Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why do cats love boxes?

cat hiding
Cats that are stressed often want to hide. Minnie couldn't find a box so she settled for piano stool to sit under when visitors popped over.

UPDATE: You can listen to a discussion about this post on VetTalkTV's podcast here.

Science has proven what seems intuitive for those who mix with cats: cats like boxes.

Well, the conclusion is a bit more important than that. A 2014 study, published in Applied Animal Behavioural Science, sought to determine whether provision of a box to hide in reduced stress levels in cats admitted to shelters. This is a worthy question to answer.

Shelters are stressful places for cats. For a start they find themselves in an environment with loads of unfamiliar cats (and often dogs), unfamiliar people and it isn’t their territory. Severe stress, aside from being negative itself, also leads to immunosuppression, making cats much more susceptible to infectious diseases – which is exactly what shelters want to avoid as sick cats can’t be rehomed (at least not til they're well enough). There's also a risk that infection will spread to other cats.

Hiding behaviour is a natural behaviour for cats. Anyone who works with this knows this – how many cats suddenly want to hide in their carriers, snuggle down into a litter tray or bury themselves under a towel?

So investigators set out to find whether boxes reduce stress for cats in shelters. And it seems that they do.

The study, which looked at 19 cats (9 provided with boxes, 10 without) found that cats with boxes spent the majority of their time (55%) in boxes over a 14 day period. Those without spend a good 45% of their time trying to hide behind the litter tray, suggesting they would hide in a box if they could access one.

The investigators also found that cats with boxes had lower mean stress scores than those without, especially on days 3 and 4. Cats with the boxes also showed a more rapid reduction in stress levels over the two week period, suggesting that the boxes helped them to cope. After two weeks both groups had pretty much the same scores, but the box certainly took the edge off for the cats who had the opportunity to use one.

This is a very interesting study and raises lots of questions, like what do we need to do to determine the optimal housing for cats in shelters? If a reasonably small thing can reduce stress in cats, can it be implemented on a larger scale? 
How can we reduce stress in shelter animals in general?

Thanks to Dr Bob Stabler, from Stabler Behaviour, for pointing out this article.