Why do cats like to squeeze themselves into small spaces?

“If I fits, I sits,” has become a catchphrase and search term for cat fans entranced by felines who have an uncanny ability to squeeze themselves into unfeasibly small spaces. But why do they do it?
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29th February 2024

When you’re unpacking your latest Amazon delivery, does your cat immediately make a beeline for the boxes, deciding that a discarded cardboard carrier is the perfect place for a nice sit down?

And have you ever wondered why?

Nicholas Dodman, Professor Emeritus of Behavioural Pharmacology and Animal Behaviour, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, has closely observed this behaviour and believes he has the answer.

Snug, safe and secure

He says: “It’s just a fact of life that cats like to squeeze into small spaces where they feel much safer and more secure. Instead of being exposed to the clamour and possible danger of wide-open spaces, cats prefer to huddle in smaller, more clearly delineated areas.”

And it’s a behaviour that can be traced all the way back to kittenhood. Prof Dodman explains: “Small spaces are in cats’ behavioural repertoire. When young, they used to snuggle with their mom and litter mates, feeling the warmth and soothing contact. The close contact with the box’s interior, we believe, releases endorphins – nature’s own morphine-like substances – causing pleasure and reducing stress.”

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Writing on Catster, feline fan Susan Logan McCracken adds: “A tight enclosure that has a top, bottom, four sides and a place to look out meets a cat’s specific needs. Here’s why. It makes them feel warm. Just like a glove or sweater for humans, a snug spot contains body heat. Since cats like to feel cosy, a box that surrounds them tightly on all sides provides warmth. It provides a sense of security. Cats also seek shelter from predators. Having something to their back keeps anyone from sneaking up from behind.”

Boxes help rescue cats de-stress

The cat-calming effect of boxes has even been put to the test by Dutch researchers who gave shelter cats boxes as retreats. According to the study, cats with boxes adapted to their new environment more quickly compared to a control group without boxes.

Prof Dodman adds: “The conclusion was that the cats with boxes were less stressed because they had a cardboard hidey-hole to hunker down in. Let this be a lesson to all cat people – cats need boxes or other vessels for environmental enrichment purposes.”

Feline welfare charity Cats Protection agrees, stating: “It is important to always provide your cat with an easily accessible place to hide which will help to make them feel safe and secure. A hiding place can be something as simple as a cardboard box on its side, or upside down with large holes for access. Alternatively, you could purchase an igloo style cat bed, or offer space under the bed or in a wardrobe with the door left ajar. The cat shouldn’t be disturbed while they are hiding.”

For cats, hiding is a basic need

Rehoming charity Battersea adds: “Hiding places are one of your cat’s basic needs. Providing a selection of possible options, such as some open cupboard doors, areas under beds, cardboard boxes and gaps behind sofas will give your cat a choice of places to go when they feel scared.”

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If you have a multi-cat household, you’ll need to offer several hiding places to choose from. Battersea adds: “If you have more than one cat you will also need to make sure that there are enough options to prevent the more assertive cat from taking up all the locations and excluding the others. If you have young children, it’s also important to make sure your cat has places to go that aren’t accessible by them.”

Check out Battersea’s video on how to make a cat hideaway from a box and an old t-shirt >>

Make sure your cat doesn’t squeeze into unsafe spaces

A cat’s desire to find a suitable hidey-hole could, however, lead to trouble. Cats Protection advises: “Small spaces are attractive to cats, and it is natural for them to hide when feeling anxious, or just because they want a peaceful rest. Block off any areas where your cat could become trapped and keep the doors of household appliances such as the washing machine or tumble dryer, firmly shut.”

Does your cat enjoy exploring high places around your home, knocking nick-nacks off your top shelf or miaowing incessantly because they’ve found a way to get on top of the wardrobe but can’t get down again? >>

Hide and sleep – the perfect cat combo

To create the perfect hiding/sleeping/observing/chilling out space, Cats Protection has even designed an award-winning cat retreat, stating: “Providing a private place to hide is scientifically proven to help cats and kittens feel safe and secure in their surroundings. Ensuring they have a place to retreat to can even help reduce stress.”

Winner of an International Cat Care Cat Friendly Award, which recognises products which have made a real difference to cat wellbeing and welfare, the Hide & Sleep® offers much more than just a space for a nap.

Its innovative design features a hiding place and sleeping area, as well as somewhere for your cat to get up high. Cats Protection enthuses: “Cats enjoy the choice that the three-dimensional space offers them, enabling them to view their surroundings from a higher level and feel safer as a result.”

However, there’s no guarantee that your cat will prefer it to a good old carboard box...

How cat friendly is your home? while our human-centric houses may suit us just fine, what do our cats think? >>

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CARE MORE Get more advice on caring for your cat from Burgess, the pet experts. Training, nutrition, grooming and general care. It's all here >>

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