Cats are floofy enigmas that have captivated — and at times, terrified — humanity for as long as we’ve tried to domesticate them. These tiny tyrants engage in all sorts of odd behavior, like knocking over glasses and eerily watching over us in the bathroom. But perhaps the most enduring feline mystery is why cats — big and small — can’t seem to get enough of cardboard boxes. Scientists and cat experts tell Inverse the reason might be simpler than we think.
While there hasn’t been a ton of research about cats and boxes, we know enough about cat behavior to make some very good guesses. According to cat researcher Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, a 2014 study conducted with cats in a shelter revealed that cats given boxes showed fewer stress behaviors. But even outside shelters, cats can’t seem to get enough of these totally uninspiring cubes.
“Your average cat in the home is hopefully not stressed out, but they still like boxes,” Delgado tells Inverse. “There’s a few possibilities. One is that the box provides some insulation. Cats’ thermoneutral zone — where they’re not expending any energy to cool off or get warm — is between 85 and 100 degrees, so some cats probably like boxes because the cardboard might retain some of the cat’s body heat.”
Besides being warm, boxes can be something exciting and new in a cat’s environment. They might just want to explore the box — and are delightfully surprised to find it’s comfy as heck.
“When a person brings a box into an environment, they’re changing that environment,” Delgado says. “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.”
In (and out) of the wild, cats are predators and painstakingly stalk their prey. Delgado says a box might give cats a feeling of being “hidden,” even if they’re just hunting catnip-filled plushies or human ankles.
“I think the box might give the cat a sense of concealment while they’re waiting to see if a mouse or small prey item might come along,” she says. “They like the option of being able to stalk behind cover.”
Wildlife biologist Imogene Cancellare, who’s currently studying snow leopard genetics at the University of Delaware, agrees that boxes might fit in neatly with cats’ predatory instincts, even if cats don’t always fit in so neatly with boxes.
“I would imagine it has something to do with predatory behavior and having a vantage point,” Cancellare tells Inverse. “It’s an ‘I can see you but you can’t see me’ sorta thing. Plus general weirdness.”
But boxes aren’t just for little kitties to enjoy. Big cats in wildlife reserves have also been known to enjoy sitting in boxes, bringing “if I fits, I sits” to a new level.
“It’s amazing how much big cats are similar to little cats,” Susan Bass, PR Director at Big Cat Rescue in Florida. “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.”
While the science is still a bit unclear, one thing’s for sure: Watching big cats try to squeeze into tiny boxes makes for internet magic.
Perhaps we’ll never know The One True Reason cats love boxes. It could be a combination of many boring things, or perhaps it’s something our puny human brains could never comprehend.
“Part of the fun of cats is that we never know what’s really going on inside their little minds,” Delgado explains. “That said, I try not to over-interpret what’s going on — it’s probably a pretty simple explanation. I don’t think they’re trying to get beamed up to a UFO or anything like that.”
Skepticism aside, with cats, you never know.