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Scientists try to measure animal boredom

Nov. 19, 2012
Courtesy of Public Library of Science
and World Science staff

How can you tell when an an­i­mal is bored? Re­search­ers have found that mink housed in bor­ing con­di­tions eat more treats be­tween meals and lie awake more than mink liv­ing in in­ter­est­ing en­vi­ron­ments. 

The study was de­signed to meas­ure, for the first time, signs of bore­dom in an an­i­mal. Al­though giv­ing caged an­i­mals a stim­u­lat­ing en­vi­ron­ment is con­sid­ered key to their well-be­ing, it re­mains un­clear how to de­fine ad­e­qua­te stimula­t­ion, ex­plained the re­search­ers, Re­bec­ca Meagher and col­leagues of the Uni­vers­ity of Guelph in Can­a­da. In­ac­tive or slug­gish crea­tures are of­ten called bored or de­pressed, they noted, but these terms aren’t clearly de­fined for non-hu­mans.

A mink lies awake. (Credit: Re­bec­ca Mea­gher)


In work de­scribed on­line Nov. 14 in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One by, the team ex­posed mink to a va­ri­e­ty of stim­u­li in­clud­ing puffs of air, ob­jects to chase, and can­dles. They found that crit­ters housed in homes en­riched with stim­u­li, such as wa­ter for wad­ing, ate few­er treats when not hun­gry, and did­n’t lie awake with­out sleep­ing as much as an­i­mals housed with­out these stim­u­li.

The re­sults are a first step to­wards de­fin­ing bore­dom in caged mink, the re­search­ers claimed. “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.”

“Many peo­ple be­lieve that farm and zoo an­i­mals in emp­ty en­clo­sures get bored,” Meagher added. “But since the an­i­mals can’t tell us how they feel, we can only judge this from see­ing how motiva­ted they are for stimula­t­ion.”


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How can you tell when an animal is bored? Researchers have found that mink housed in boring conditions consume more food treats between meals, and lie awake for a large chunk of the day compared to mink living in interesting environments. The study was designed to measure, for the first time, signs of boredom in an animal. Although giving caged animals a stimulating environments is considered key to their well-being, it remains unclear how to define adequate stimulation, explained the researchers, Rebecca Meagher and colleagues of the University of Guelph in Canada. Inactive or sluggish animals are often called bored or depressed, but these terms are yet to be clearly defined for non- human subjects. In work described online Nov. 14 in the research journal PLoS One by, the team exposed mink to a variety of stimuli including puffs of air, objects to chase, and candles. They found that critters housed in homes enriched with stimuli, such as water for wading, ate fewer treats when not hungry, and didn’t lie awake without sleeping as much as animals housed without these stimuli. The results are a first step towards defining boredom in caged mink, the researchers claimed. “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.” “Many people believe that farm and zoo animals in empty enclosures get bored,” Meagher added. “But since the animals can’t tell us how they feel, we can only judge this from seeing how motivated they are for stimulation.”