Most cats will choose the sanctuary of a cardboard box over even the softest cosiest cat beds, but why?
Let’s be honest, cats do a lot of strange things, they are an animal behaviourists dream. One moment they are self-absorbed and indignant towards you the next, purring around your legs and nuzzling your feet. Due to these strange switches in behaviour and their bizarre grasp of social skills they have been studied in quite some detail. Despite this, no one is yet 100% certain why cardboard, and in particular cardboard boxes, peek our cats interest like nothing else.
Here are just a few ideas on just what it is that they love so much:
Even the most pampered puss will take a swipe at a bird given half the chance.
Domestic house cats are highly skilled predators and outdoor cats even more so, living in a more natural environment. A domestic cat’s motivation to hunt is strong and even your well-fed cat will prey on local birds, small mammals, and reptiles if given the opportunity. A cardboard box acts as the ideal observation station for such hunting missions. It makes a great place to stalk prey from but also affords your cat protection and a safe place to retreat to.
Cats are naturally cautious creatures and derive comfort and security from enclosed spaces. These spaces are ideal if they are part of your cats wider environment, for example, a small box inside a large room offers the cat a secure position from which it can observe it’s territory and keep an eye on things. See our article on providing a safe space for a nervous newcomer here.
This behaviour is typical of all cats both wild and domesticated. Wild big cats like Tigers may choose to retreat to a tree or a den whilst your domestic cat chooses the comfort of a cardboard box when it feels threatened or faces a stressful situation.
Domestic cats will often select inanimate objects for this task as well such as the bathroom sink, a frying pan, tissue box, bag for life and I once found my cat attempting to enter my wellington boot! The phrase ‘If I fits, I sits’ is often associated with cats due to their tendency to find a comfortable spot in even the most awkward of places.
Ethologist, Claudia Vinke of Utrecht University in the Netherlands undertook a research project to study stress levels in shelter cats. Working with domestic cats in a Dutch animal shelter, Vinke provided hiding boxes for a group of newly arrived cats while depriving another group of them entirely. She found a significant difference in stress levels between cats that had the boxes and those that didn’t. In effect, the cats with boxes got used to their new surroundings faster, were far less stressed early on, and were more interested in interacting with humans.
You will know from owning your own cat that their first reaction to a stressful situation is, almost always (there is always the odd maverick) to withdraw and hide. According to Vinke: “Hiding is a behavioral strategy of the species to cope with environmental changes and stressors.”
Cats are individuals, they do not socialise well and often prefer their own company. In multi-cat households, conflicts may flare up and cats tend to react to this by simply running away and ignoring the problem. A box, in this sense, can often represent a safe zone, a place where sources of anxiety, hostility, and unwanted attention simply disappear. Cats prefer to remove themselves from stressful or negative situations, fighting and general defensive behaviour such as hissing, growling or puffing are used as a last resort.
So far, all the above might lead you to believe that you have a stressed out miserable cat on your hands. The above seems to suggest that they would prefer you to move out of the house and just leave them and their cardboard box to it! This can’t be the whole story though as our furry friends get hours of genuinely euphoric play out of their cardboard boxes too.
Every wondered why your cat lays in direct sunlight or right in front of your wood burner, toasting themselves like marshmallows? Despite being well equipped for the cold with a fluffy fur coat, cats are actually very sensitive to temperature change and much prefer a warm environment.
According to a 2006 study by the National Research Council, the thermoneutral zone for a domestic cat is 30–38°C (NRC 2006). This is obviously a lot warmer than they average human would be comfortable with, at least 10°C to be exact! The average room temperature in a UK home during the winter season is roughly 18°C, while central heating thermostats are generally set to around 20°C (ovoenergy.com).
The above stats would suggest that thermal discomfort may be a common experience for many cats, despite being an issue that is relatively easy to resolve. Providing opportunities for cats to manage their own temperature, such as the provision of warm blankets, sleeping areas, boxes, or heating/cooling pads such as those sold by SnuggleSafe® will enable them to more easily cope with their environment.
This goes some way to also explaining why many cats love curling up in tiny cardboard boxes and other strange places. Corrugated cardboard is a great insulator and confined spaces force the cat to ball up or assume some other impossible body position, which in turn helps it to prevent heat loss.
So, what have we learned about why cats love cardboard?
Boxes are insulating, stress-relieving, comfort zones—places where cats can hide, relax, sleep, and occasionally launch a sneak attack against the unsuspecting humans or fellow pets they live with. Your cat likes the smell and texture of cardboard and there aren’t many reasons for you not to like it too! Cardboard is cheap (often free with items we buy), it’s environmentally friendly and once your cat has had his/her fun you can recycle it.
If you are looking for a more stylish cardboard house for you cat, check out the Cardboard Cat Crib by KEK Amsterdam.