scorecard5 reasons why your cat loves empty boxes and tips to engage their natural instincts during playtime
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5 reasons why your cat loves empty boxes and tips to engage their natural instincts during playtime

Steph Coelho,Sorin McKnight   

5 reasons why your cat loves empty boxes and tips to engage their natural instincts during playtime
Insider Picks6 min read
  • Boxes offer cats a quiet space for a good snooze — and a vantage point for hunting prey.
  • The dark safety of a box can also reduce stress, while cardboard offers a great texture to scratch.

You just bought your furry feline friend a bunch of brand-new toys, but they've ignored them all in favor of that boring cardboard box you tossed into the corner last week. What's the deal?

Don't worry — your cat is just being a cat.

Most cats like to hide in dark, cozy places. But boxes offer your cat more than a quiet space to curl up.

Read on for five reasons why your cat would rather slink into a box than play with those fancy new toys, along with some tips to engage their natural instincts during playtime.

1. They can make your cat more comfortable

Sure, dark spots, even the inside of a plain old cardboard box, can bring comfort to cats — but not entirely for the reasons you might think.

All cats, from domesticated house cats to their larger, more ferocious feline cousins, are natural predators.

Boxes and other hiding spots provide a vantage point for better situational awareness, an essential asset for predators hunting prey. In short, a box helps your cat stay concealed while they monitor that spider, toy mouse, or flashing red dot that keeps darting across the floor.

"They are actually more comforted by being in dark locations where they can see the things that are around them," says Dr. Cherice Roth, chief veterinary officer at Fuzzy, an online platform that remotely connects pet owners with veterinarians.

Even animals at the top of the food chain, like cats, find comfort in having awareness of their surroundings, whether that's while hiding in a box or behind vegetation in the Sahara.

2. Cats are mini physicists at heart

Cats also tend to gravitate to boxes because those simple cardboard cubes can teach them about physics.

This isn't unique to boxes, though. Ever seen a cat knock over a glass with impunity? According to Roth, using objects to play can help cats understand the physics of the world around them — another vital piece of knowledge for predators.

Some research even suggests cats understand the principle of cause and effect: One 2016 study involving 30 domestic cats found that the cats could understand when an object was present or not, purely by the presence or absence of sound. The researchers suggest this ability may be an important aspect of cat hunting behavior.

3. Boxes may help with stress reduction

Hiding away in a box may also help ease any stress your cat experiences. Common stressors for pet cats may include:

  • Changes in their environment, like moving house
  • The addition of another family member, like a new partner, baby, or pet
  • Changes in their routine, like a change in feeding schedule
  • Lack of enrichment and socialization
  • Certain scents and sounds, including construction noises, scented candles, and perfumes
  • Issues with their litter box setup

One 2014 study found that boxes may help shelter cats better cope with stressors upon arrival. Researchers separated 19 shelter cats into two groups, one with access to a hiding box and the other without.

The cats without a hiding box had higher stress scores and higher variance in stress scores over the two-week study period, compared to those who could sneak away into a box whenever they pleased.

Note: In some cases, reducing your cat's stress levels may be as simple as eliminating stressors like loud noises or pungent scents. Offering plenty of opportunities for play and socialization can also help manage their ongoing stress.

4. Boxes can satisfy their need to scratch

Cats seem to prefer textures they can sink their nails into, Roth says, which they can easily do with cardboard boxes.

"And again, this all comes down to predatory behaviors. Knowing how deep, how far, how fast to put those claws into something to either hold it still or dispatch it is the name of the game here," Roth adds.

Quick tip: Boxes may provide plenty of textural interest, but Roth also recommends offering a variety of textures for your cat to enjoy, such as blankets or stacks of paper, to find out what else satisfies their urges to scratch and shred.

If your cat loves catnip, you can also try inexpensive cardboard scratchers infused with catnip, VCA Animal Hospitals regional technician and assistant director Jessica Sewell suggests.

5. It's just part of their personality

Like humans, cats have different personalities — and not all cats will become fascinated with boxes.

Some cats will hide more than others, Roth says. If you find your cat hiding in a box more often than not, you may have a more introverted cat, she adds.

That said, sudden changes in your cat's behavior — like a new tendency to seek out boxes and other hiding spots — could be a warning sign of a medical issue, though, Sewell says.

6. Health issues

A cat that suddenly seems withdrawn and takes refuge in small spaces could potentially have a health condition, such as diabetes or kidney disease.

Other signs of an underlying health concern include:

  • Unusual lethargy
  • Changes in grooming habits
  • Not eating or drinking
  • Urinating or defecating inside hiding spaces, or anywhere else outside the litter box

Important: If you notice changes in your cat's behavior or they don't seem their usual self, it's a good idea to make an appointment with a vet.

Playtime tips

You might think of cats as independent and aloof, but in reality, enrichment is just as important for your feline pals as it is for your canine companions, Sewell says.

Roth recommends taking advantage of a cat's predator-prey instinct to instigate playtime and add variety to their daily life. To engage your pet's natural prey drive, you might try some of the following:

  • Play hard to get. Hide and let your cat come find you, or stash catnip toys around their favorite hiding spots.
  • Freeze up like a mouse. When actively playing with your cat, try freezing on the spot to engage their prey instinct.
  • Try incorporating hunting games into their routine. One example of a hunting game involves making a trail of treats leading up to a hidden catnip toy, which allows cats to use senses other than their eyes and ears, Roth says.
  • Make their environment more interesting. Hang things on fishing poles or around hiding spots. This can help keep them entertained when you're not home.

Again, what your cat finds interesting depends greatly on their personality, so you may need to experiment to find games and tactics that pique their curiosity.

Best cat toys

If you want something other than a box for your cat to play with, we rounded up some of the best cat toys to help mentally and physically stimulate your feline friend.

  • Best catnip toy: Kong Refillables Beaver Catnip Toy, $3.30 on Chewy or Petco
  • Best mouse cat toy: Hartz Just for Cats Kitty Frenzy, from $7.19 on Amazon and Walmart
  • Best cat laser toy: Smartykat Leapin' Laser 2-in-1 Wand, from $4.92 on Chewy and Walmart
  • Best electronic cat toy: Hexbug Nano Robotic Cat Toy, $7 on Chewy and Amazon
  • Best cat teaser toy: Frisco Wire Teaser Cat Toy, from $2.26 on from Chewy and Petsmart

Insider's takeaway

Cats are curious creatures, and by providing plenty of textures and opportunities to engage their prey instincts, you can create an enriching environment for your kitty companion.

A love of empty cardboard boxes may seem odd to you, but don't be surprised if your cat saunters away from a brand-new toy to explore the box it arrived in.

It may be worth a check-in with your veterinarian if your cat suddenly seems less interested in food, holes up in small spaces, and seems reluctant to come out of hiding.