Boxed In and Loving It

Why cats seek small places.

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Boxes, paper grocery bags, a shelf in a linen closet…you name it, a cat likes to squeeze herself into it.

Some of the reason for that behavior you can intuit. A cat will feel more secure in a small space enclosed on three sides. Though they are predators, cats are also hunted by other animals. Built into their genetic coding is the instinctual knowledge that keeping “hidden” rather than in full view on the savannah — even if that savannah is your family room — will keep them more secure.

If you don’t trust what your intuition tells you, consider this: a study conducted at The Netherlands’ Utrecht University found last year that cats newly arrived in a shelter who were given hiding boxes calmed down by day 2. It took a full week longer for those cats that did not have boxes to have concomitant decreases in their stress scores based on video recordings of posture, vocalizations, and activity.

But there’s more than just a sense of security.

Cats prefer indoor temperatures much higher than we do, even with all that fur. Since you’re not going to keep your home warmer than is comfortable for you, the next best thing for a feline is warming up by settling into a small space. The heat she emits from her own body won’t escape quite as quickly if she’s surrounded on three sides.

More than many other mammals, cats seem to be into the swaddling thing. Some researchers have even theorized that cozying up in a small space releases endorphins, the feel-good brain chemicals that cause pleasure and release stress.

Cats make nests, both to give birth and to provide a safe haven for their new kittens. That attention from their mother may translate into a preference for small spaces later on in their lives.

Because cats by default curl up in small spaces, their sensitive abdominal organs are automatically covered rather than exposed — useful for avoiding internal injuries should a physical altercation arise.

Cats are so hard-wired to seek out small places that there have even been instances in which they purposely position themselves in the center of squares of tape marked out on the floor. As a cat might put it, “If I fit, I must then sit.”

Keep your own pets’ stress levels low and their outlook secure by making sure you have at least one box or other preferred space to squeeze into for every cat in your home. Some cats like their spaces really small — a shoebox, perhaps. Their flexible spines allow them to fit into spots you’d never think they could.

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