When we were newly married, my husband Mark bought a shoebox-size basket to store our mail and reduce clutter on our kitchen table. To his surprise, our red tabby Madison climbed inside, sat down and claimed the basket as her own. She filled the basket perfectly — like it was custom-made for her. Having shared most of my life with cats, it didn’t surprise me one bit. But you should have seen the look of shock on Mark’s face. He grew up with dogs.
“That can’t be comfortable,” he said, so he got some dish towels to line the basket after she vacated it. A few days later, he came home with soft padding to line the basket. Yes, I married a good man. To this day, that is Maddie’s basket, while our mail is still scattered on the table.
If you’ve lived with cats for a long time, you’ve undoubtedly observed them squeezing into tight places. The internet is littered with entertaining videos of cats climbing into small spaces. In fact a series of memes on the subject, titled “If I fits, I sits,” has become a catch phrase and search term for cat video fans looking to laugh at these feline antics.
Some of those spaces may appear too tight for cats, but they can still maneuver their way into them. Along with their many other talents, cats are contortionists and disappearance artists, which makes them experts at hiding.
So why do they do that? 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. Cats seek shelter from the rain, wind and cold. Just like a glove or sweater for humans, a snug spot contains body heat. Since cats like to feel cozy, 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.
“Cats like to position themselves so they can see out of the opening,” says Marilyn Krieger, certified cat behaviorist and owner of The Cat Coach and Urban Edge Wildlife based in Redwood City, California. “They feel safe and hidden from potential threats, while at the same time they can see possible predators and other threats. Their heads are facing out, so it can be easier for them to fight if they need to.”
A common hiding spot for cats is underneath a bed. That space is “fairly tight and low, but from there they can see out and feel secure,” Marilyn says.
Provide your feline friends with safe spaces to squeeze into. Kitty condos, carriers, baskets, boxes, anything that’s the size of a shoebox or larger, can satisfy your cat’s needs. Some cat trees combine high perches with enclosed spaces, which appeal to a cat’s need for height and an enclosed space.
They can be incognito while observing prey. Cats can stalk prey from an enclosed space and will position themselves to cover their crouched bodies before they pounce. They also position themselves so they can see and observe their prey.
Marilyn encourages her cats’ natural instincts by simulating their hunt for food in the wild. “We want cats to exercise and work for their food, so I’ll do treasure hunts,” Marilyn says. She puts pieces of food and treats like freeze-dried chicken in their high, enclosed spaces as well as in boxes and paper bags that have their handles removed.
Now that you know why they do it, how do they do it? Cats have a couple of anatomical advantages that allow them to squeeze into tight spaces.
A flexible collarbone, shoulders and spine: Cats can squeeze under anything the height of their head because they have a flexible collarbone, shoulders and spine. That means that if they can get their head and neck through, the body will follow — that is, as long as there is enough room on the other side of the opening for a cat’s body.
Whiskers: Cats use their whiskers to determine the width of a space. Unless the cat is overweight, he can fit through any space as wide as his whiskers, again, as long as there is enough space on the other side. If there isn’t enough space on the other side, cats can get stuck.
In her behavioral practice, Marilyn hasn’t witnessed too many cats getting stuck, unless there is some mechanical reason, like a closing door or drawer that traps them.
“Cats’ whiskers each have a set of nerve endings and blood supply that helps them gauge space and distance,” Marilyn says. “Cats also have whiskers on their legs and forehead, that are also highly sensitive and, like the whiskers on their faces, aid in gauging space.”
Make sure your cats can get out of whatever they get into. If your cats can’t get into and out of the space on their own, block the entrances. Take time to know your cats’ hiding places, so you can find them if you ever have to evacuate your home.
Maddie’s basket still sits atop our kitchen table, and we have yet to find something as fitting for our stacks of mail.