by Barbara George, Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Boxes are fascinating items for cats, but why? The overriding reason is security, however, there are other aspects to consider.
Any new box means a change in the environment and needs to be thoroughly investigated. It will be viewed and checked for contents, then smelt. Smelling will tell him about the box, who handled it, what was carried inside as well as the size and shape.
Usually, the next step is for the cat to jump into the box. Size does not really matter, except that too small is uncomfortable and too large leaves extra space that could be used by another animal. Cats are relatively fluid, and can adjust themselves to fit most shapes and sizes quite successfully.
Cats feel safe in boxes; they are protected on four sides, leaving only one opening to be defended. They can watch what is happening around them while keeping safe and out of the way of any activity or aggression. Any prey animal that walks past the box can quickly be captured; any predator can be seen before they become a threat.
A cat lying quietly and keeping still in a box is difficult for many animals to detect; boxes make good ambush hide-outs as well as safe sleeping spaces.
Cats that need time to think, hide from danger or avoid conflict find comfort in a box. Hiding is an instinctive strategy to cope with stress and changes in the environment. Feeling safe and in control helps to reduce stress; as a result, cats can become more social and interactive.
Boxes offer warmth too. Cats need a warmer ambient temperature than we do, so they expend energy in keeping warm. Corrugated cardboard is a poor conductor of heat, a cat snuggles into a cardboard box creates a layer of body-temperature air around himself; the air in the box stays warm and keeps him comfortable. A box slightly larger than the cat is the warmest, as there is less air around him. Containers made of other materials have the same effect, but may allow the inside air to cool faster than a cardboard box.
The feeling of containment linked to safety and security may be a reminder of his early kittenhood when his mother chose a small den for the kittens, to keep them warm and safe.
Cardboard boxes are firm and easy to scratch. Scratching marks the box as part of his territory, which makes him feel more secure.
It is interesting to note that many cats choose square or rectangular places to sleep; this may be the most efficient and comfortable shape for them to fit into.
While a cardboard box is the preferred space, there are many other items that can simulate a box and provide some level of comfort. Baskets, bowls, shelves and under the bed are popular. Cupboards are seen as large boxes that can offer better hiding places when the door is closed; these spaces can provide extra benefits in the form of soft bedding and the familiar smell of his favourite person.
All games involving boxes are exercising the reasons mentioned; jumping from one to the other to identify the best one, ambushing, pouncing, scratching and sleeping.
Suitcases, sports or school bags and laundry or ironing baskets offer the same benefits as a shelf in a cupboard without the overall feeling of safety. Baskets of freshly-ironed clothes also provide warmth, giving the feeling that he is sleeping with you. Shopping bags may carry the smell of food or of the person who packed or carried it. Bags can also make crinkling sounds, which appeal to some cats while others prefer complete silence.
A number of theories have been put forward for cats electing to sit inside a square laid out on the floor with tape or another very shallow height. It represents a change in the environment and therefore needs attention, to be scrutinised and evaluated for possible danger or benefit. Even the outline offers a boundary and therefore a sense of containment. The square can present the idea or possibility of a box, or simulate a box with very low sides. Cats have very poor near vision, so maybe they think there are sides that they cannot see; believing that because there is a base there must be sides.
Sun shining through a window making a rectangular pattern on the floor is another example of a virtual box – although this one offer warmth too.
Cats derive many benefits from boxes; providing boxes
Providing boxes for your cat is an easy way to make him feel comfortable and reduces the stress of living in our environment; boxes are easy to find and replace, and can be hidden away when company is expected.
To contact Barbara, please email firstname.lastname@example.org