"You can't see me."
When you see a cat crouched behind her litter box, it could be she’s hiding in plain sight.
Or maybe she just didn’t have a cardboard box handy.
Cats can get stressed out when thrust into a new environment, as any veterinary team member can tell you. Cats also like to play with cardboard boxes, as any YouTube watcher can tell you. But it turns out that cats in cardboard boxes is more than just a viral meme.
Research shows that it could be a survival mechanism.
Researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands tested that theory by studying the “hiding behavior” of 19 stray cats brought in to a Dutch animal shelter. In the study, published online in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science, ten cats were put in a cage with a cardboard hiding box, while nine cats that served as the control group were placed in cage without a hiding box. All the cages also had a litter box, three towels, plus dishes for food and water.
The researchers recorded the cats on video, and measured their stress levels over a two week period using a non-invasive metric known as the cat stress score (CSS). The CSS scores ten behavioral components based on the postures of a cat’s body, belly, legs, tail, head, eyes, pupils, ears, whiskers, and overall activity level.
Cats with hiding boxes spent most of their time, 55 percent, in their hiding box. The cats without hiding boxes spent most of their time, 45 percent, behind their litter box.
Researchers called crouching behind their litter box “replacement hiding” behavior.
After fourteen days, the cats with hiding boxes showed significantly lower stress scores than the cats without a hiding box.
Claudia M. Vinke, PhD, the study’s lead-author, said, “Our study proves the importance of hiding behaviour for cats. It is an essential behavioural need of the cat to cope with environmental challenges and to reduce acute stressful events as soon as possible.”
Vinke’s research has practical applications to veterinary practices as well as animal shelters.
“Knowing that hiding is important for cats to cope with the environment . . . a transport box can be very important,” when clients bring a cat in for an appointment, Vinke said.
Noting that “Some stressed cats won’t come out easily,” Vinke also recommends letting the cat hide under a towel when you remove her from her transport box. “You can even do a lot of veterinary examinations with a cat under the towel as well,” she said.
She added that she knows some vets who even do blood draws with a towel draped over the cat while one leg pokes out from underneath.
Photo credit © sdominick