Investigating Animal Boredom
Companion animal guardians will often report that they’ve observed their dogs or cats appearing to be bored (particularly when they are not receiving attention). While many people may believe that boredom is a common experience for animals, very few scientific studies have attempted to determine whether or not animals can feel boredom. This lack of research is particularly concerning when it comes to captive wild and domestic animals, as prolonged boredom from unstimulating and monotonous captive environments may cause significant welfare problems.
This article, published in Animal Behavior, seeks to provide a basis for increased research on boredom in animals by evaluating evidence indicating that animals experience boredom, providing theoretical arguments as to why animals might experience boredom, and identifying potential indicators of boredom.
The author first explores previous research in boredom in animals and extends research on boredom in humans to animals. Significant points include the following:
- Studies conducted so far indicate that animals kept in unstimulating environments may demonstrate boredom by becoming less active as well as being more likely to react to new stimuli, even when that stimuli is aversive.
- The neural mechanisms producing boredom have not be extensively investigated in even humans. However, it is likely that boredom is connected to structures in the brain that support arousal, and that boredom may occur as a result of discrepancies between these structures. These structure are found in humans as well as many mammals, birds, and reptiles.
- Humans appear to exhibit age-appropriate boredom responses (such as young children becoming bored by adult activities but enjoying repetitive games) as mechanisms for developing and learning. Likewise, animals of different ages display varying motivations for different types of play and activities.
- As an adaptive mechanism, boredom should produce some positive evolutionary effects. These may include providing motivation to stay within levels of appropriate arousal for maximum learning and performance, and having the opposite effect of prompting exploration and diversification in order to relieve boredom. In line with the latter theory, research has shown that captive animals who are unable to escape monotony exhibit increasingly inflexible and limited behaviors.
The author next evaluates potential ways of measuring boredom in animals. Significant points include the following:
- There is no single unambiguous indicator of boredom, as there is with other emotion states, as several indicators would need to be used to measure boredom.
- One way of measuring boredom may be to use the “dimensional model,” which characterizes states according to their levels of arousal and positive or negative valence—for example fear has high arousal and negative valance. However, the author notes that while boredom would be associated with negative valence it could be associated with either high or low arousal.
- Potential practical indicators that can be used to measure boredom include animals avoiding, trying to escape from, or performing self-destructive behaviors when placed in monotonous situations; and animals displaying physical signs of suboptimal arousal measured through increased drowsiness, increased blinking, slowed breathing, and reductions in certain chemicals in the brain.
- Other possible indicators of boredom including measuring altered time perception, sleep behavior and disturbances, and abnormal or repetitive behaviors.
In conclusion, the author reiterates the importance of identifying and reducing boredom in captive animals and calls for more research on the subject. As she states, “Given the intense distress that prolonged boredom can cause in humans, and the cognitive damage to which understimulation can ultimately lead, it is potentially a severe and highly prevalent animal welfare issue neglected too long. The time is ripe to embrace animal boredom as a topic of genuine scientific and moral interest.”
For advocates, the paper provides a starting point for sourcing evidence that animals can feel boredom and that such boredom is harmful to their welfare. The paper also includes useful tables summarizing research that has been conducted on animals and boredom and specifying what indicators may be used to investigate various facets of boredom. However, advocates may also note that some of the research discussed in the paper may be deemed unethical as it involved experimenting on captive animals in settings such as labs, farms, and zoos.