There are certainly some more obvious reasons behind why cats are obsessed with boxes — they like to be cozy and are prone to making stealth attacks, for which a box provides excellent cover. Scientists have been doing studies on these evasive animals for years and always find it difficult to get them to participate. However, that didn't stop Dr. Claudia Vinke, a Netherlands-based ethologist, who led a study on stress causes in cats at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
Dr. Vinke and her team brought a group of cat test subjects into a shelter, and they randomly divided them into a group that would be given a hiding box and one that would not. The behavior of the cats was observed over a couple of weeks and assessed using the Kessler and Turner Cat-Stress-Score (CSS). The aim of the study was to determine if box hiding would help lower stress in recently admitted shelter cats.
The results of Dr. Vinke's experiment explain a great deal about why cats may be inclined to spend time in boxes. She told Sheknows, "As behavioral biologists we are always eager to explain questions from the perspective of the biology of the species [...] We see that the first reaction of a cat in stressful situations is to withdraw and hide. So quite probably, hiding is the best behavioral strategy of the species to cope with environmental challenges / stressors. That was our hypothesis."
Her hypothesis turned out to be on the money. The cats that were provided with a box "recovered faster" in the new environment than those that weren't, thus leading the researchers to conclude that boxes act as major stress reducers for cats.
Dennis C. Turner, Director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Switzerland and author of The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behavior, had some thoughts on boxes as a stress reducer as well. He told Sheknows there might be something to the close contact with the walls of a box. "The 'edge effect' when leaning up against the side of a box also offers physical contact, which has been shown to lower stress levels." So being squeezed into a cube shape is the cat version of meditation.
Another explanation that Vinke has explored for why cats enjoy box time is that it encourages playing. "Other functions of a box might be play, but then you’ll see a relaxed cat. This is definitely not the case under quarantine conditions and in shelters but can be the case for pet cats at home," Vinke told SheKnows. Anyone who has cats at home can likely attest to their tendency to center playtime around a box. My cats in particular like to guard it from the outside, and when a potential security breach comes along, bop each other like catty sorority sisters.
Vinke explains that this play stealth attack may actually be your cat's way of preparing for possible real attacks in the future. "There are theories that play behavior is a kind of mega-exploration and training for the unexpected. Thus play in boxes by your cat might be seen as a kind of preparation for eventual challenges in the future (in this way [he/she] may know which box fits best for the future)." So if the zombie apocalypse ever goes down, talk to your cat — it may have some good evasive maneuver tips, but heaven help you if you try to steal its box.
Cats really seem to enjoy being in tight, cramped spaces. For example, my cat Vespa just loves falling asleep squeezed between our couch cushions, which is adorable, if not somewhat weird. Well, according to a 2006 study conducted by the National Research Council as found by Wired, the "thermoneutral zone for a domestic cat is 86 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit." This is essentially the range in which cats are comfortable (aka, not too hot and not too cold) and a good 20 degrees higher than our own comfort range.
Suddenly those videos of cats tightly pressed inside cardboard boxes that appear a tad too small for them make perfect sense. Cardboard works as an insulator, and when cats curl up tight, they're conserving their own body heat and staying "comfortable," even if it really doesn't look it.
Then there's the notion that cats are simply more antisocial than other domesticated animals. According to Turner's book, The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behavior, this may stem from cats' inclination to run from conflict. "Cats do not appear to develop conflict resolution strategies to the extent that more gregarious species do, so they may attempt to circumvent antagonistic encounters by avoiding others or decreasing their activity."
So the next time your cat hides under your bed, be sure to check for broken things, ripped things or poop on the floor. It's likely making itself scarce because it can't handle confrontation. Moreover, according to Vinke, cats are quite capable of killing each other with a single bite. "For the cat, fighting is quite [a] risk-[filled] strategy [...] they have large canines, and they can easily kill each other." Running and hiding is a much preferred alternative to possibly dying, and the box makes for the perfect safe zone.
In conclusion, there are a number of reasons why cats enjoy their boxes, and stress is only one factor. However, I think we can all agree, whether it knows it or not, a cat squeezing into a box is a never-ending source of amusement, as is proven by cat internet sensation Maru. Here is just a brief overview of the funny feline's love affair with his boxes.
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