Everybody who has been owned by a cat at any time in his or her life knows that there’s nothing like a fluffy, furry box of feline goodness. Where there’s a box, there’s a cat or two. It’s hard to tell whether you or your kitty is more excited when the big brown UPS truck delivers that distinctive Amazon.com package. A box coming into the house is the highlight of a cat’s day. Boxes are for mischief and for napping. No matter how many fancy pet beds you buy, your cat craves cardboard boxes — and they’re even better when they are just a tiny bit too small. Cat muffins overflow their boxes in houses around the world.
It’s actually instinctive for cats to hide. They’re natural hunters and sheltering allows them to stalk their prey. Even though they get plenty of canned food and kitty treats, their brains still tell them that they need to hide and need to hunt. Reddit.com famously discovered that cats will even try to conceal themselves in a circle of masking tape. The cats in this experiment didn’t know each other or see each other — they were connected only by the Internet. Yet kitty after kitty tried to hide in plain sight. Their desire to conceal themselves is so strong that they will try to create hiding places even when it’s clearly impossible (but downright adorable!).
Cats hide in boxes because they are hunters. But even though they have evolved to be predators, cats have historically been prey as well. So, another reason why cats are instinctually drawn to boxes is that they represent safety. Cats, like toddlers, operate on the theory that if they can’t see you, you can’t see them. When they are in boxes taller than they are, they firmly believe that they are invisible and therefore invincible. Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, agrees that “Cats like boxes because they are cryptic animals; they like to hide. And a box gives them a place of safety and security.”
Another theory is that cats are also driven to seek the nurturing that they experienced when they snuggled with their mothers and their littermates. Boxes allow them to feel warm and enclosed. A Dutch study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science seems to bear this out. New shelter cats who were offered boxes to sit in consistently showed less stress and adapted to their environment faster than the box-less control group. The power of the box was clear. “Cats provided with a hiding box were able to recover faster in their new environment compared to cats without a hiding box… In summary, the hiding box appears to be an important enrichment for the cat to cope effectively with stressors.”
This was also replicated at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California Davis; again, shelter cats who were offered boxes were less stressed. Postdoctoral fellow Mikel Delgado explains that “Cats’ thermoneutral zone — where they’re not expending any energy to cool off or get warm — is between 85 and 100 degrees, so some cats probably like boxes because the cardboard might retain some of the cat’s body heat.” She adds that “I think the box might give the cat a sense of concealment while they’re waiting to see if a mouse or small prey item might come along. They like the option of being able to stalk behind cover.”
There are plenty of evolutionary reasons why cats might want to hide in boxes. It could also be cats’ natural tendency to be anti-social. Cats are not excellent at conflict resolution. We’ve all seen them deliver a few swats to a sibling and then scoot away down the hall. Boxes are just another way for them to avoid conflict; remember, if they can’t see you, you can’t see them. A cardboard box is the best way to end an argument with a sibling or escape a scolding from a human. Boxes are sanctuary. Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant and owner of TheCatCoach.com, agrees that “All animals have different coping mechanisms. This is a cat’s way of dealing with stress.” We have all seen that in action. Cats seek out boxes when they are unhappy and the boxes make them happy.
University of Delaware snow leopard researcher Imogene Cancellare concurs that big cats are not all that different from housecats: “I would imagine it has something to do with predatory behavior and having a vantage point… Plus general weirdness.” (This woman knows her cats!) It is true that wildcats are as drawn to cardboard boxes as their domestic cousins. Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida has thoroughly documented this phenomenon with an enormous collection of enormous boxes for enormous cats who hop in and hunker down. Even the fiercest of predators will succumb to the lure of a giant appliance box. If you have nothing to do for the next week, check out the videos on YouTube.
To sum it up: Hiding in boxes is a way for cats to get something to eat. It’s also a way for them not to get eaten themselves. Boxes remind them of their mothers and littermates. Boxes reduce stress. Boxes help them avoid social unpleasantness. Maybe the question shouldn’t be “why do cats like boxes so much?” but rather “why don’t humans like boxes this much?” It feels like boxes are a pretty good solution to most of the world’s problems! As always, cats know what’s important in life.