Will cats respond to the illusion of a box? If so, why?

I find cats to endlessly fascinating as well as comforting. This is just one example.

Why do cats sit in a taped square or circle?

Mary Jo DiLonardo

MARY JO DILONARDOMay 18, 2020, 1:12 p.m.

Cats are quirky. There’s no question about it. We know they like to hide in boxes and knock things over. They are persnickety about their drinking preferences.

But this kitty question involves a roll of tape. If you make a square or other closed shape on your floor, what will your cat do? Turns out a lot of cats will get inside it.

Danielle Matheson’s (@prograpslady) Tweet about her mom’s home experiment started the hubbub.

Amazed cat owners responded after replicating the experiment, often with tape, but others with squares made out of ribbon, sheets of paper and even shoes.

It gets even better when you think about social distancing, but more about that in a minute.

Cat experts weigh in

Some cats think this game is dumb. (Photo: Anne Worner [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

So what makes cats so interested in a diagram on the floor? We checked in with a couple of animal behaviorists for their theories.

“We know that cats like safe spaces. It’s possible that the marking on the floor creates some illusion on the floor that doesn’t actually exist,” says certified cat behavior consultant Mikel Delgado, who’s based in the Berkeley, California area. “It might have enough similarity to a low-sided box that a lot of cats are attracted to it for safety.”

Atlanta-based certified cat behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson agrees.

“I would imagine they probably feel as if they are ‘in’ something … like laying in a cardboard canned food tray. Though shallow, still comforting, offers parameters or at least the perception of sides,” she says.

Johnson points out that cats have poor close-up vision, so they may have the perception that the tape is actually the sides of a confined area.

“Their vision is built for distance and speed, watching a mouse run across the field,” she says. “Close up they’re virtually blind 8 to 12 inches off their muzzle.”

Kitty curiosity

For some cats, a box offers hours of entertainment. (Photo: andrewpotter4/Shutterstock)

Another reason cats are intrigued? Pure feline curiosity.

“If you put something new on the floor, a fair amount of cats would explore it,” Delgado says. “Most indoor cats know every square foot of your home.”

Because cats are very sensitive to their environment, the tape square might be attracting them just because it’s new and different, she says. The same thing would likely happen it you put a piece of cardboard or a paper bag on the floor. A lot of cats would check it out and inspect it.

Rhode Island certified animal behaviorist Katenna Jones agrees it’s likely the novelty of the square and the cat’s inherent inquisitive nature.

“Cats are very good at noticing new things, especially on the floor,” Jones says. “Most cats, if you place a cup on the floor, they’ll check it out. If you place a pen on the floor, they’ll check it out. If you place a bar of soap on the floor, they’ll check it out. You may not see this ‘sit on the square’ behavior in very fearful kitties because they aren’t confident enough to check it out.”

Jones theorizes that the cats who show this behavior are the same felines that like boxes and beds.

“I think the cat has experience with boxes or beds, notices the new thing, goes to check it out, associates it with a possible comfy spot or a hiding spot. I think it’s sitting on it because it’s learned throughout its life that things like this are comfortable. Very simple association. That shape is associated with comfort — just like how a cat associates a can opener with tuna.”

Cats in circles

Cats don’t believe in boundaries — but sometimes, they like to sit within them. (Photo: Paulo O [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

Delgado points out that this isn’t the first time the internet has been mystified with this type of feline behavior. A couple years ago, tape circles on the floor were like catnip to curious kitties.

That started when Reddit user Admancb posted a series of photos after discovering his cat was drawn to the circle loop made by a looped power cord. From there, he made circle-ish figures (technically hexagons and heptagons) with tape and the cat jumped in.

The concept came back during the coronavirus pandemic, when someone in the Philippines took a photo of stray cats casually sitting in circles intended for human social distancing at a market in Quezon City. To a cat, social distancing just makes sense.

Maybe cats do it because they’re curious. Perhaps they do it because they feel safe. Or there could be one other possible reason, says Delgado.

“Maybe just chalk it up to cats being mysterious.”

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