Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Do animals get bored?

boredom, bored dog
How do you tell if an animal is bored?

Do animals experience boredom? Those of us who cohabit with companion animals are generally convinced they do, but science is catching up.
In a review article(Burn, 2017) looking at boredom in non-human animals, Charlotte Burn claims that “chronic inescapable boredom is neither trivial nor benign.”

Burn argues that boredom includes sub-optimal arousal and aversion to monotony.

She discusses triggers of boredom, like spatially and temporally monotonous situations, confinement, and its effects - like frustration, stereotypic behaviour, disengagement and cognitive impairment. We know that for bored humans, time seems to drag. We know that monotony causes some individuals to seek novelty, even stimuli they might normally avoid (in humans, boredom is one factor associated with addiction). Chronic, inescapable boredom is “extremely aversive”, and under-stimulation can reduce physiological and behavioural flexibility.

Despite its significant welfare implications, animal boredom has been neglected by science, which is concerning given that most animals studied by scientists are confined in relatively barren environments for their entire lives. Yet we know that to develop neurologically, most animals need species-appropriate stimulation.

Boredom perhaps has an evolutionary advantage in motivating animals to seek stimulation and learn. It might even motivate some animals to leave their homes and seek new territories, or try new foods, or new behaviours.
Restricted periods of boredom may be helpful in motivating us to learn. But prolonged, inescapable boredom has negative effects, including damage to the central nervous system (the brain can literally shrink).

Environmental enrichment may alleviate boredom, but only if the enrichment is perceived as stimulating and relevant to the animal.

Burn’s article documents significant evidence that boredom exists in animals. She summarises various studies which highlight potential indicators of boredom (for example preference tests, escape behaviour, negative cognitive bias), indicators of sub-optimal arousal in humans and animals (for example, decreased HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) and SAM (sympathetic-adrenomedullary) activity, and EEG (electroencephalographic) patterns) and other indicators including time perception, disrupted sleep, and abnormal, repetitive behaviours.

Some may consider the study of boredom to be a bit of a “luxury” compared to study of other established animal welfare problems like pain and stress. Burn does not agree.

She writes: “Given the intense distress that prolonged boredom can cause in humans, and the cognitive damage to which under-stimulation can ultimately lead, it is potentially a severe and highly prevalent animal welfare issue neglected too long.”

There is a need, she argues, for scientists to investigate the biological basis for boredom, and to evaluate techniques and strategies to combat boredom in humans and in animals.

The implications for anyone housing animals are huge. That includes people working in laboratories, zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries, farms and companion animal owners. Which species are most susceptible to boredom? How do we ensure that confined animals experience appropriate stimulation for their development? Which interventions can offset boredom?

This is a paper worth reading in full. In terms of companion animals there are a number of ways we can offset boredom. Interacting with them in a meaningful way – whether it’s going for a walk, engaging in training, petting or grooming, providing appropriate environmental enrichment or even companionship with their own species can all help to offset boredom.

Different animals at different stages in their development may require different 
types and levels of stimulation.


BURN, C. C. 2017. Bestial boredom: a biological perspective on animal boredom and suggestions for its scientific investigation. Animal Behaviour, 130, 141-151.