Box O’ Cats

It’s Friday, and that means I owe you a cat-related post. Hold tight while we dip into medicine and feline psychology in an attempt to solve one of nature’s greatest mysteries.

Thanks to Stef for sending me this video that demonstrates the question. It’s definitely worth three minutes of your time to watch, so go ahead; I’ll wait. (She suggests turning off the sound and I concur: the music adds nothing to the experience.)

You’re back? Good.

Giggle-worthy though the video is, it started me asking why cats are so driven to crawl into tight spaces. And it is unquestionably a drive. The first segment came from the video below, and it adds a whole new layer of meaning:

Maru shows that he will get into any box that catches his eye, no matter how much of a struggle it is or how uncomfortably his tail gets pinched. (There’s a whole series of Maru videos that will show up in the recommendations when you watch that one. Well worth spending some time on them; as Alton Brown has said in another context, “Your patience will be rewarded.” Maru’s determination is an inspiration to us all.)

Several sites give the obvious answers: it’s like a little cave, it’s a protected space where they can sleep without being attacked, and it’s a concealed location where they can watch what’s going on without being seen.

That’s not an adequate answer, though. Cats have a very finely tuned ability to figure out whether they’ll fit into a given space–that’s what their whiskers are for–so why do they continue to try to cram themselves into boxes that are too small, or, as Maru demonstrates, drape themselves across the top of micro-boxes?

A few other proposed explanations from around the web:

There’s some merit in those ideas, especially the last one, but they don’t quite seem adequate to me.

Not all cats display the same level of determination that Maru does; clearly there’s something specific to certain cats that drive them to force themselves into tiny boxes.

There is a human neurological disorder called Frey’s syndrome; those who have the syndrome sweat from a patch of skin near the ear whenever they salivate. (As it happens, I have Frey’s syndrome; those of you who have shared a meal with me may have noticed me wiping my left cheek and complaining about my “damn sweat patch”.) I think cats that demonstrate “Maru’s syndrome” are experiencing a similar neurological misfiring; in their case it’s a misdirection of the instinct that draws cats to sit down on your book or newspaper while you’re reading. Cats are drawn to paper and paper products: they’ll rub their cheeks on the corner of a book you’re reading, snooze on a pile of paperbacks, crawl into boxes and bags, unroll the toilet paper, and yes, plop themselves down on your newspaper. In Maru’s syndrome, clearly that instinct is being intensified; the scent of paper and cardboard drives them to a frenzy and they go greater and greater efforts to surround themselves with the scent.

I mentioned in this morning’s photo post that Watanuki’s issues with condos were relevant here. What’s the connection? First, consider that he’s actually giving up the benefits of being in a cave: he’s not enclosed and protected from predators, he’s not concealed, he’s not getting his body heat radiated back at him, and he’s certainly not doing anything to improve the economy. Second, consider that this condo, like many, is made of heavy-duty cardboard. Could it be that ‘Nuki suffers from a sort of “reverse Maru’s syndrome” in which the scent of paper products actually repels him? There is some supporting evidence: he’s not aggressive about sitting on newspapers–he prefers clothes; unlike several of his siblings, he doesn’t have much interest in chewing on books–his chew toys of choice are toes and Yuki; he doesn’t unroll the toilet paper–he leaves that to Kaja and Rhubarb; and given his choice of dens, he’s more likely to hole up in a plastic cat carrier than a cardboard box or the wooden headboard of the bed. Seems like a significant possibility.

In most cases, Maru’s syndrome–and Watanuki’s syndrome, for that matter–is a minor nuisance to the cat, and an entertainment to humans. Massive investment in seeking a cure seems unwarranted, but if you are a feline suffering from Maru’s syndrome, please take care in your self-boxing. You don’t want to wind up like this:

9 thoughts on “Box O’ Cats

    • Hi, Susan. Welcome to my felinocentric corner of the Internet.

      I hope this little contribution to mankind’s knowledge helps settle the question of why cats love enclosed spaces once and for all. If you think it’s a valuable contribution to SCIENCE!, please spread the word.

      The Colonel is quite the handsome gentleman.


        • Ah, well in that case, I’ll certainly list you as part of my support team on the grant application I may or may not be writing even as I type this.

          Once I get the grant, I’ll definitely be checking in with the Colonel. I suspect he’s just the moggy to help in designing my experimental protocol.


    • Your evidence is certainly suggestive. I’d keep a close eye on Ms. Shelli. It’s not that Maru’s syndrome is dangerous, but you don’t want to miss the show when she finds a box that’s just a hair too small for her!


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