Over the millennia, cats have been loved, hated, feared, and revered. But above all, they have just confused the hell out of us.
In celebration of World Cat Day, August 8, we set out to answer one of the great mysteries of the cat: Why do they like sitting in cardboard boxes, drawers, laundry baskets, shopping bags, washing machines, or any vaguely box-like vessel?
First of all, the “if it fits, I sits” philosophy could stem from a concern about safety and security. Considering that domestic cats can sleep upwards of 15 hours a day, it bodes well to have an isolated and sealed safe space to relax in. Of course, a domestic cat probably doesn’t have too many threats to consider, other than a rogue cucumber. However, their evolutionary cousins would be wary of birds of prey, jackals, and foxes, as well as rogue cucumbers.
Furthermore, the thermoneutral zone for domestic cats is 30-38°C (86-100.4°F), which is probably slightly higher than your thermostat at home. Curling up in an insulated box, therefore, could give them that vital few more degrees.
A study in 2014 wanted to find out whether providing shelter cats with boxes could help to reduce their stress levels. They gave half of the newly arriving cats a hiding box, while the other half were forced to endure a box-less stay. Over a 2-week period, they studied the behavior of the cats and found that those provided with a box adapted to their new environment considerably faster. This was shown by displaying relaxed body language, such as resting a lot, fully extended legs, dozy-looking eyes, and minimal meowing.
Another study from 1989 showed how it's possible to induce a sense of relaxation in some mammals (pigs in this case) by applying light pressure to the side of their body, a bit like a hug or being cradled. Perhaps, the sides of the box can mimic this soothing sensation for cats.
However, you might be wondering: Dogs and other pets don’t have this aching need for a box, so what’s up with cats specifically?
As any dog-lover will tell you (over and over again), cats are notably less sociable than their canine counterparts. Although domestic cats are a social species, they are solitary hunters and don’t rely on other individuals for survival. This means that cats are really, really terrible at conflict resolution. So, just like a moody teenager, their solution to stress is to hide in the dark.
“Cats do not appear to develop conflict resolution strategies to the extent that more gregarious species do, so they may attempt to circumvent agonistic encounters by avoiding others or decreasing their activity,” Dennis C Turner, evolutionary biologist and ethologist, explains in the book The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour.
As for why cats like to sit in squares drawn on the floor, well, they’ve got to keep some of their secrets.