Alex O'Brien

Family & Pets

Why do cats like boxes?

Why do cats like boxes?

I know one thing about your cat: it likes to get in cardboard boxes.

It's not that I've met your cat. No, I know that your cat likes boxes because science tells me so. It informs me in that way science has of surprising me with new insights at the same time as telling me obvious stuff I already knew.

Cats, you see, are hunters. In the eons before domestication, they competed with other predators for the small creatures they lived on. This is the history that's inscribed in their DNA and that we see come out in their behaviour even when they're tamed, collared, housed and prettily named.

These predators needed hiding places. Not just to conceal themselves from their prey, but also to find refuge from the stress of a life spent hunting, chasing and fleeing.

A box is such a hiding place. It's a place they can get away from stress - the modern stress of being noticed and bothered and over-smooched and sleep-interrupted.

A bag or a basin or a washing basket can do the same task: make the cat feel comfortable and less stressed.

Cats, you see, are avoidant. That's the official word; you may have heard alternative terminologies such as aloof, snobby and fancy-pants. An enclosed space makes them feel better because they have an instinct to avoid the stresses of the world. (I'm sure plenty of cat owners can identify with that. Maybe that's what makes them cat owners.)

Something else about cats: they like to hide. In the wild, they hid from both predators and prey, and enclosed spaces were great places to hide in, especially those enclosed spaces that allowed them to see others but not themselves be seen. The official word for this feature of cats is cryptic. You may have heard alternative terms such as sneaky, starey and scaredy-cat.

One big appeal of the cardboard box remains to be described. That is its heat. Cardboard is warm. So is the brown paper of old-school grocery bags and the canvas of new-school eco-bags.

That suits cats, because the temperatures at which they're naturally comfortable are much higher than the temperatures we humans like.

Cats, you see, have a high thermoneutral range. Official word, again. You'll have heard heat-seeking, heat sponge, slob, and so on. And heat is nice to sleep in, and we know that cats love sleep.

All this raises some questions for me. Why do some cats tear up their cardboard homes? Why do they jump in and out of the boxes like deranged coils of spring? And why do they look so bloody smug when they're in the box?

Science, answer me that.

Written by Nick Barnett. First appeared on

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