which may contribute to the feline affinity for small, enclosed spaces.
An enclosed space provides protection from predators such as coyotes because cats that hide are less likely to be seen and more difficult to attack if they are spotted. Having places to hide would have been critical to the survival of wild cats, the ancestors of our modern house cats, and domestic felines have retained the instinct to keep themselves safe by seeking hiding spots.
Cats often retreat to enclosed spaces when they are in conflict with other household pets or people, especially if they fear physical attack. However, they may also retreat when they are angry at others because it gives them an opportunity to calm down and avoid picking a fight.
Those who foster feral cats and kittens for animal rescue organizations know that providing boxes or kitty condos can significantly reduce the anxiety of terrified new arrivals. Boxes make cats feel safe in unfamiliar places. They can observe their new environments through holes in their hiding spots and emerge when they feel confident that no one will attack them, so boxes give them a feeling of control in frightening situations. Many of the rescue cats we foster view us differently after we provide a box, possibly because they understand that a predator would not offer a sanctuary.
Our observations accord with the findings of a quarantine cattery study by Vinke et al. (2014). Stress was measured using the Kessler and Turner Cat-Stress-Score assessment scale, which incorporates behaviours, body postures, and mood indicators such as pupil dilation and ear and whisker positions. Cameras were used rather than having people continuously monitoring the cats to prevent human observer effects. The researchers found that cats with boxes showed less stress, and that cats without boxes attempted to hide behind whatever was available, such as their litter trays, indicating their desperate psychological need for hiding spaces.
Many cats also love containers that are too small or open to be good hiding spaces. They squeeze themselves into little open-top boxes, sinks, flowerpots, bowls, cooking pots, and anything else that will accommodate them (the ‘if-I-fits-I-sits’ principle). This is probably a heat-seeking behaviour, as cats are more comfortable in warm environments where they can relax and don’t have to expend metabolic energy keeping their bodies warm. Curling up in small containers helps them maintain a higher body temperature with no effort.
It’s also possible that tight containers feel comforting, like a hug. Being squeezed into a small warm space may evoke the comfort and safety of early kittenhood when they spent their days squeezed in cozily among littermates and against their mothers’ bodies. A box may be particularly comforting if it has an appealing scent (for example, a beloved human companion’s unwashed clothing or catnip).
The comforting effects of small enclosures may explain why cats gravitate to tape squares on the floor, an amusing phenomenon that has been well-documented on the internet. Many people have found that if they stick duct tape to the floor to make squares, their cats will come over and sit in them, likely because the outlines are perceived as symbolic boxes, with the imaginary enclosures providing psychological benefits such as stress reduction.
Unlike animals that hunt in packs, cats are solitary predators because they usually catch prey only large enough to feed one. Because they receive no help in chasing down and subduing their prey, they often ambush rodents or birds from hiding spots, which increases the likelihood of obtaining a meal while reducing the risk of being injured by a prey animal.
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- Dodman, N. (2017). “Why cats love to sit on squares.” PBS News Hour, PBS.org.
- Gardiner, B. (2015). “Why do cats love boxes so much?” Wired, Wired.com.
- Vinke, C. M.; Godijn, L. M.; & Van der Leij, W. J. R. (2014). “Will a hiding box provide stress reduction for shelter cats?” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 160, 86-93.