Environmental enrichment reduces signs of boredom in caged mink.

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Animals housed in impoverished cages are often labelled ‘bored’. They have also been called ‘apathetic’ or ‘depressed’, particularly when profoundly inactive. However, these terms are rarely operationally defined and validated. As a negative state caused by under-stimulation, boredom should increase interest in stimuli of all kinds. Apathy (lack of interest), by contrast, should manifest as decreased interest in all stimuli, while anhedonia (loss of pleasure, a depressive symptom) should specifically decrease interest in normally rewarding stimuli. We tested the hypotheses that mink, a model carnivore, experience more boredom, depression-like apathy, or anhedonia in non-enriched (NE) cages than in complex, enriched (E) cages. We exposed 29 subjects (13 E, 16 NE) to ten stimuli categorized a priori as aversive (e.g. air puffs), rewarding (e.g. evoking chasing) or ambiguous/neutral (e.g. candles). Interest in stimuli was assessed via latencies to contact, contact durations, and durations oriented to stimuli. NE mink contacted all stimuli faster (P = 0.003) than E mink, and spent longer oriented to/in contact with them, albeit only significantly so for ambiguous ones (treatment*type P,0.013). With stimulus category removed from statistical models, interest in all stimuli was consistently higher among NE mink (P,0.0001 for all measures). NE mink also consumed more food rewards (P = 0.037). Finally, we investigated whether lying down while awake and stereotypic behaviour (both increased by NE housing) predicted these responses. Lying awake positively co-varied with certain measures of increased exploration. In contrast, stereotypic ‘scrabbling’ or locomotion (e.g. pacing) did not. Overall, NE mink showed no evidence of apathy or depression, but instead a heightened investigation of diverse stimuli consistent with boredom. This state was potentially indicated by spending much time lying still but awake (although this result requires replication). Boredom can thus be operationalized and assessed empirically in non-human animals. It can also be reduced by environmental enrichment.

Rebecca K. Meagher & Georgia J. Mason (2012). Environmental enrichment reduces signs of boredom in caged mink. PLoS ONE 7(11): e49180.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049180