Why Cats Love Boxes and Other Small Spaces
There is no shortage of videos on the Internet that demonstrate the fascination cats have for small, enclosed spaces, and cardboard boxes in particular.
And what’s not to love about the sight of a rather large cat stuffing herself into a much smaller container… or a kitty diving head first into a cardboard box? But as silly as cats can act when presented with an empty carton, there’s actually a quite practical reason for their box-love.
Access to Hiding Boxes Reduces Stress in Shelter Cats
A team of researchers from the faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands, conducted a study of stress in shelter cats. Among their discoveries was that access to hiding boxes reduces feline stress, especially in kitties just arriving at the shelter.
The researchers decided to examine shelters because they are known to be extremely stressful environments for cats. The study involved 19 newly arrived cats at a Dutch animal shelter, only 10 of which were given access to hiding boxes.
By day 3 of the cats’ shelter stay, the researchers observed a noticeable difference between the two groups. The cats with hiding boxes were acclimating faster to the shelter environment, were significantly less stressed than the kitties without boxes, and showed more interest in interacting with humans.
According to researcher Claudia Vinke, an ethologist at Utrecht University and the lead author of the study, this makes perfect sense since the universal feline response to a stressful situation is to withdraw and hide. “Hiding is a behavioral strategy of the species to cope with environmental changes and stressors,” says Vinke.
When cats in the wild feel threatened, they head for trees, dens, or caves to seek safety. Captive kitties don’t have that option, so hiding in boxes may be an adaptation.
Boxes and Other Tight Spaces Preserve Body Heat
If you’re owned by a cat, you’ve probably noticed that boxes aren’t the only small spaces little Garfield likes to inhabit. It’s not unusual to find kitty curled up in a shoe on the closet floor, a bowl or coffee mug on the kitchen counter, an open shopping bag, a laundry basket, and even the bathroom sink.
As it turns out, there’s a good reason for this strange behavior as well: cats like it hot. Housecats feel most comfortable when their environment is 86 to 97 degrees F. In this temperature range, your kitty doesn’t need to expend metabolic energy trying to either warm up or cool down.
However, most humans require a significantly cooler temperature range to be comfortable – typically around 66 to 77 degrees F. Since most of us set our home thermostats to suit human family members, the cats who live with us must find ways to warm up their immediate environment.
Cardboard boxes provide insulation, and small spaces in general require your cat to curl up, which preserves body heat.
How You Can Help Provide Hiding Boxes for Shelter Cats
The Maddie's® Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine provides care for homeless animals, and trains veterinary students and shelter staff in how to handle the unique challenges of keeping shelter pets healthy both physically and emotionally.
The experts at Maddie's® Shelter believe shelter cats benefit greatly when given the opportunity to hide when stressed. They recommend that shelters provide hiding boxes in the form of a simple cardboard box, a Hide-Perch-and-Go box, a plastic box or cage insert, a plastic carrier, or a commercially available cat den.
If you would like to help out, the Animal Rescue Site provides one Cat Castle to a shelter cat for a $5 donation. The neat thing about this hiding box is that when a cat is adopted, the Cat Castle converts to a carrier to bring the kitty home in. Once home, the box can be converted back to provide a safe, familiar shelter that is already flooded with the cat's own scent. This can help the kitty adjust more quickly and comfortably to her new home.