Bored Behind Bars: Animal Apathy

November 19, 2012 8:00 pm

It’s common sense to assume that if a person were to sit in an empty room all day with nothing to do, they would be incredibly bored. But is the same true of our pets? A recent study, published in the PLOS ONE scientific journal, suggests that it is, and that captive animals will grow bored if they are not kept in an adequately enriched environment.

The study, carried out by researchers at the University of Guelph, Ontario, examined whether or not mink – a member of the weasel family – would experience more boredom if they were kept in empty, un-stimulating cages.

To test this theory, thirteen mink were kept in enriched cages, with features such as wading water, climbing towers and chewable dog toys to keep them entertained, while sixteen other mink were kept in small, bare cages – similar to those used by many fur farms around the world. The mink were then exposed to various stimuli to see how they would react, including positive stimuli such as female faeces and negative stimuli such as the urine of predators.

The researchers found that the mink in the un-enriched, ‘boring’ cages were far more interested in the stimuli than those with a more exciting habitat. The un-enriched mink approached new objects considerably faster than their enriched counterparts, and also spent more time examining the objects. This increased interest in new objects is a strong indication of boredom, and provides rare empirical evidence of this state in non-human animals.

The researchers also noted that between test periods, when the mink were left to their own devices, many of those in the empty cages spent most of their time lying down with their eyes open, not sleeping. Individuals exhibiting this behaviour were the most interested in the stimuli, and so this behaviour could potentially be used as an indicator of boredom in captive animals.

The results of this experiment could be influential in advancing the study of boredom in animals, and help to improve the living conditions of any creatures in captivity. They may also make you want to reconsider your own pets’ living arrangements and ask yourself: is your animal bored?

For more information, the full study can be viewed for free on the PLOS ONE website.

Journal Reference:

Meagher, R.K. and Mason, G.J. Environmental Enrichment Reduces Signs of Boredom in Caged Mink. PloS ONE, 2012; 7 (11): e49180. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049180


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