A Boxing Day Special from vet blogger Sian!
Someone should tell our cats that they live in safe, comfortable homes in the 21st Century. Much of their behaviour harks back to the open plain existence of the African wildcat. Their ancestor had to ambush unsuspecting prey for dinner, a challenging task on a featureless savannah. Larger predators meant that rest was impossible without some sort of protection, a small cave, hollow or rock. How they would have loved a box!
Our well covered cats squeezing into tiny tissue boxes make us giggle and get the camera out. However, the cardboard box obsession is totally rational to the cat, whose instincts are still stuck in the past.
A box provides the perfect base for hunting
Totally hidden, the cat can peer out and pounce on anything that happens to walk past. Perhaps another pet, fluffy slippers or dressing gown cord. Although they are well-fed, their instincts still drive hunting behaviour. Chasing and capturing something moving is a high reward activity for a cat.
A box also makes them feel completely safe
Even though larger predators aren’t present in most of our homes, ancient memory only allows them to relax when they feel safe. Curling up in the enclosed space of a box provides protection on at least three sides, reducing stress.
Warm and snug
All cats have a higher body temperature than us, so they seek out warm or insulated places to rest and sleep. Hence the popularity of radiator beds. Boxes provide a snug place to rest with insulation conserving body heat. The smaller the better so this may be the driver for cats appearing to become liquid and pouring themselves into tiny tissue boxes and similar small receptacles.
Cats are curious creatures who love to explore new areas.
Open a sock drawer or wardrobe and they will jump in to investigate. Youtube videos may suggest that cats want to come on holiday with us, but it is really the suitcase that intrigues them. Laundry baskets are another favourite, a soft enclosed bed to generously shed hair on.
When cats feel stressed or overwhelmed, they hide or flee.
Hiding places allow them to feel more relaxed and in control. A recent study of cats in a rescue shelter studied how a group of cats coped with the stress of their new environment. Some of the cats were given boxes to hide in and others were not. Those with boxed provided adapted faster to their new environment, appearing less stressed and interacting more with caregivers (1).
Boxes are often used in veterinary practice to allow cats to hide when hospitalised. This allows cats to choose where to rest in their cats and reduces their stress (2). Hospital kennels have a clear or wire door so animals can be easily observed. This means that cats feel constantly on show and unsafe when other animals or staff members enter the ward. If a box is not provided cats will often attempt to hide in the litter tray.
Comfort and security
If you are introducing a new cat to your home or taking your cat to another home or cattery providing a box to hide in will help them adapt. A towel, blanket or piece of clothing with a familiar smell can help them feel safe. Completely shutting a box, turning it upside down and cutting a small entrance hole will provide a secure hiding place.
High sided beds can also make good hiding places. Putting treats inside a box and having the entrance facing a wall might encourage a new cat to rest when change is overwhelming. It is also easier to retrieve the cat then under the bed or behind the fridge.
A comfortable box in a high place can provide a sanctuary.
Cats love hiding places whether they are new or have lived in a home for many years. Visitors, fireworks, building work or DIY and play-dates are all good reasons for a cat to escape.
Cardboard boxes are a great favourite as the texture allows shredding, chewing or biting. A cat can show great joy play-attacking a box.
Boxes are used for environmental enrichment for big cats in zoos. A tiger sitting in a small box is a comic sight, but big cats are driven by the same instincts.
A box makes an inexpensive cat toy, ensure that you remove any staples or sticky tape in case your cat is injured.
So, why don’t cats love cat carriers? After all, they are basically boxes.
Cats will happily explore cat carriers when they are naïve about their purpose. However, after one trip in the car to the cattery or veterinary practice, the love of that particular box is over. They associate the cat carrier with unpleasant experiences and will flee as soon as it is retrieved from the attic or garage.
In summary, cats love boxes because they provide a safe, warm place to rest and a perfect hiding spot when stressed or for hunting. They will have great fun playing with and in boxes so make the most of the Christmas shopping and save money on cat toys this year.
You may also be interested in;
- Taking the stress out of a visit to the vets: what helps for cats?
- How to help stressed-out cats whose owners think they are “behaving badly”
- Why Is My Cat Tasting The Air?
- Why is my cat wheezing?
- Should I give my cat cow’s milk?
- Van der Leii, WJR, Selman LDAM, Vernooik JCM and Vinke CM. The effect of a hiding box on stress levels and body weight in Dutch shelter cats: a randomised controlled trial. (2014) Applied Animal Behaviour Science 160:86-93
- Carney HC, Little S, Brownlee-Tomasso et al. AAFP and ISFM Feline-Friendly Nursing Care Guidelines. (2012) Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 14(5): 337-349