Cats are strange, fascinating creatures. In some ways (make that a lot of ways), they almost seem human—they have personality, they're obviously intelligent—and in other ways, they're very clearly unique little snowflakes, totally deserving of the internet's collective obsession with them. Case in point: their seemingly random obsession with boxes.
But while cats' love of boxes may seem inexplicable, there is an explanation. In fact, there are several. Here's a quick breakdown of all the reasons cats can't get enough of boxes.
Cats love confined spaces.
Like many puzzling things pets do, the explanation for cats' love of boxes can be found in nature. Cats are known as "ambush predators," which means their instincts tell them to look for small, enclosed spaces where they can crouch down, watch their surroundings, and hunt. In the modern cats' natural environment of a cat owners' apartment, an empty Amazon box definitely fix the bill.
"I would imagine it has something to do with predatory behavior and having a vantage point," wildlife biologist Imogene Cancellare, who's currently studying snow leopard genetics at the University of Delaware, told Inverse. "It's an 'I can see you but you can't see me' sorta thing. Plus general weirdness."
And, for many cats, the more confined the space, the better, which, consequently, also explains why "if it fits, I sits" is a thing.
Boxes make cats feel safe.
Hunting isn't the only reason cats are naturally drawn to confined spaces, though. Being in a box doesn't just give a cat a great vantage point for hunting its prey; it also protects the cat from potential predators and eliminates the chance of the cat being surprised by something creeping up on him from outside of his field of vision, since the box forces anything approaching the cat to walk, well, in front of the box.
"Cats like boxes because they are cryptic animals; they like to hide," Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told Business Insider. "And a box gives them a place of safety and security."
While your house cat isn't likely to face much in the way of danger from predators, the safety and security he feels when he crawls into a tiny little confined space (like a box) remains. This means that cats are even more likely to seek out the comfort of a cardboard fort when they're feeling stressed or anxious.
The sides of boxes remind cats of their moms.
This one sounds weird at first, but hear us out: Some researchers believe that the sides of boxes (or literally anything you can lean against, for that matter) make cats (and other animals) feel safe because it reminds them, in a physical way, of being babies protected by their mothers.
When kittens are young, they snuggle in close with their moms and litter mates, which acts as a kind of swaddling. Therefore, when they're older and leaning against the side of something solid and warm—like the inner wall of a cozy cardboard box—it may trigger the release of endorphins, which makes cats (along with humans and other mammals) feel happy and less stressed. This is thanks to something scientists call "lateral side pressure," which has been studied for decades now.
Boxes can actually help cats adapt.
Not only do cats like boxes, they might actually kind of need them in some cases. In a recent study from the University of Utrecht, researchers looked into the effects of boxes on shelter cats. In the study, half of the shelter cats were given boxes and the other half weren't—and the cats who were given boxes recovered from trauma faster and adapted more quickly to their new environments. This suggests that having a box (or any confined hiding spot) available can help cats cope with anxiety-inducing situations and major life changes.
Cats hate conflict.
Your cat might seem like a confident, sometimes confrontational creature (especially if he takes a swipe at you when you're just looking for some cuddles), but the truth is, cats are, by nature, legitimately terrible at conflict resolution. In other words, cats would pretty much always rather run away from their problems than deal with them head-on.
"Cats do not appear to develop conflict resolution strategies to the extent that more gregarious species do, so they may attempt to circumvent agonistic encounters by avoiding others or decreasing their activity," The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour explains.
Boxes, on a practical level, provide cats with a convenient place to run to when there's a hint of conflict. And the smaller and more confined the box, the less likely that the other thing the cat is in conflict with will fit inside with them and be able to force the confrontation the cat is actively avoiding.
Cats like their alone time.
In addition to running away from conflict, cats sometimes just want to run away from, well, literally everything and everyone. Cats are naturally very solitary creatures who value their personal space. Experts say part of the appeal of sitting in a box—especially a very small one—is that it gives the cat a place to go to be alone.
"It's amazing how much big cats are similar to little cats," Susan Bass, PR Director at Big Cat Rescue in Florida explained to Inverse. "They like to curl up in tiny spaces where it looks like they wouldn't fit and explore their environment. I personally think they just like to get into dark, hidden areas where they can be alone, since they're aloof and solitary creatures."
Curiosity compels the cat.
You know the saying "curiosity killed the cat"? It's a saying because cats are, and always have been, incredibly curious creatures. Another reason experts believe cats are obsessed with boxes comes down to this basic cat fact; they're just curious and want to explore the box.
"When a person brings a box into an environment, they're changing that environment," cat researcher Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, told Inverse. "Indoor cats are very aware of what every inch of the house looks like — that's their territory. So I think it starts as something the cat wants to investigate, but ends up being something they want to sit in."
Cardboard is great insulation.
If there's one thing cats like as much (or almost as much) as a confined space, it's a warm space.
In 2006, the National Research Council found that the thermoneutral zone (i.e. the comfortable temperature) for domestic cats ranges from 86 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 20 degrees higher than the comfortable temperature for humans, who tend to keep their homes at an average temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit—a solid 14 degrees colder than cats like their homes to be. Add to that the fact that corrugated cardboard is a great insulator and it makes sense that cats would be drawn to them as places to curl up and chill (or, more accurately, to curl up and heat).
Boxes make great beds.
As all cat owners know, cats love to sleep. "Cat nap" is a phrase for a reason; cats sleep an average of 15-20 hours every single day. For all of the reasons above, cardboard boxes make for an ideal bed for cats—they make cats feel safe, they're warm and cozy, and they're natural anxiety-relievers. All in all, for a cat, a cardboard box has the perfect recipe for restful sleep.
The truth is, just about every single thing in a cat's nature attracts them to cardboard boxes. These warm, confined spaces, with their solid, endorphin-releasing walls to lean against provide cats with a great place for most of its favorite activities: Hiding, stalking, exploring, and sleeping. Now, if Amazon can just develop a cardboard box that also doles out belly rubs, none of us will ever see our cats again.