Why Cats Love Cardboard Boxes

How many of us have purchased an expensive carpeted climbing tree for our cat, only to discover that Kitty’s favorite hide out is still the empty Amazon box from yesterday’s delivery?

A Reader’s Digest article I read in my doctor’s office offered some explanations for this feline fascination. There’s the obvious predation advantage: Cats are ambush predators, and boxes provide great hiding places to stalk prey from (and retreat to). But there’s much more going on here.

Dutch animal behavior researchers provided hiding boxes for a group of newly arrived cats at a Dutch animal shelter, while depriving another group of cats access to boxes entirely. The researchers found a significant reduction in the stress levels of cats that had boxes compared to those who didn’t. The box cats got used to their surroundings faster, were far less stressed early on, and were more interested in interacting with humans.

Hiding is their method of dealing with stress. I sometimes see cats run across the exam table to hide in the sink, and often we will leave stressed cats in the bottom half of their carriers for an exam which usually makes the whole process much calmer for all involved. When we hospitalize cats, we provide what we call “hidey boxes” for them, which most take advantage of.

According to a 2006 study the thermoneutral zone for a domestic cat is 86 to 97 F. In that range they don’t have to expend any energy to heat or cool themselves. Our neutral range in our houses is 20 degrees cooler, so it’s no wonder cats sleep on top of radiator boxes or seek out that sunny spot on the floor. Corrugated cardboard is a great insulator, and confined spaces force the cat to curl up, which helps to preserve body heat.

So, mystery solved. Boxes are insulating, stress-relieving comfort zones where a cat can hide, relax, sleep, and occasionally launch a sneak attack against it’s animal house mates or the huge, unpredictable apes they live with.

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