Anyone who has spent significant time around a cat is familiar with the purring creature’s love of boxes and other small spaces. Immediately after you remove an item from its cardboard container, your furry feline friend checks out the empty box and usually jumps inside. Maybe they just need some space from their Pet Parents. Or are there deeper meanings behind this behavior?
Cats love the vantage point a cardboard box gives them, but boxes have other purposes for cats as well. Most of their behavior around boxes is related to their ancestral roots, a natural part of a cat’s life. Let’s see what some of these purposes and attractions are!
The Root of the Behavior
Cats have a long genetic memory and the modern domesticated feline exhibits many of the same behaviors their ancestors did. Arguably, the best-understood one is the predator instinct. In the savannahs and jungles of the past, big cats lived by their ability to hunt smaller animals for their high-protein diets. One of the strongest instincts passed down through generations is stalking and pouncing on prey.
Another study discovered that cats are also drawn to box-like virtual squares on the floor, known as “Kanizsa Squares.” These 2D square suggestions will be sought out consistently by many cats even though they don’t have physical sides. To these cats, the suggestion of a box is as useful as the real thing.
Hiding in boxes feels like safety and protection to cats. They are protected from danger on 3 sides and can see anything approaching from the front, enabling them to duck inside and hide. The safety and protection of boxes are akin to big cats hiding in caves, trees or foliage where they can observe their prey without being observed themselves. Reaching a paw out of their hiding spot, or jumping out suddenly to attack a passing Pet Parent foot or leg comes naturally to them. A box also keeps the cat warm. Many human home environments are a bit chilly for cats, and curling up inside a tight space conserves body heat, as does the natural insulation a box bestows.
Cats experiencing new situations have a strong instinctive attraction to boxes. A study at the University of Utrecht showed that newly-arrived shelter cats fare better if they have enclosed spaces like boxes where they can hang out. The same is likely true for newly-adopted felines, who will adjust to their new home and family more easily if a box is available to them.
Encouraging the Behavior
Boxes and other small, secure spaces like laundry baskets and closets duplicate the purr-fect warmth they remember from curling up next to their mothers when they were kittens. If lined with a warm blanket or towel, a box will almost always attract a cat. In fact, even zoos and wildlife reserves use boxes to provide places of warmth and security for their big cats. Box-like shelters for feral cats provide them with warmth, safety and security.
Cats’ behavior with boxes represents no harm to their Pet Parents, maybe with the exception of an ankle attack from time to time. It can, and should be, encouraged as an enhancement to their lives. There are a few ways Pet Parents can encourage their felines’ enjoyment of their boxes:
- Line the box with a blanket to make it cozier and warmer
- Cut a hole in one end, just big enough to accommodate the cat so they can enter and exit stealthily. and sit just inside the opening to watch the world go by
- Slip a box into the cats’ carrier. The box may make it easier to attract and transport Fluffy. Be sure to cut an entrance in the front so they can get in easily
- Scatter a few boxes around the house if you have room to encourage Sylvester to use the boxes wherever they are
- Cats sleep 18 to 20 hours a day, and will probably use a box to sleep in if one is provided, especially if it’s near a window
Other Solutions and Considerations
The study of cat behavior, including their love of boxes, is ongoing. The “Kanizsa Square Illusion” experiment can be done at home and might offer some interesting insights into your own cat and its perceptions. Some would describe the experiment as visual trickery, but a cat’s cognitive perception of shapes of familiar things might be useful for further study. If you try it, avoid all interaction with your cat while they’re deciding what to do. We suggest you wear sunglasses to hide your eyes.
Just as we treat our felines with food, treats and toys, an effort to help them find places to act on their instincts in harmless ways will enrich their lives, and yours. It’s something that might make you feel better about recycling the containers our purchases are packed in while entertaining our purr-fect pets. Be sure to visit Wag!’s web page to learn more about our pets’ behaviors.
By Leslie Ingraham
Published: 08/12/2021, edited: 08/12/2021