The cats-box thing is a bit of a joke (and internet phenomenon), I mean, why DO cats love boxes so much? Even science has tried (sort of) to tackle the question. We get a range of answers, from predation advantage (a great place to stalk prey from), to fun (think of Maru), to perhaps the most important reasons: safety and security.
But for one group of cats, cats in animal shelters, boxes aren't just frivolous additions to the environment, they may be critical to reducing stress. Boxes may save lives. Yet another study, recently published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, demonstrates that having an appropriate hiding space reduced stress in shelter cats, and helped them adapt better to being in a new environment.
The study, "Will a hiding box provide stress reduction for shelter cats," tested 19 cats who were brought into a Dutch animal shelter. Ten cats were given a hiding box, and nine cats (the control group) were not. The hiding box had two entrances and was placed in the back of the cage before cats were placed in it. All cages also had a litterbox, three towels, and a water and food dish.
Researchers measured the stress levels of the cats using a metric known as the Cat-Stress-Score (CSS). The CSS looks at the postures of the body, belly, legs, tail, heads, eyes and ears, as well as the activity level of the cat to determine an overall stress level. This observational method of assessing stress in cats may be less reliable than physiological measures (such as blood cortisol levels), but the advantage is that the CSS is a non-invasive way of measuring stress without INCREASING stress (as blood draws might do). The floor is open for comments as to whether or not the CSS is the best way to collect the data in question!
The study also observed where the cats were spending their time, basically creating an activity budget of where in the cage the cats were hanging out: on the shelf that was part of the cage, in the hiding box, lying behind their litterbox or "somewhere else" (not too many options in a small cage!). This information was both to see preferences in the cats (e.g. perch vs. box) but also to examine the functions those places might serve (hiding vs. comfort vs. vantage point).