Why Do Cats Like Small Spaces?

Anyone who has a cat has likely witnessed the hilarious phenomenon of the feline who squeezes themselves into an impossibly tiny box or bag. Even if they don't really fit, they still sit. This expression of feline nature is good for endless laughs, but why do they do this?

As with most seemingly odd cat behaviors, there are a few perfectly natural reasons why cats like to burrow. It starts with birth. 

Mother cat with kitten

When a mama cat is looking for a place to give birth, she will seek out a secluded, quiet, small space in which to safely bring her kittens into the world. In the safety of her birth den, mama cat will keep her babies close to her body, which provides warmth and security. According to research such as this by Temple Grandin, the squeeze of this close contact releases endorphins that relax the mind and body, and makes animals feel safe.

Finding small spaces that can help them to achieve this lateral squeeze is one way that cats are able to find comfort and retreat from the stressors in their day to day lives. Boxes seem to provide a near-perfect spot to burrow, perhaps because of the way the cardboard is able to give a little when met with the resistance of the cat's body. And boxes not only provide the squeeze - they also provide a hiding place. In a recent Dutch study, cats who were given hiding boxes showed a marked reduction in stress, when compared to cats who did not have access to boxes.

Striped cat in box

In the wild, felines will seek out hiding places from which to watch and hunt for prey, and also to hide from predators. For many of us, our cats live inside our homes, but this does not remove the innate need to have a hideaway - a place to be unseen, to watch the activities of their environment in safety, to stalk a playmate or a toy. And if you think of a feline in nature as often being solitary, it will help you realize that, even though our domestic cats are social and loving, they also need the ability to seek out and find alone time to decompress. 

Cat stalking from bushes

Besides providing a place to retreat, observe and relax, small spaces may also provide warmth for our cats, who have a higher body temperature than we do, and may find our homes a little on the chilly side. 

Understanding and supporting these instinctual needs in our cats is a very important aspect of taking care of their health. And it can be as easy as leaving a shipping box open for a few days whenever you get a new delivery, or leaving a fresh paper shopping bag on the ground for your kitties to explore until it meets its inevitable demise under the stress of burrowing cat.

But these temporary items leave out one important aspect - cats need hiding tools in their territory that they can call their own. This means that they do need some more consistent belongings that they are able to claim and mark with their scent. In this case, you might consider things like cat caves or cubes, or this fun DIY cat sleep sack. In our house, we use gift-giving holidays as a good excuse to bring in some new assets for our cats to take ownership of to help make their environment their own. 

Cat sleeping in felt cat cave

As with all creatures, having tools that help cats to manage their stress will help the interpersonal relationship with other cats and humans in their lives. A relaxed and stress-free cat is less likely to have litter box issues or express their angst in other ways, such as aggression towards housemates or your furniture. When we realize that these behaviors are often an expression of something being off in our cats' environment or health, it helps us have empathy, and look for ways to support them as the valued companions they are.