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It's a familiar scene: The package you've been anxiously awaiting finally arrives, you take out the cool new purchase, and your cat ... sits in the box. Why do cats like cardboard so much? Is it just for fun, or is there a scientific reason for the relationship between cats and cardboard boxes? It's a bit of both, actually.
Why Do Cats Like Cardboard Boxes?
Cats are quirky — it's one of the qualities that makes them so lovable. They spy on you, stare at walls and spend hours curled up in small spaces. Their favorite place? A box. Essentially, boxes are secure places where they can seek refuge from the environment and predators. And it's not just cardboard boxes; cats also like to hide in other small spaces such as under beds, in the back of closets and even in sinks.
You think of your cat as a bundle of fur that you can hold in your lap and cuddle. In their mind, however, they're a big cat prowling the savanna and need a hideout. "Cats simply like to squeeze themselves into small spaces where they feel safe and secure," explained the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. "For them, it is far better than being exposed to danger in wide-open spaces." Boxes also provide warmth similar to what kittens receive from their moms. If your fur baby has a specific napping box, place a blanket or towel in it for maximum comfort.
Cats love their creature comforts, but they are natural predators and retain their wild instincts even when they're hanging out with their humans in climate-controlled homes. Cats are pouncers and will hide in a box to stalk their prey, noted Pet Health Network — and that prey is usually your feet. Feel free to offer your cat a feather toy or other prey-like toy instead.
Because the relationship between cats and cardboard boxes is rooted in comfort, organizations like Best Friends Animal Society recommended setting up a box (with entrance holes on at least one side) as a hiding spot where newly adopted cats can feel safe while acclimating to their home. The security of a snug spot with sturdy walls helps reduce the stress associated with a new living environment.
And now there's science to back up this observation. According to a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, the boxes do, indeed, help to reduce stress.
The study found that shelter cats given cardboard box hiding spots adapted more quickly to their environment change than those cats without boxes, reaching the conclusion that "the hiding box appears to be an important enrichment for the cat to cope effectively with stressors in a new shelter environment the first weeks after arrival." This is great news for pet parents, knowing that a seemingly simple cardboard box can offer so much relief.
For the Fun of It
Scientific evidence aside, there's no denying that cats like to hang out in boxes just for fun, too. Boxes are places where kitties can sleep, sit and play. Why do cats like cardboard, in particular? They can chew or scratch the sides and not get in trouble for it like when, say, they use the couch as a scratching post.
Why Does My Cat Like A Cardboard Box More Than Their Carrier?
We've already identified that cats like small, dark spaces to hide away to make them feel safe and secure, which you would think would be a good description of a cat kennel or carrier. However, the last time you even got your cat carrier out of the closet your cat took off running to hide in one of their secret spots? So, why do cats have such an aversion to a kennel or a carrier. Well, the short answer is that cats are smart creatures and have good memories. Cats can recall the last association with that cat carrier, which might have been a trip to the vet or moving that they didn't love so much. Check out this article on how to get your cat used to their cat carrier.
New cat parents should stock up on several cardboard boxes and strategically place them around the house (hide-and-seek, anyone?) as a form of enrichment.
Before tossing your cardboard boxes into the recycling bin, consider whether it will make the perfect play place for your furry friend!
Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is a professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA), a STEAM educator, and a devoted pet parent. Her work also has appeared in Fit Pregnancy, What to Expect When You're Expecting Word of Mom, and Care.com. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien