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Science Finally Answers Why Cats Like Boxes So Much

by Steve Williams

If you’ve ever owned a cat you’ll know one thing: put an ordinary cardboard box down and before long, there your cat will be. But why do cats love boxes so? And, is there any way we can use this to improve our favorite felines’ health and well being?

This box-loving aspect of a cat’s personality has long puzzled their human carers, and it’s also caught the attention of scientists. Researchers, who published their findings in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, investigated whether hiding in boxes might reduce stress for cats in animal shelters.

While most species of dog can adapt to shelter environments relatively quickly, cats often experience high levels of stress. Previous studies have shown that cats prefer areas where they have the ability to hide, but until now scientists have not studied whether so-called “hiding enrichment” might benefit a cat’s sense of well-being and specifically if providing boxes for cats to hide in might help to ease those turbulent first few weeks in a new shelter.

To investigate this, researchers took 19 newly arrived cats in a Dutch animal shelter and randomly split them into two groups, one where the cats would be given access to hiding boxes, and one group who wouldn’t have access. The researchers then observed the cats for 14 days, and they used a scale known as the Kessler and Turner Cat-Stress-Score to estimate, based on visual clues and habits like grooming and eating, how stressed the cats were during this initial settling-in time.

The researchers found that by day three and four there were significant differences in the stress levels exhibited by cats without boxes to those who had boxes, with the cats who had hiding boxes showing a total average stress score lower than their non-box counterparts. An interesting note is that box-access seemed to reduce stress no matter the breed of cat, suggesting that this isn’t just a preference for some but a much more firmly ingrained cat trait.

At the end of the 14 day period the cats in both groups had roughly the same stress scores, but the cats in the box-access group reached that level of adjustment by the third day of the study, meaning that the other cat group was on average 10 days behind. That’s a significant difference in well-being and adaptation to the shelter environment.

Now, because the cats are in an “altered environment,” a place where their normal behaviors may be modified by the unfamiliar and quite stressful setting, we can’t say for certain that boxes provide the same stress-reducing benefits outside of this context. That said, the researchers believe it makes sense that cats–who generally prefer to hide away rather than participate in direct confrontation–would seek out boxes and other small enclosed spaces to sleep and rest because they could feel comfortable and protected.

When it comes to this study in particular, we might infer that if we are trying to settle a kitty into a new environment, for instance if you have a new rescue cat in your family, it might be a good idea to provide the cat with lots of boxes and hiding places so that they can start to feel secure in their new environment. This might speed up the settling in process, and so help the cat to come round quicker.

What other reasons are there for a cat’s box fetish? Cardboard also makes a relatively good insulator, so a cat might curl up in there because she wants to get toasty, especially in the winter months. Of course, we shouldn’t rule out certain common sense elements either: if you have a box down on a cold kitchen floor, for example, your cat may simply be choosing the warmest place to sit. And then of course there’s the play aspect: cardboard often makes a nice scratching area, so cats may also gravitate toward it for this reason, and it’s a useful spot to wait and then pounce on suspecting prey (you or another pet).

So science now has some insight into why cats love boxes.