Cat in a box? How fun!

It’s the day after Christmas, so we’re guessing your house is filled with empty boxes. And we bet your cat is having a heyday with all the surplus “toys.”

Cats and boxes go together like ribbons and bows. What’s the attraction? We checked with experts to find out.

Cats have a couple of motivations for getting inside boxes and bags, says feline behavior expert John Wright, professor emeritus of psychology at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. One is play.

Cats can peer out of a box, climb into it or bat it around. They don’t seem to care if it already has stuff in it or if they don’t quite fit.

“When you see a cat get inside a box or bag, they start to knock around a little bit and bat at it, and if it makes a noise, that’s really great,” he says.

For shy cats, or those who simply want some “me” time, boxes provide security and sanctuary. After all, while cats are predators in their own right, they are also small enough to be prey. A box can be a secure hiding place where a cat feels safe from potential threats.

Boxes are also resources in multi-cat households. If you have more than one cat, you’ve probably noticed that one gets first pick of toys, food and, yes, hiding places like boxes. When the top cat claims a box, Wright says, other cats won’t approach it.

Having access to a box where they can hide has even been shown to reduce stress in shelter cats. Researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands published a paper in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, which found that cats in shelters who had a hiding box had lower stress scores.

Before you mutter something about silly research topics, keep in mind that a happy cat is a healthier cat. The authors write: “Domestic cats (Felis sylvestris catus) can experience serious stress in shelters. Stressful experiences can have a major impact on the cats’ welfare and may cause higher incidences of infectious diseases in the shelters.”

The presence of a box can reduce that risk. The study found that over a two-week period, the shelter cats with a hiding box attained reduced stress levels and adapted more quickly to their new environment than their no-box counterparts.

“The hiding box appears to be an important enrichment for the cat to cope effectively with stressors in a new shelter environment the first weeks after arrival,” the researchers conclude.

Not every cat is attracted to boxes. Shy cats may be afraid to approach them, and even adventurous cats may avoid boxes that aren’t in their own territory, Wright says.

In one experiment, kittens from two different fathers – one who produced friendly kittens and one who produced shy kittens – were placed in an area with a cardboard box they’d never seen before. The kittens with the friendly father were first to explore it, while the others held back. The fathers’ genetic influence affected how the kittens reacted to anything unfamiliar.

If your cat loves playing in boxes, you can increase his enjoyment by changing things up, Wright says. Offer boxes in different sizes, or put his box in a different place. In a new environment, set out several boxes to give your cat a place to relax. Your cat will love you for it.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton.