Shelter Cats Like a Box to Hide In

Cats like somewhere to hide - and research shows a cardboard box can be the simple solution.

A cat hides in a cardboard box - important enrichment for cats because they like places to hide

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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How do we know what types of enrichment are most important to cats? A new study by Dr. Jacklyn Ellis (University of Prince Edward Island) et al tests shelter cats’ preferences. The results show the importance of a simple cardboard box for kitty cats.

What is environmental enrichment for cats?

Environmental enrichment involves adding something to the cat’s environment that is good for its welfare. Enrichment can be especially important for cats in shelters since the environment is stressful for them, away from their familiar home and with the presence of unknown cats and people, and perhaps with dogs in earshot too. But it's important for our cats at home too.

There are many ways to provide enrichment for cats, including vertical space, olfactory enrichment, food and even cognitive enrichment with clicker training.

How do we know what cats like?

How do we know which types of enrichment cats like best? For example, we know that cats like to be high up, and we also know that cats like to hide, but which is most important to them?

One way to find out is to investigate whether a particular enrichment leads to better physical and behavioural health, as with Gourkow and Phillips (2016) study of clicker training shelter cats.

Another way is to give cats a choice between enrichment items, and see where they choose to spend their time. The study by Dr. Jacklyn Ellis et al uses this method to see which of three types of enrichment shelter cats prefer.

This is a choice test, in which the animal is placed in one chamber with access to other compartments that contain different items, to see which one(s) they access the most. It’s also possible to do a motivational test to see how hard an animal will work to access a particular compartment. These methods have been used with a wide range of animals, including goldfish to see if they prefer real or artificial plants (answer: goldfish like both real and artificial plants).

The study of shelter cats and enrichment choices

The current study aimed to investigate which type(s) of enrichment shelter cats prefer out of a choice between a hiding box, a shelf to perch on, and a prey-like toy (the Mouse Chaser). Since we already know that cats like to hide, to perch in high up places, and to play with toys, it’s interesting to see which one they like best.

Fluffy cat hiding in a box - cardboard boxes are important enrichment for cats since they provide hiding spaces
Photo: sarikosta; top, kmsh. Both Shutterstock.

26 domestic cats from an animal shelter took part in groups of 3 at a time. On average, the cats had been at the shelter for 6 days. While they took part in the study the cats were housed in a lab that was set up with three choice chambers (one per cat). The cats could not see the other cats, although they could hear them.

The choice chamber consisted of a central space that contained the cat’s food and litter, with four compartments leading off. One was empty as a control, while the other three compartments contained the hiding box, perch, and toy. Access to the compartments was via a cat flap, and after time to acclimate to the central space the cats were taught how to use the cat flaps using wet food, treats or petting as rewards. Once they’d got the hang of that, the experiment itself began.

The cat flaps were set up so that a record was automatically made every time the flap was opened. The researchers measured how often each compartment was accessed over a period of 7 days, and how much time the cats spent in there.

Results of the study

The results show that although there were no differences in how often each chamber was accessed, the cats spent significantly more time in the compartment with the hiding box.  This suggests the hiding box was important to them.

There was also an effect of light, with compartments being visited more often during light hours than dark, and in particular between 8am and midday, suggesting the cats were more active during this time. However light and dark did not affect the amount of time spent per compartment. Individual cats differed a lot in terms of how much time they spent perching on the shelf.

There were no effects of age, sex or whether the cat was a stray or a surrender on the frequency of visits to the compartments. However, cats that had been strays spent less time in the control (empty) compartment than cats that had been surrendered by their owners. The researchers suggest this may be because stray cats either prefer to avoid empty spaces, or to spend more time in close proximity to their resources (given they are used to having to find them for themselves).

The researchers raise the question of whether the hiding box was enrichment or in fact actually a necessity. Some scientists say enrichment is about providing something that brings positive welfare benefits, rather than prevents poor welfare.

The scientists write,
“These authors may contend that the much greater allocation of time to the hiding box may be evidence that not providing an opportunity for these individuals to hide is failing to cater to their basic needs.”
The layout of the room was such that only one of the choice chambers gave cats a view of whether or not a person was approaching; the other chambers could be accessed from more than one angle. In this chamber, the cats tended to spend more time in the compartment from where they could see someone approaching, suggesting they value time with a person.

Over time cats may change their preferences, and as seen with the perches in this study, each cat is an individual. Since only one toy was used in the study, it may be that different types of toy, having a variety of toys, and/or toys that involve interaction with a human might be preferred by particular cats.

The scientists conclude that,
“Although the frequency in which the cats visited each compartment did not differ, they allocated more of their time to the compartment with a box that provided a hiding opportunity. This may be because hiding satisfies a basic need for cats housed short-term in caged conditions.”
Although the study took place in a lab, which may be less stressful than the shelter, it shows that hiding places were still very important to the cats.

Hiding places for shelter cats and owned cats

Many shelters already provide a hiding space for cats. One example is the BCSPCA’s Hide Perch and Go, which provides a hiding space, a perching space and can be used to transport the cat. Another is the Feline Fort from Cats Protection that includes a step and table as well as hiding place and is easy to disinfect.

The research is only about shelter cats and not owned cats, but it has implications for cats at home, who benefit from hiding spaces too. Providing a safe space is one of the five pillars of a healthy feline environment (Ellis et al 2013). Cats are prey animals and can be taken by coyotes etc, and as solitary hunters if they got injured it would have serious consequences for future food acquisition. So cats feel safer when they have places to hide, which may be enclosed, high up, and in a quiet area.

Why not take a look around your home and see which spaces are available for your cat to hide in. Under the bed and under the settee can be good hiding places, but they are still quite large areas, and cats prefer to have smaller cat-sized hiding places where they can feel more enclosed.

The hiding place used in this study is easy to replicate at home, since it was a cardboard box with a hole cut in one side to provide access. Other options include cat trees with enclosed hiding spaces, cat tunnels, cat carriers, or even access to a suitable shelf or cupboard in your house (so long as they can't get trapped there). Leaving the cat carrier out and making it a nice comfy hiding space also has benefits when it comes to taking your cat to the vet.  Check out my post on hiding places for cats for more ideas.

If you have multiple cats in your home, each one needs access to hiding places without having to compete with the other cats.

The full paper is open access and can be read via the link below.

If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Modern Cat magazine calls it "a must-have guide to improving your cat's life."

What kind of hiding places does your cat spend time in?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Ellis, J. J., Stryhn, H., Spears, J., & Cockram, M. S. (2017). Environmental enrichment choices of shelter cats. Behavioural Processes.
Ellis, S. L., Rodan, I., Carney, H. C., Heath, S., Rochlitz, I., Shearburn, L. D., ... & Westropp, J. L. (2013). AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15(3), 219-230.
Gourkow, N., & Phillips, C. J. (2016). Effect of cognitive enrichment on behavior, mucosal immunity and upper respiratory disease of shelter cats rated as frustrated on arrival. Preventive veterinary medicine, 131, 103-110.
Sullivan, M., Lawrence, C., & Blache, D. (2016). Why did the fish cross the tank? Objectively measuring the value of enrichment for captive fish. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 174, 181-188.

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