This riveting question led a team of behavioural biologists and veterinarians at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands to explore just what it is about boxes that has such a hold on our feline friends.
The team randomly divided a sample of 19 domestic cats from a Dutch animal shelter into two groups.One lucky group was provided with boxes, while the other, not-so-lucky group went without. Over a fortnight, the cats had their behaviour and stress assessed using the Kessler and Turner Cat-Stress-Score (CSS – see below for a basic version).
The cats with boxes got used to their new surroundings faster, had lower CSS scores early on, and were more interested in interacting with humans, although the other group eventually also became comfortable with their new setting.
The study noted that the cats used the boxes to hide in and that this is a behavioural strategy used among cats to overcome environmental change. Other reasons cats like boxes could be that they offer a warm, insulated comfort zone to nap in as well as concealment from which to launch sneak attacks. So rather than expensive cat toys, perhaps keeping a few old cardboard boxes might be just what your kitty needs.
The Cat Stress Score
- Fully relaxed: probably asleep.
- Weakly relaxed: may be playing.
- Weakly tense: tail may be twitching, whiskers forward, may be actively exploring.
- Very tense: tail close to body, eyes widely open or scrunched, may be plaintively meowing.
- Fearful, stiff: ears partially flattened, tail close to the body.
- Very fearful: breathing fast, eyes fully open, may be growling.
- Terrorised: crouched, shaking, ears fully flattened back on head.