Do Animals get Bored?

Michael Pollick

It would be exceedingly challenging to determine whether or not all animals get bored, but it does appear that higher functioning animals can indeed experience boredom. Household pets such as dogs and cats, for example, often take extended naps apparently prompted by a lack of mental stimulation. Cats are especially prone to bouts of boredom, since they crave a significant amount of interaction with their owners throughout the day.

Animals often take long naps due to boredom.
Animals often take long naps due to boredom.

One reason determining if animals get bored or not is difficult is the tendency of human observers to assign human emotions and expressions to their non-human test subjects. Some animals may display a glassy-eyed stare or apparent disinterest in their outside environment, but this does not necessarily translate to the human concept of boredom. Some animals spend hours at a time simply waiting for a promising food source to arrive. While these animals may appear to be listless or disinterested, it might be more accurate to describe their state of mind as dormant or semi-conscious.

Household pets often take naps when faced with a lack of mental stimulation.
Household pets often take naps when faced with a lack of mental stimulation.

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Other animals, especially those with higher functioning brains, can indeed become bored following an extended lack of mental stimulation. When higher functioning animals get bored, they may invent stimulating games or visit unexplored sections of their habitats. This behavior is remarkably similar to the pointless but mind-stimulating projects humans often engage in when faced with hours of inactivity.

Bored animals may live in a disconnected emotional state until something new arrives to break monotony.
Bored animals may live in a disconnected emotional state until something new arrives to break monotony.

Some may argue that an animal's attention span can be extremely short in general, which means what humans might consider signs of boredom may simply be a temporary lack of mental stimulation. While some animals may display signs of boredom, they may not actually have the capacity to form such a complex emotion. It is possible that many animals live more in a more delineated "excited/not excited" state of mind, which would still allow for a sense of boredom, but not the same sense of frustration humans associated with true boredom. When many animals get bored, they simply live in a disconnected emotional state until something new arrives to break the monotony. Animals living in zoos, for example, may sit quietly for hours until visitors arrive.

Household pets like cats and dogs sometimes do get bored.
Household pets like cats and dogs sometimes do get bored.

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Discussion Comments

umbra21

One of the ways I think dogs express boredom is by destroying their owners homes or possessions. People get really angry about it, but they should remember that dogs are pack animals that would be running around all day seeing new sights and doing new things if they weren't locked in a house, waiting for their owners to come home.

Unfortunately, this is a big reason dogs end up getting destroyed in animal shelters, simply because they were left alone for a long time and expected to amuse themselves.

Mor

@anon17959 - That might indicate boredom, but it might just as easily be called frustration, or irritation or something else.

There's no way to know for sure what the animal is feeling, or if it should just be called something unique to that species. We can only say what we think it seems like, and we have nothing to compare it to except our own experiences as human.

Of course, rocking like that is considered to be a bad sign no matter what it is called. It definitely signals stress of some kind, and stress can be measured.

When zoo animals do it, it usually means they are not being properly stimulated by their keepers, or are being kept in too small enclosures.

anon17959

What about stereotypical behavior such as rocking back and forth?

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