Boredom Affects Animals Too
November 15, 2012

Even Animals Get Bored, Especially When Confined To A Cage

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

A research team from the University of Guelph has been investigating the boredom of captive animals. Their findings, published in PLOS ONE, are the first to empirically demonstrate boredom in confined animals. The team hopes to encourage the development of more suitable housing systems for captive animals.

"Ideas about how to assess animal boredom scientifically have been raised before, but this is really the first time that anyone's done it," said Rebecca Meagher, a U of G postdoctoral researcher.

It´s well known that unchanging, inescapable environments induces boredom in humans, including prisoners who report that they are highly motivated to seek stimulation.

"But we cannot rely on verbal self-reports from non-humans, so motivation to obtain general stimulation must form the basis of any objective measure of boredom in animals," said Prof. Georgia Mason, who holds the Canada Research Chair in animal welfare in Guelph's Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

It has been considered critical for a while to provide animals with adequate stimulation, but what constitutes "adequate" has been hard to quantify. The team says that their study is a first step towards defining boredom in caged animals.

"Such means of defining boredom for non-human animals are very much needed, since reducing boredom is often stated as an aim of enrichment, and yet to date we have had no means of judging success at achieving this goal."

Meagher adds, "Many people believe that farm and zoo animals in empty enclosures get bored, but since the animals can't tell us how they feel, we can only judge this from seeing how motivated they are for stimulation."

The research team used captive mink to investigate boredom. Half of the mink were housed in small, bare cages and the other half lived in large "enriched" cages enhanced with water for wading, passageways for running, objects to chew and towers to climb. The team presented the captive animals with stimuli ranging from appealing treats to neutral objects and undesirable things such as leather gloves used to catch the animals.

What they found is that animals confined in empty spaces avidly seek stimulation, which is consistent with boredom. The animals in these cages approached stimuli, even frightening objects, three times faster and investigated them longer than the animals in the enriched cages. The bored mink also ate more treats, even though they were given as much food as the animals in the enriched environments.

Without stimuli, the mink living in empty cages spent much of their waking time lying down and idle, and the ones who spent the most time motionless showed the keenest interest in stimuli.

"We don't know whether mink or other animals truly feel bored in the same way that humans do," Meagher said. "We can't measure that type of subjective experience. But we can see that, when they have little to do, then just like many bored humans, they may look listless, and, if given the chance, eagerly seek any form of stimulation."

"Surprisingly little is known about boredom, even though it is associated with significant adverse consequences for health and well-being," said Guelph neuroscientist and psychology professor Mark Fenske, an expert in human cognition and emotion.

"Being able to now study boredom in non-human animals is an important step in our efforts to understand its causes and effects and find ways to alleviate boredom-related problems across species."

The team hopes that the findings of their study will prompt further research, including looking at whether intelligent animals such as primates and parrots are prone to boredom in captivity. They also want to understand why under-stimulation causes problems.