Why Do Cats Like Boxes?

helloBARK! staff
By helloBARK! staff
Updated on October 17, 2020
Expert Content

If you’ve ever owned a cat, you’ll know that they love cardboard boxes.

You may have spent a lot of money on a new scratching post or cat bed but our feline friends will often show more interest in the box that the product was delivered in.

Online retailer Amazon deliver 2.5 billion packages a year across the world, providing lots of boxes for our cats to play with.

This is one of the most common questions that cat owners and cat lovers search for on Google.

So we spoke to 10 experts, ranging from vets to animal behaviorists, to find out exactly why cats love boxes.

Cat in a box (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Cat in a box (Photo: Adobe Stock)

A Box Can Be A Refuge

Dr. Mikel (Maria) Delgado, Cat Behavior Expert with Rover

Boxes are likely fun for most cats for a few reasons. First of all — it’s a novel item in your house that might have some interesting smells. You open your delivery box, take out your order, then the box might be on the floor. Your cat must investigate!! Sometimes boxes even have crinkly packing paper, and that rustling sound only adds to the intrigue.

Boxes provide cats with a sense of safety – it provides them with a place to hide – which could be advantageous if they are trying to hunt and avoid detection or to protect them from a larger predator.

Even though our indoor cats may never hunt or be hunted, their instincts are still strong and tell them to use cover when they find it! But if there is something in the environment that scares your cat, a box can be a refuge.

A box is cozy and insulating, and helps your cat preserve body heat, which is attractive to many cats, especially because they prefer ambient temperatures higher than most humans enjoy.

Boxes Can Be Physically Stimulating And Emotionally Stimulating

Dr. Shadi Ireifej DVM DACVS, chief medical officer at vettriage.com

Here we discuss why cats love boxes. These reasons can be divided into those that are physically stimulating and those that are emotionally stimulating. And in reality, the reasons why your cat loves boxes is probably some combination of both in most cases, depending on the situation.

• Physical stimulation – Cats are apex predators. They hunt by hiding, blending in their surroundings, and then pouncing upon their prey for the kill in one powerfully energetic and swift motion. So from the cryptic hiding place of a box, they can practice ambushing at home.

Playing and wrestling in a box provides exercise. Because we feed our cats, they usually do not rely on hunting for food, or exercise. So they can aggressively play with a box as a means of exercise and utilizing their energy stored from many hours of sleeping and cat napping.

The texture of a box is also a source of enjoyment. They can claw and bite it to their heart’s content, and without fear of ingesting anything dangerous. The box composition also aids in thermoregulation. Cats enjoy being in a warmer environment than most people find comfortable. Curling up in a box keeps them warm.

• Emotional stimulation – Cats are naturally curious creatures, curating the cardboard box with any cutouts it carries as a colorful means of inquisitive exploration. They thoroughly enjoy poking and prodding the holes or various openings in boxes, as these also simulate the hiding spots of small critters they would enjoy chasing.

Like other intelligent and energetic animals, cats get bored and need enrichment exercises. Boxes stimulate their mind, as a puzzle would for a human. Each box is shaped differently, has different openings, is of a different size, makes noises when played with and can be moved around. These features stimulate them mentally.

Our domesticated felines do need a place to feel safe, a private space if you will. This helps with treating anxiety, by providing them a protected place to not worry about being attacked. This is especially helpful in a multi-pet household, where not every critter gets along, or during times of scary and loud sounds, like dogs barking, sirens blaring or fireworks exploding.

Conclusion

For many reasons, allow your cat to partake in a good old fashioned cardboard box. It can even give them hours of enjoyment that is good for them both physically and emotionally. If not for anything else, consider this one means of recycling cardboard!

May Make Cats Feel Safer

Dr. Matthew McCarthy, Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine and founder of Juniper Valley Animal Hospital

This seems to be a popular question in the last couple of years – my theory is that it tracks the rise in popularity of online ordering. Amazon, in particular, seems to have the widest selection of cat friendly boxes laying around our house. I don’t think we can definitely say why cats like boxes (which goes for most things cat) but it seems to be driven by the need to stay safe.

Even though they themselves are predators, in the wild, cats are also prey to larger animals such as coyotes, bobcats, dogs, and hawks. Because of this, many of their behaviors are self-protective. Hideaways and vertical spaces in the form of boxes, shelves, and perches may make cats feel safer than being out in the open and allow for easier escape in response to a perceived threat.

Several studies have shown that cats offered a place to hide have lower stress hormones and are healthier in general (i.e. they eat better, use their litter boxes and have better bowel movements). More substantial boxes can also serve as the aforementioned perches. In addition, cardboard makes a great scratching surface, another natural activity that allows them to mark their territory with both scent and visible markings, sharpen claws, remove dead nails, and to stretch muscles. It has also been demonstrated that cats will scratch to relieve stress.

As for preparing a box, there’s not much to it. Just make sure that it is not a box closed with staples which can injure your cat, then clean it out and leave it on the floor. That’s the beauty of it. However, when your cat is in in what is now their box, it is important that you leave them alone as it is their safe space. The last thing you want is for someone kicking, shaking or lifting the box as this will turn their safe space into something quite the opposite.

Cats Given Access To Boxes Are Less Stressed

Dawn LaFontiane, founder and owner of Cat In The Box

There are 3 scientific reasons why cats love cardboard boxes.

The first has to do with temperature. Cats and humans do not share the same thermoneutral zone. The thermoneutral zone is the temperature at which living things do not have to expend extra energy to stay warm or keep cool. A cat’s thermoneutral zone is about 14 degrees warmer than the temperature inside our homes, meaning that our cats are freezing! The corrugations in cardboard make it an excellent insulator and the small space inside a box encourages a cat to curl up and keep itself warm.

The second reason has to to with stress relief. Ethologist Claudia Vinke of Utrecht University studied cats newly arrived to a Dutch animal shelter. What she learned was that cats given access to boxes were less stressed, got used to their new digs more quickly and were more interested in interacting with people than cats without boxes. Professor Vinke concluded, ‘Hiding is a behavioral strategy of the species to cope with environmental changes’. In other words, boxes help cats de-stress in a natural way.

The final reason has to do with a cat’s wild instincts. A cat may get all of the nutrition it needs from a bowl, but a cat is still a predator at heart. A cat’s instinct is to stalk and ambush prey. Boxes providing great places to hide so that a cat may act out its natural predatory behaviors.

Masks Their Whereabouts Should They Spot Prey

Dr. Sarah Wooten, Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine and vet expert at Pumpkin Pet Insurance

Cats are curious creatures and since they are considered both predator and prey, they enjoy areas and toys (like boxes) that allow them to hide from others.

This gives them a sense of security while masking their whereabouts should they spot prey (i.e. a shoestring or mouse toy) and decide to pounce.

Keep strings, ribbons and other loose items off of boxes so cats can’t get caught or tangled when they are playing.

It’s important to also make sure to keep boxes off of elevated surfaces so cats won’t fall and potentially injure themselves.

Amazon also sells some adorable cat-friendly hideaways in cute designs if owners are in search of something more aesthetically pleasing than a cardboard box.

Boxes Provide Them With Endless Fun

Karen Reese, Animal Behavior Manager at Operation Kindness

Cats like boxes for security and comfort. When a cat is in a box, they feel protected by the sides of the box.

Being a prey animal, they have an instinct to hide from potential predators and boxes are a great way for them to feel protected and hidden.

Cats are also naturally predators, so the cover of a box allows them to hide from their prey and then ambush at the perfect moment. Cats love to prey play so boxes provide them with endless fun when playing prey play games.

Boxes are a very inexpensive way to provide your cat a toy as well as safety and security.

For fearful cats, placing many boxes, turned on their side, around a room or your house gives them lots of places to feel safe while still allowing them to move around a room knowing there is always a hiding place nearby.

Cat in a box (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Cat in a box (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Boxes Let Your Cat Act Out This Hunting Process

Megan McCorkel, Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine, Shelter Veterinarian and expert at Better With Cats

Cats are natural predators that typically hunt small game throughout the day. One study found that feral cats will hunt and eat around 9 mice a day!

Small, hidden spaces (like the inside of a box) are a great place to find small game and the instinct to hunt is part of what drives your cat’s curiosity.

Cats also hunt using a sit, wait, and pounce approach. Hiding in a box and waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on prey (or maybe just your legs) is similar to how a wild cat might hunt. Boxes let your cat act out this hunting process in the form of play.

Cats have to protect themselves from predators, too. The simple cardboard box is the perfect hiding place where a cat can hide and relax. Squeezing into a small box where they can feel the walls around them gives cats a much greater sense of security compared to laying out in the open.

Boxes provide insulation that keeps your cat warm and comfortable. A 2014 study even found that shelter cats with access to boxes had measurably lower stress levels! It’s also very clear (based on the thousands and thousands of cat videos online) that cats have fun playing in boxes and sometimes it doesn’t have to be more complex than that!

Boxes are one of the more interactive items in the house- especially for cats. They can push them around, flip them over, climb inside and jump on top of them. Few household items can do all of that. Boxes let cats simulate the hunt by playing all while keeping them warm, comfortable and less stressed. Considering all that, it’s no surprise that cats love boxes so much!

Cardboard Boxes Are Relatively Safe

Dr. Rachel Barrack, Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Certified Veterinary Chinese Herbalist of Animal Acupuncture

Why do cats like boxes so much?

Cats are both predators and prey so boxes provide a safe haven for them to safely stalk and avoid being stalked. In addition, cardboard boxes are cozy and provide insulation to help maintain optimal body temperature. This helps cats feel less anxious and more secure.

Are boxes safe for cats?

Yes, cardboard boxes are relatively safe. Just make sure to not place it on a high shelf or ledge that can cause your cat to fall if they may be reaching for it. Your cat may also enjoy using it as a scratching post – which is a better option than using your couch!

Multiple Cats Will Practice Their Boxing Skills On Each Other

Matje van de Camp, founder and editor of Healthy Cat Guide

Cats want to feel safe and protected from threats. A small space, like the cardboard box from your latest online order, provides the perfect hiding place. It is big enough for your cat to fit in and leaves enough space for her to move around a bit. But it’s not big enough for another cat or predator to get in there with her.

If you have multiple cats, you might see them playfully practice their boxing skills on each other. One cat may stick a sneaky paw out of the box swatting a passerby or jump out at them unexpectedly. In retaliation, the other cat may trap them inside the box by sitting on it. As long as play aggression doesn’t turn into actual aggression, it’s an adorable scene that naturally leads to social media friendly footage.

Coping Strategy That Is Commonly Seen In Feline Behavior

Susan Nilson, Accredited Animal Training and Behavior Consultant and Editor of Barks From The Guild

Cats are solitary hunters who, broadly speaking, prefer to avoid threatening situations or unpleasant interactions wherever possible. Hiding is an effective way of doing just that, and is a coping strategy that is commonly seen in feline behavior.

We might say that hiding is a way to help relieve stress by allowing a cat to withdraw to a place where he feels safe. There is actually a study where 43 cats in an adoption center were randomly allocated either a box to hide in or a standard, open-type bed and were then monitored for a two-week period. During this time, the cats who had the option to hide had reduced stress levels compared with the cats who did not (Kry & Casey, 2007).

Cat shelters are becoming increasingly aware that providing cats with a place to hide is an important part of their welfare. For example, the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Canada has developed the Hide, Perch & Go box, which provides a place to hide on the bottom level and a place to perch above. And in the United Kingdom, Cats Protection has developed the Feline Fort which consists of a step, a table, and a hiding box, and also allows for the cats to engage in the essential feline behaviors of hiding and perching.

The less stress cats experience, the more they are likely to be able to cope with the shelter environment, which can indeed be highly stressful, as well as be adopted into their forever homes.