In 1965 the UK Government commissioned a report into the welfare of intensively farmed animals. The resultant committee’s guidelines recommended that animals require the freedoms to ‘turn around, to groom themselves, to get up, to lie down and to stretch their limbs’. These have since been elaborated and are known as the Five Freedoms of animal welfare.
1. Freedoms from thirst and hunger
2. Freedom from discomfort
3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
5. Freedom from fear and distress
The barren environments that many captive animals are kept, or were kept in the past, meant that it was difficult to satisfy some of these freedoms, perhaps especially that of the fourth freedom. When animals are deprived of the ability to satisfy their natural behaviours they often show stereotypies. These repetitive, functionless behaviours indicate compromised welfare of the animal. Typical ones we may see in captive animals include:
- Polar bears who pace up and down the windows of their enclosures (not good for zoo business!)
- Horses who weave, windsuck or bar bite
- Pigs who chew on one anothers tails
- Dogs who pace up and down the fence line of their yard or bark repeatedly when left alone.
These stereotype behaviours indicate that the animal is not able to perform the fourth freedom. The freedom to express normal behaviour is extremely important but, needs to be adapted to suit the species. For example, a lion’s normal behaviour would be to hunt antelope and, of course, this would not be ethically supported within a captive animal situation. To satisfy normal behaviour drives other forms of entertainment were introduced. Such “environmental enrichment” is now common in many captive animal settings.
One of the first captive animal “toys” was the Edinburgh Food Ball, a food releasing, foraging simulating device designed specifically for pigs. In animals who are food motivated the ability to hunt for food may satisfy many drives – the drive to hunt, to exercise, to use the mind. This treat ball was the precursor of the canine treat ball today.
Our companion animals were domesticated for companionship but also to serve a purpose. Dogs helped us hunt, offered protection and kept us warm. Cats were bred to hunt vermin from our stored grain supplies. Nowadays most owners do not wish their pets to fulfil the roles they were originally bred for. The animals still have a drive to do these things. The inability to satisfy the demand leads to behaviours related to relieving boredom. These may include:
- Barking repeatedly for no apparent purpose
- Destructive behaviours such as digging and chewing
- Escaping and roaming the neighbourhood
- Sleeping excessively (cats)
- Excessive energy when the owner is present (demands to play, at tacking etc)
- Learned helplessness (when animals give up)
Environmental enrichment can ensure that pet boredom is not an issue. It can also reduce the stress of being alone or of the many other behavioural problems that animals may exhibit. In addition, where pets develop a certain liking for objects of environmental enrichment, these can be used as a reward for good behaviour. Hence an animal who comes when called or who sits quietly when their owners are busy with guests, can receive a treat ball or a fun ball as a reinforcement for their desired behaviour.
Preventing pet boredom is often a matter of creative thinking – by the owners!