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Cap­tive ani­mals show signs of bore­dom, study finds

pub­lished 16 Novem­ber 2012 | mod­i­fied 05 Decem­ber 2012

Won­der­ing if your caged ham­ster gets bored? It’s highly likely if the crit­ter has noth­ing to do all day.

American mink cageThose are the find­ings of Uni­ver­sity of Guelph researchers in the first research study to empir­i­cally demon­strate bore­dom in con­fined ani­mals. The study was pub­lished Novem­ber 14 in PLOS ONE, pub­lished by the Pub­lic Library of Sci­ence. The study’s authors hope the results encour­age the devel­op­ment of bet­ter hous­ing sys­tems for cap­tive ani­mals. It quan­ti­fies, for the first time, signs of bore­dom in an animal.

Ideas about how to assess ani­mal bore­dom sci­en­tif­i­cally have been raised before, but this is really the first time that anyone’s done it. 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.
Rebecca Meagher, lead author, post­doc­toral researcher Uni­ver­sity of Guelph »

It’s well-​established that liv­ing in 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.

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

The researchers found that ani­mals in con­fined empty spaces avidly seek stim­u­la­tion, which is con­sis­tent with bore­dom. Those mink approached stim­uli — even nor­mally fright­en­ing objects — three times more quickly and inves­ti­gated them for longer. These ani­mals also ate more treats, even when given as much food as mink in enriched envi­ron­ments. When they were not being tested, mink in empty cages spent much of their wak­ing time lying down and idle. Among them, those that spent the most time awake but 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. 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
(Rebecca Meagher)

Guelph neu­ro­sci­en­tist and psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor Mark Fenske, an expert in human cog­ni­tion and emo­tion and recent co-​author of a com­pre­hen­sive review of bore­dom research, said the study is an impor­tant addi­tion to the lit­er­a­ture. “Sur­pris­ingly lit­tle is known about bore­dom, even though it is asso­ci­ated with sig­nif­i­cant adverse con­se­quences for health and well-​being,” he said. “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.”

This is how it could be when enrich­ment is pro­vided under con­trolled con­di­tions:

ARKive photo - American mink, controlled conditions

Meagher and Mason hope the find­ings will prompt fur­ther research, includ­ing look­ing at whether intel­li­gent ani­mals such as pri­mates and par­rots are par­tic­u­larly prone to bore­dom in cap­tiv­ity, and why under­stim­u­la­tion causes prob­lems.

The above news item is reprinted from mate­ri­als avail­able at Uni­ver­sity of Guelph and Sci­enceDaily. Orig­i­nal text may be edited for con­tent and length.
(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Guelph News release, 15.11.2012; Sci­enceDaily, 14.11.2012)

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