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Why Do Cats Like Boxes?

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Why do cats like boxes? It's one of those age-old questions. Share your living space with a cat for even a short length of time and you’ll quickly begin to doubt everything you’ve ever been taught about mass and volume. If given the opportunity, a reasonably sized cat will somehow compress itself into a tiny box and idle there for hours.

Why do cats feel the need to squish themselves into cardboard boxes? Do they not realize their dignity is in question when they lord over a living room from a Zappos shipping box?

“There’s that adage, ‘Think outside the box,’” says Carole Wilbourn, a New York City-based cat therapist. “Cats like to think inside of the box.”

Cats, Wilbourn reasons, take comfort in cramped spaces because it makes them feel more secure and dominant. “I think part of it goes back to when they were kittens and inside the womb, feeling safe and comforted. There’s a feeling of coziness, being able to do what they want to do, and just feeling untouchable.”

Science has been able to support this theory. Animal behaviorists have studied stress levels in newly arrived shelter cats and found that felines with access to boxes had lower stress levels and faster adjustment periods than those without [PDF]. Even if they’re not quite as protected as they think they are—you can pretty much do anything to a cat who is inside a box as you could a cat who is outside of one—their perception may very well be that they’re insulating themselves from harm.

Curling up in an undersized shelter has an additional benefit: it helps the cat retain more body heat. Cats tend to like running at a temperature between 86 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a reason you might also find them hanging out on a radiator, laptop, or other heat-emitting device. “When a cat is warm, the cat feels relaxed,” Wilbourn says.

Though you might find a cat stuffed in a bathroom sink or other tight space, cardboard boxes usually have enough give to them to allow for greater comfort for the feline in question. If you’re still perplexed by the preference, remember that you’ve probably endorsed it by melting at the sight. “People see a cat in a box and say, ‘Oh, that looks so nice and peaceful,'" Wilbourn says. "It’s a positive association. It’s easy for a cat to get blissed out in a box.”

A penchant for small boxes isn't the only seemingly odd cat behavior that science has been able to account for; from climbing to scratching to pouncing, researchers have logged a lot of hours studying the science behind your cat's weird ways. They've also studied cat behavior from the owner's perspective, and discovered a number of ways that having a furry friend can benefit the health of its owner, including the therapeutic effect that the heart-melting sound of a purring cat have on those who hear it. Awww.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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