Why Do Cats and Tigers Love Boxes So Much?

If the Internet-cats of the world have taught us anything, it’s domesticated cats’ affinity for boxes. Despite their fickleness as felines, cats will generally apply the,“If it fits, I sits” principle to any available container–be it suitcases, a warm computer, shopping bags or the occasional sink–but never abandon any housecat’s steadfast favorite, the humble cardboard box.

From your resident feline to lions, tigers, and caracals (check out the video below), it seems all cats love boxes—but why?

A decent amount of behavioral research has been done on cats over the past 50 years, and most concludes that they find comfort and security from the enclosed spaces we seem to find them in. Dutch ethologist Claudia Vinke found a significant decrease in stress levels in cats given boxes in shelters compared with those who were not. Similarly, other research suggests that a box can be a safe haven from hostility or unwanted attention. Yet these studies apply to cats in shelters, since stress levels aren’t as high for cats in the home.

Cats nap on boxes in the Gaia District, Portugal. Photograph by: Adam Jones [public domain], via Wikicommons
Another reason could be mere warmth. According to the National Research Council, the domestic cat’s thermoneutral zone is between 86 and 97 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about 20 degrees higher than a human’s, and 14 degrees higher than their home. Though cardboard does act as a great insulator, this may also explain why cats also enjoy sitting in sunny patches on carpet or asphalt.

According to Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor of the ASPCA, cats’ druthers for boxes could be instinctual. As hunters, they seek confined spaced in the wild so that any predator that approaches them must come into their field of vision, while simultaneously having a spot to stalk prey. “Cats are cryptic animals,” he said in a Business Insider video.

Whether cats are looking for comfort, warmth, prey, or to be the next big star on YouTube, one thing is for sure—there’s nothing quite like an aloof cat in a box. Watch experts David Mizejewski, Tina Olivieri and Courtney Campbell weigh in on cats and their box habits and more tonight at 10/9c on Pet Talk, only on Nat Geo WILD.