Study Depicts the Presence of Boredom in Captive Animals

First Posted: Nov 15, 2012 12:11 AM EST

Ever wondered if your caged pets back home get bored when you leave them alone? It is extremely challenging to determine this.

But for the first time a research was conducted in order to empirically demonstrate boredom in confined animals. This study was conducted by  researchers at the University of Guelph.

Mink hamsters, native to Syria, were primarily used for the research. It was in 1948 that Hamsters were introduced as pets by a highway engineer Albert Marsh.  They are very easy to handle and make wonderful pets for children.

This study was conducted with a hope that the end result of the study will promote the development of better 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 postdoctoral researcher at the University and the study's lead author.

Even humans display signs of boredom when they live in unchanging and inescapable environments. Prison life exemplifies this and studies show that prisoners 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.

For the study captured mink were presented with various stimuli ranging from appealing treats to neutral objects to undesirable materials such as leather gloves. The researchers had kept half of the animals in small, bare cages while the other half lived in large improved cages where they were provided with water for wading, passageways for running, objects to chew and towers to climb.

The researchers observed that those animals that lived in confined empty spaces actively sought stimulation, which is consistent with boredom.  Apart from this they ate more treats even when given as much food as mink in enriched environments.

It was noticed that the mink lay down idle in cages when not being tested and those who 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," 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."

According to 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, 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."

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 under-stimulation causes problems.

The study was published by the Public Library of Science.

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