These days, there is not much that is more funny than a cat in a box. All over social media, at any time, you can find plenty of spontaneous – and also staged – photos of cats who jumped into a freshly opened shipping box, to the immense amusement of their human companions.
And it’s not just boxes. Cats love to crawl into any box or bag-like apparatus, including paper sacks, suitcases, laundry baskets, and backpacks.
While this feline behavior is puzzling and hilarious, there are some very natural reasons why cats like to burrow into boxes and the like. At its root, box-hiding is instinctual – cats need a secure and hidden place to hide from predators and to observe their surroundings without being seen. In the wild, cats use hidden places to stalk their prey and to drag their kills into.
In your home, a cat might use a hidden space for a retreat when they are feeling overwhelmed. A recent study involving cats who were new arrivals to a Dutch shelter showed that cats who were given a hiding box had reduced stress, and adapted to their environment more quickly than the cats who did not have a hiding box. This suggests that hiding in boxes provides cats with a sense of security.
This makes sense when we take a look at how cats start their lives. When a mother cat is preparing to give birth to her babies, she will seek out a safe, secluded place to do so. Likewise, when she is caring for her kittens, she keeps them close to her body in the nest she has created. This close contact with the mother cat and sibling kittens in a confined space can be comforting and release endorphins. When animals are older, this squeeze can evoke the same type of endorphin response and bring about a more relaxed state, as evidenced by Temple Grandin’s research on lateral side pressure. Think of it as akin to swaddling for newborn humans.
Boxes might also hold some appeal as a warm place to sleep. Because cats have a higher body temperature than humans, our air-conditioned environments might be a little chilly in their estimation. Not to mention that cats can spend as much as 2/3 of their days sleeping, so a snug box with just the right amount of give could be the perfect warm hug your kitty needs for a good snooze.
As with most creatures, understanding the nature of behaviors can help two species to coexist in harmony. If you embrace your cat’s innate desire to burrow in a cozy box and even offer an old t-shirt with your scent on it as a snuggle-buddy, your cat might just have found its perfect cave.