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Hiding Boxes: Stress Therapy for Cats?

Feb 09, 2015 12:01 PM EST

If you've ever spent a few minutes perusing the internet aimlessly, you're bound to come across one of the web's most popular forms of entertainment: cute cat videos. And among those videos, a great many of them consist of cats and kittens playing in boxes. Now a new study offers clues as to why our feline friends love these cardboard hidey-holes so much.

The study, recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior, details how cats may actually use boxes as a form of therapy, especially in high stress environments like animal shelters.

It's no secret that play alone can be a stress reliever. Past studies have revealed that mammals and even birds play, indicating that it is an essential part of life for even healthy adult animals. However, what makes a box preferable over simple cat toys is that it can also serve as a confined hiding place, where the animals can secret themselves away from the stresses of everyday life.

This is not unlike how children may build forts out of their bed sheets and pillows, providing both a place for play and isolation from childhood worries. (Scroll to read on...)

To really understand the significance of a box, researchers from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands recently divided a group of 19 new shelter cat arrivals into two groups. One group was provided with several hiding boxes during their first couple weeks at the shelter. The other group was left with only that which the shelter would normally give them (toys, food, etc).

The researchers had expected the box to serve as a tool for making a transition to shelter life slightly easier, but what they found was far more significant.

Following two weeks of observation, the researchers concluded that while both cat groups eventually learned to cope with the high stress environment of shelter life, the box group achieved relative comfort by day three, according to the Kessler and Turner Cat-Stress-Score (CSS). The non-box group, on the other hand, varied widely on recovery time, with many taking more than a week to calm down.

So why is this important? The researchers note that elevated stress levels among shelter cats has been directly tied to an increased prevalence of disease, as elevated cortisol levels (a stress hormone) can suppress the immune system in mammals.

It's not unreasonable to conclude then, that introducing a simple box might not only help these cats feel more at home in a new place, but could also help keep them happy and healthy.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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