Q:Whenever I leave a cardboard box out, my cat goes right to it. Doesn’t matter the size of the box—she loves to sit inside it. Why do cats love boxes? Is this normal?
A: Cats love boxes because they feel safe and warm inside them. And yes—it’s totally normal!
It seems to happen with almost sitcom-worthy regularity. You’ve just bought a new toy or cat tree for your cat and without fail, your feline friend is more interested in playing with—and playing in—the cardboard box that it came in.
So what gives? Why are cats so interested in cardboard boxes? We reached out feline behaviorists to find out what’s going on with our four-legged family members.
Reasons Why Cat Love Boxes
Let’s just jump right in: Why do cats love cardboard boxes? According to experts, safety and warmth are at the top of list.
Boxes = Security
First and foremost, cats love cardboard boxes because being inside the box provides them with a sense of security. That empty box can give our domestic cats a place to feel protected, it can be an escape from stressful situations, and it can also make them feel like no one else can see them. (Please don’t tell them otherwise; in their head, they’re ruling their kingdom from inside a secondhand cardboard cube.)
“Cats love to feel protected, and they like to be able to see all 360 degrees around them,” says Arizona-based feline behaviorist Jane Erlich. “When they’re inside a cardboard box, they have the security of being able to poke their heads up and see all the way around. That sense of security can be irresistible to them.”
According to Erlich, the simple fact that a cardboard box has sides that enclose them and allow them to hide out from… well, everything, can make a box a more attractive option than a cat tree, the couch, or anywhere else in the room. To us, it’s just a cardboard box, but to a cat, it can become the private space they’ve always dreamed of.
Boxes = Warmth
Another reason your cat loves boxes: warmth. A cat’s normal body temperature can range from 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit, which is higher than humans. That means that they’re most comfortable in settings anywhere from 86 to 97 degrees, says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant and owner of TheCatCoach.com.
Humans keep their homes around 72 degrees, though, so cardboard boxes make a great insulator for your cat, she says. If you have multiple cats, you might even see them snuggling together in a box for the body heat.
Is it important to give a cat a hiding place or a “safe zone” of their own?
Yes, a hiding spot, like an empty box or a cat tree with a cubby, are important for our feline friends.
“Cats have certain needs as long as they’re going to be quote ‘domesticated’ and inside,” Erlich says. “They need to be given what they would normally need—either by instinct or by personal preference—if they were outside.”
If you’re adopting a new cat, bringing your cat to a new place, or leaving your cat for the day, Kreiger suggests setting up a few boxes in addition to their other cat toys.
“It’ll instantly give them controlled, secure hiding places where they feel protected and calm,” she explains.
That makes sense. Is there an optimal location to place the box?
Erlich suggests putting cardboard boxes in a location that isn’t near the cat’s food or water dishes, litter box, sleeping area, or, if you have more than one cat, where other cats, in the home congregate.
“By giving them another space of their own, you’re extending their territory,” she says.
If you can, put the box in the corner of a large room. That way, they’ll know that their back is protected, and they’ll have the ability to survey the rest of their kingdom. “That will allow him to relax, because he knows that he’s not vulnerable,” Erlich says.
If you share your home with multiple house cats, should they each get their own cardboard box or enclosed space?
If you have the room for it, yes.
“On the one hand, if more cats are around, then there are more possibilities for play and entertainment, but it can also mean more possibilities for threats, if the cats don’t know each other or don’t like each other,” Erlich says. “And even if they love each other to pieces, each cat may still want his own private space.”
How can you tell if your cat is just hanging out inside their own cardboard den, or if they’re hiding because they feel fearful or stressed out?
To know the difference, Erlich says to take a look at your cat’s body language.
“If he’s crouching down in the box, is he crouching because he’s just trying to get comfortable in a small space? Or is he crouching because he’s ready to pounce? Does he look relaxed, or are his ears alert, his eyes dilated, and his tail twitching? The cat’s body language will say it all.”
And sometimes, apparently the cat is just trying to say, “Next time, you can skip the toy—this small box is all I want.”
Hey, if it fits, they sits!
What if your cat isn’t interested in cardboard boxes? Is that also normal cat behavior?
Don’t stress if your cat isn’t a fan of boxes.
“My cats actually don’t care about boxes,” Erlich says.
Whether or not a cat likes boxes may have to do with their past experiences.
“A foreign object like a box can either be attractive or it can be intimidating,” Erlich explains. “Some cats never respond to a box because they’ve never been around them, they don’t know what they’re for, or nothing snags their interest.”
How can you get a cat to like boxes?
If your cat is hesitant to explore a box, Erlich suggests the following:
- Move the box to a different location in your home
- Try a smaller box
- Change what toys, treats or other source of enrichment you put inside the box
Since her cats don’t care for boxes, Erlich personally has tried making them more seductive by sprinkling in some catnip, putting ping-pong balls in there, or hiding one of their little stuffed mice inside. “It doesn’t always work, but I try,” she says. “The cat can walk by and either say ‘Who cares?’ or ‘Hey, this is fun.’”
Another trick is to transfer your cat’s scent to the box. This works for anything new you’re bringing into the house for the first time, whether it’s a box or a cat tower or a cat bed. To do that, Erlich says to gently rub your cat with a cloth, a pillowcase, or a cotton glove around their face, their cheeks, their chin, and neck—wherever their pheromones are heavily concentrated. Then, rub the cloth on the inside and outside of the box.
“That way it will already feel familiar when they jump into it,” she says.
She does not recommend cat owners physically put their cat inside the cardboard box—or drop them into any new environment, for that matter.
“That will just make them think, ‘I want to get out of here,’” she says. “Let them discover the box for themselves.”
So there you have it. Those empty boxes may be trash to you, but they’re treasure to our cats, mainly because it makes them feel safe and secure. Does your cat have an affinity for cardboard castles? Tell us in the comments below.
Jill Fanslau contributed to this article.