Why Do Cats Like Boxes?

There are biological reasons for cats' box obsession.

Cat in box

Rafa Elias / Getty Images

Cats like boxes because they allow felines to act on their instincts, providing them with opportunities for play, safety, sleep, warmth, hunting, and marking their territory, all in a folded piece of cardboard.

Boxes Reduce Stress

Two different studies looking at groups of cats in animal shelters found that having a box available to hide in significantly reduced stress levels in the cats overall, with one study going farther and illustrating that in addition to reducing anxiety, having a box helped cats to adapt to their surroundings more quickly. Particularly when cats are transitioning into a new environment (like when they're newly adopted), having a box or similarly enclosed space that is designated territory for your cats could help them ease into an unfamiliar setting. Stressful experiences can have long term negative health impacts on cats.

They Help Cats Hide

Like most mammals, safety for cats means shelter in which to hide — which boxes can provide. Most cat owners are familiar with a cat's ability to disappear as soon as a new person comes into its space, or it hears a loud noise, and boxes help facilitate this. Particularly in unfamiliar situations, a box can provide your cat with a place to hide until it is inevitably overwhelmed with curiosity and decides to come explore.

Cardboard Helps Them Maintain Temperature

Cats have a higher body temperature than humans, at around 102 F on average. Descendants of ancient desert animals, they're biologically inclined to thrive in toasty temperatures and, as a result, find the insulation a box provides particularly appealing. Try lining a box with a fuzzy blanket or oversized sweater and cats are even more likely to cuddle up inside and keep warm. Take care that boxes aren't too close to a radiator or space heater, sometimes cats' thick fur makes it hard for them to realize when they are overheating.

They Are Perfect for Naps

Two sleeping beauties
ansap / Getty Images

Part of the reason why cats like being warm is that it helps them sleep. A study published in Experimental Neurology showed that warming of heat receptor zones in cats induced relaxation and sleep, leading researchers to conclude that these thermoreceptors are an important source of input to the preoptic sleep mechanism, and may contribute to the initiation or maintenance of restorative sleep as well as thermoregulatory sleep. This is the same reason cats enjoy napping on people — we are warm.

Cats Mark Their Territory Using Boxes

Why do cats need to investigate a box (or anything unfamiliar for that matter) as soon as it enters their territory? The answer is connected to cats' group behavior in the wild, where they live in matriarchal, generally peaceful, groups. Cats use head-butting to mark objects, other cats, and humans with a familiar scent, most frequently rubbing with their chin, forehead, and cheeks. This signifies that these items (as well as other people and cats) are part of the in-group, with scent being an important part of identity formation.

When a new object enters the home, cats typically investigate it and then head-butt it to mark it with their pheromones, so that it is no longer completely unfamiliar. Head-butting, also known as bunting, is one territory-marking behavior on the harmless end of a range of behaviors that can escalate into scratching, and even urinating, in cats with behavioral issues.

Their Instincts Say Boxes Help Them Hunt

Portrait Of Cat In Box

Sven Puth / Getty Images

Cats are ambush predators that thrive on catching unaware prey. Even though it's rare for cats to stalk prey indoors, they nonetheless use boxes and other enclosed areas as spots from which to safely recreate hunting behaviors in both social and object play, that is, play with other cats and play with toys. Interestingly, it isn't only domesticated felines that like boxes — large cats exhibit many of the same adorable (although admittedly slightly more intimidating) behaviors, like head-butting and climbing inside them.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our cats, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.

View Article Sources
  1. Vinke, C.M., et al. “Will a Hiding Box Provide Stress Reduction for Shelter Cats?.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol. 160, 2014, pp. 86-93., doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2014.09.002

  2. van der Leij W.J.R., et al.  “The Effect of a Hiding Box on Stress Levels and Body Weight in Dutch Shelter Cats; a Randomized Controlled Trial.”PLoS ONE, vol. 14, 2019., doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0223492

  3. Roberts, Warren W., and Timothy C.L. Robinson. “Relaxation and Sleep Induced by Warming of Preoptic Region and Anterior Hypothalamus in Cats.” Experimental Neurology, vol. 25, 1969, pp. 282-294., doi:10.1016/0014-4886(69)90051-X

  4. Rodan, Ilona, and Sarah Heath. Feline Health and Welfare. Elsevier. 2014.

  5. DePorter, Theresa L., Ashley L. Elzerman. “Common Feline Problem Behaviors: Destructive Scratching.” Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, vol. 21, 2019, pp. 235-243., doi:10.1177/1098612X19831205

  6. Bradshaw, John, et al. Behaviour of the Domestic Cat. CABI. 2012.