Caged Animals Get Really, Really Bored

A just-published study has found that captive animals housed in boring conditions become, well, bored.

While that hardly seems like a surprising conclusion — who wouldn’t be bored out of their brain to spend entire days and nights in a small white plastic box with a grill on one side, or a wire cage? — scientists from the University of Guelph point out that their PLoS One study is the first to assess boredom in non-human animals. The study also shows that boredom in animals can be reduced in an enriched environment, by providing the captive animals with different sensory and other experiences such as water to wade in, passageways to run in, towers to climb and objects to chew.

The scientists studied 29 black minks on a Michigan State University research farm. The minks were housed indoors, with a natural light cycle, in either “non-enriched” wire-mesh cages or “enriched” cages. In the latter, the minks had the same “home cages” but also, via a tunnel, a space of the same width with “running water in a small trough to allow wading and head-dipping, shelf-like structures, and manipulable objects (e.g. rubber dog toys).” New items were added every month.

The mink in the “non-enriched” cages spent more of their time lying down and sitting idly. But when presented with stimuli “ranging from appealing treats to neutral objects to undesirable things, such as leather gloves used to catch the animals,” they investigated these three times as quickly as the other mink and for a longer time. They also ate more treats than the mink in the “enriched” environments (who had been given the same amount of food).

Indeed, the mink in the “non-enriched” cages who spent the most time awake but motionless showed the most interest in the stimuli. These minks’ more ardent seeking of stimulation confirmed to the researchers that they were indeed showing signs of what we would consider boredom, though the lead author of the study, University of Guelph post-doctoral researcher Rebecca Meagher, emphasized that

We don’t know whether mink or other animals truly feel bored in the same way that humans do. 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.

Meagher and study co-author Georgia Mason, who holds the Canada Research Chair in animal welfare in Guelph’s Department of Animal and Poultry Science, hope their research will prompt more research about the relatively unknown topic of boredom, such as investigations into whether “intelligent animals such as primates and parrots are particularly prone to boredom in captivity” and why “under-stimulation causes problems.”

It is of interest that another recent study has found that, while chronic stress can kill human beings and laboratory rats, wild animals who live in nature — who have plenty of stressors to contend with including “lack of food, severe weather, too many or highly efficient predators” — do not suffer from the same pathological effects. From studying cyclic snowshoe hare and arctic ground squirrels, Rudy Boonstra of the Department of Biological Sciences and Center for the Neurobiology of Stress at the University of Toronto Scarborough says that some physiological changes induced by chronic stress are actually “adaptive and ultimately promote an animal’s survival and reproductive success.”

One thing’s for sure: spending all your days in a small, well-lit cage does no creature, great or small, any good.

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Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

thanks! our kitty has free reign inside, and the outdoor dogs enjoy a hundred acres of wilderness :) lucky critters

Vince H.
Cindy H.3 years ago

No animal should be caged

Lynn C.
Lynn C.3 years ago

This sort of thing makes me wonder why the human being is suppose to be the most intelligent of all the species...a study to figure out that caged animals are bored?? Are you kidding me??
What a big DUH.

Mark Jones
Mark Jones3 years ago

Duh, environmental enrichment has been around for some time now in zoos, aquariums and other types of parks. Oddly enough, its more pets at home that don't get this than 'zoo' animals that don't. A lot of keepers today go on enrichment courses, and we have great fun giving them things suitable to their way of life, both in the wild and in captivity. As has been briefly discussed, a lot of pet owners don't know the first thing about their animals and so do not supply to their genuine needs.

Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Carol D.
Past Member 4 years ago

I would be totally bored in a cage too All animals should be in the wild and none of them should be kept for reserach purposes anyway Everything born on this earth has a right to some life and freedom

Sheri D.
Sheri D.4 years ago

Thank you, Erica B., for your comment.

Sheri D.
Sheri D.4 years ago

Thank you, Erica B., for your comment.

Erica B.
Erica B.4 years ago

There are certain animals that cannot be kept "loose," like hamsters, rats, and guinea pigs. Most people buy those awful store cages that are usually way too small for the poor animal to run around and get exercise. People also don't change out the toys, so the poor little guys get bored with the same old toys all the time. Also, animals like guinea pigs have a herd mentality, so they are much happier when they have a cage-mate of the same sex (or opposite sex if they're fixed).

My guinea pigs, for instance, live in a cage I built for them from waterproof sign board and wire shelving units. The cage is 30x72, so there is a lot of room for my two piggies to race around at high speed. I decorated the interior of the sign material with non-toxic colored marker in a flower/nature motif (guinea pigs are stimulated by various colors), and they have various houses I switch out for variety, some for daytime use, and some for nighttime sleeping. They also have different toys I switch out so boredom doesn't set in, although they seem to be addicted to toilet paper tubes, which we stuff with hay...the piggies love getting the hay out and chewing the tubes, as well as tossing them around the cage. My little girls tell me they are very happy, every time they sit on my lap and when I walk by the cage and stop for a tickle on their chins or a nice calming stroke down the back.

Connie Telfer-Smith
Past Member 4 years ago

No animal deserves to be "jailed" for life!