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Fetch or Whatever: Chronically Bored Dogs’ Brains Could Shrink, Scientist Warns

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It might hurt to admit this, but hanging around a house alone all day might be just as boring for Fido as it is for you. And the effects of chronic boredom could be just as damaging for a pooch as for a person, senior lecturer in animal welfare and behavior science at the Royal Veterinary College of the UK Charlotte Burns writes.

In an essay on bestial boredom in the journal Animal Behavior, Burns argues that animals can indeed become bored and that too much of it isn't good for them. "Boredom is likely to have adaptive value in motivating exploration and learning, and many animals may possess the basic neurological mechanisms to support it," she writes. "Chronic inescapable boredom can be extremely aversive, and understimulation can harm neural, cognitive and behavioral flexibility."

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Speaking to the Sunday Times, she explained that dogs left alone in dull surroundings for long stretches "often yawn, bark, howl and whine. Some sleep a lot — a sign of apathy. Some of this is anxiety but often they are just really bored."

But this isn't just sad. It's harmful, the researcher argues. "Boredom has long been thought of as a solely human emotion but animals suffer from it too," Burn said. "Research shows that being kept in barren environments without stimulation damages the brain. Neurones die off if not stimulated, so the brains of such animals tend to be smaller with fewer synapses."

Called a "conceptual review" by the Royal Veterinary College, the essay highlights the need for more scientific study, and points out that boredom in animals can be clearly observed. "[M]any animals will do almost anything to avoid monotony, even things they would normally dislike, such as eating food that makes them sick or pressing levers for very bright light," the college points out, citing the paper. "Three key aspects of boredom can be measured scientifically: avoidance of monotony, inability to maintain wakefulness, and trained behavior indicating that time is perceived as ‘dragging.'"

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These aspects of boredom can be easily seen in primates, rats, birds and other species, Burn illustrates. In a study she sites, rats given exactly the same food for days on end will choose a different food when it's offered, even if it makes them ill. Rats kept in the dark will press levers activating painfully bright lights, rather than go through another dull, dark day.

"Boredom is not the trivial annoyance it is sometimes dismissed as," Burn writes in her essay. "Animal boredom is biologically plausible: animals avoid monotony and seek stimulation… Too often animal boredom has been dismissed as an anthropomorphic concept, or as a luxury compared with other more widely accepted welfare issues such as pain or stress. However, 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."

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