Why Do Cats Like Boxes so Much?

Cat owners are known for sometimes spoiling feline members of the household with expensive toys.

However, many have realised kitties are often more attracted to the box the gift arrived in than what's inside.

And as countless videos on YouTube and social media have attested, this infatuation with cornered objects extends to sinks, suitcases and plastic containers.

So why do cats like boxes or box shaped objects so much? Newsweek have asked feline experts to explain this peculiar habit.

Why Do Cats Love Boxes?

The Hiding Places

Zazie Todd, author of the upcoming book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, believes a key explanation for cats' box compulsion is because "hiding is a natural behavior for cats."

She told Newsweek: "When something stressful happens, they like to be able to hide. A cardboard box is a great hiding place (especially if it is the right size, just for them to fit into).

"They can feel more secure when they are in a box and partially or completely hidden.

"As well, if they already have lots of good hiding places, it is still good environmental enrichment for them and gives them a new space to explore."

Why Do Cats Like Boxes
It’s a widely known fact cats absolutely love boxes. Michael Blann/Getty Images

The Comfort of Small Places

Nicholas Dodman, Professor Emeritus of Behavioral Pharmacology and Animal Behavior at Tufts University, believes the security associated with being enclosed is a primary driver for this conduct.

He told Newsweek: "It's just a fact of life that cats like to squeeze into small spaces where they feel much safer and more secure.

"Instead of being exposed to the clamor and possible danger of wide-open spaces, cats prefer to huddle in smaller, more clearly delineated areas."

He also notes how when very young kittens, cats seek comfort and security with close-knit group cuddles their mother and the rest of the litter, "feeling the warmth and soothing contact."

Professor Dodman added: "Think of it as a kind of swaddling behavior. The close contact with the box's interior, we believe, releases endorphins—nature's own morphine-like substances—causing pleasure and reducing stress.

"Along with [Professor of Animal Science, Colorado State University] Temple Grandin, I researched the comforting effect of 'lateral side pressure'.

"We found that the drug naltrexone, which counteracts endorphins, reversed the soporific effect of gentle squeezing of pigs. Hugs, anyone?"

Cute ginger cat lies in carton box
Cute ginger cat lies in carton box. Cats tend to be strangely drawn to boxes, using them as hiding spots, strategic sneak attack locations and temporary beds. Konstantin Aksenov/Getty Images

The Warm Smell

Cat expert Celia Haddon believes these most cozy of creatures enjoy the sensory environment of a box can provide.

She told Newsweek: "In a box there are no drafts. The interior of the box will keep their body warmth to themselves.

"So boxes are going to be cozier than ordinary flat surfaces, even if they are not put under the radiator!

"Sometimes if they ignore the new bed and jump into the box it came in, this will make humans laugh, some cats enjoy getting human attention.

"Cardboard doesn't smell artificial. Many cat beds are made of fake fur or have nylon within. It is possible that these don't smell so good when they are fresh from the factory.

"But the box they come in just smells of cardboard – a nice natural smell that cats are used to."

Why Do Cats Like Boxes
There are lots of reasons that cats love boxes, but the main one is because they’re confined, enclosed spaces. jimmyan/Getty Images

A Place to Play

Deni Olsen, supervisor of Fantastic Services' pet care teams, suggests kitties' inquisitiveness could explain their fascination for these 3D shapes.

She said: "Curious by nature, cats are always ready to play or explore the surrounding world.

"That's why it is no wonder that among their favorite places are the boxes, regardless of their size or shape.

"Cardboard has a great texture, which makes boxes the perfect toy for your cat. Your pet can spend hours laying in the box, chewing or scratching its claws on it so don't be surprised that the box is your cat's favorite toy."

European cat in a delivery box
European cat in a delivery box. Cats are notoriously curious creatures, so it should come as no surprise they want to immediately investigate whenever its owmers purchase something new. Mariia Skovpen/Getty Images

Why Do Cats Sit In Cardboard Boxes?

Cats do not only use boxes as enclosed spaces to hide, seek comfort and play—they are well known to simply use them as a private stage to just sit.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the Kanizsa illusion, which Celia Haddon describes as "a rather odd bit of science."

A 2021 study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science found cats are as attracted to two-dimensional contours "as they do real contours."

Professor Dodman explained: "This virtual box may provide some misplaced sense of security and psychosomatic comfort.

"The cats-in-boxes issue was put to the test by Dutch researchers, who gave shelter cats boxes as retreats.

"According to [a similar 2014] study, cats with boxes adapted to their new environment more quickly compared to a control group without boxes: The conclusion was that the cats with boxes were less stressed because they had a cardboard hidey-hole to hunker down in."

Boxes Help Cats to adapt
Cat lies inside transparent plastic box. Boxes—not necessarily made from cardboard—may help cats to adapt to new environment. grase/Getty Images