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Cats really do love sitting in boxes (even illusory ones), according to science

·4-min read
New research has thrown light on why cats love boxes and squares. (Getty Images)
New research has thrown light on why cats love boxes and squares. (Getty Images)

Laundry baskets, cardboard boxes, rubbish bins... ever wondered why your cat loves curling up in enclosed spaces?

More puzzling still, why they also opt to sit on flat square-shaped objects, like folded blankets? 

Well, scientists have decided to take a deep dive into investigating the weird behaviour of our pet mogs and their results are pretty interesting. 

Turns out, cats love to sit in boxes so much, they'll often sit in a square painted on the floor - and will even choose an optical illusion that looks like a square.

Researchers from City University of New York and the School of Psychology and Public Health in Australia, set out to study cat behaviour, and specifically whether our feline friends could perceive square-shaped optical illusions. 

Read more: 3 things I’ve bought my dog in lockdown that we now can't live without

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The study authors asked cat owners to set up different shapes on their living room floors to see if they intrigued cats like normal boxes do.

Some participants made a square out of tape on the floor, while others marked out an optical illusion, known as a kanizsa illusion, which is the arrangement of four 'Pac-Man' shapes positioned to look as if they are forming a square. 

They also set-up a Kanizsa control pattern in which the Pac-Man shapes were reversed so no optical illusion was created.

Participants were asked to record instances of their cats sitting or standing within the markings for more than three seconds.

Watch: Unimpressed cat ignores toddler bouncing next to him on the sofa. 

The results showed that a box doesn’t need to be 3D to attract a cat, as the pets will also snuggle up in a taped square or an optical illusion of a square.

Of the 30 cats who completed all the study’s trials, nine selected at least one of the illusions within the first five minutes of entering a room. 

The cats selected the Kanizsa illusions just as often as they did complete squares consisting of tape markings. 

Far fewer chose to sit within the control patterns, which did not form invisible squares.

Read more: What you need to know before buying a dog

Cats love sitting on squares. (Getty Images)
Cats love sitting on squares. (Getty Images)

Turns out, the Kanizsa figures trick the cats' brains into filling in the missing information. 

“The cats in this study stood or sat in the Kanizsa and square stimuli more often than the Kanizsa control, revealing susceptibility to illusory contours and supporting our hypothesis that cats treat an illusory square as they do a real square,” the researchers said.

Scientists believed that this behaviour is generally driven by animal instinct. More specifically, cats are attracted to confined places where they feel safer and can hide, and observe prey.

But the results could also tell us something about visual perception. 

“Many animals are evolved to perform this sort of perception,” said lead study author Gabriella Smith, researcher at City University New York. “It’s probably to do with navigating the environment. You need to know when not to walk into a tree or off a cliff.”

Read more: People are sharing hilarious photos of their pets in viral social media challenge

The team has pointed out that there are some limitations of the trial, particularly the small sample size. 

Of the original 561 cat owners that signed up, just 30 made it all the way through the experiment. 

However, the findings do seem to add weight to previous research of cats’ susceptibility to optical illusions.

And for those obsessed with the viral hashtag #CatSquares, which partly inspired the research, where social media users share pictures of their cats sitting inside squares, it provides some pretty interesting context. 

Watch: Bella the cat likes to drink water in a pretty unconventional way.