Do animals get bored eating the same food?

Do sheep grow weary with grass? Do pandas balk after too much bamboo? Katie Haylor investigates...
22 March 2021
Presented by Katie Haylor
Production by Katie Haylor.


A grazing sheep.


Listener Douglas asked us: "do animals get bored eating the same thing all the time? Like sheep - do they get bored of one type of grass?" Katie Haylor bored deep into the question, with help from neuroscientist James Danckert...

In this episode

A grazing sheep.

QotW: Do animals get bored eating the same thing?

Katie Haylor's been looking into animal boredom with the help of the University of Waterloo's James Danckert...

Katie - Well Douglas, to my embaaarassment - sorry - I’m not really sure.

Luckily, members of our forum -, are far less sheepish at venturing an answer.

User Alan Calverd reckons it depends on the animal. Alan says that pigs, dogs and chickens are very experimental within the human-dominated environment. Other apes tend to graze a variety of vegetation and the occasional small animal.

Some animals famously only eat a very limited range of food - like koalas for instance. Do they get bored on an exclusively eucalyptus diet? I would love to know - if anyone’s done that study, please get in touch!

Back on the forum, user Evan AU hides food around the house each evening for their pet pooch to find - and they reckon the dog has a great time!

So I put Douglas’ question to boredom neuroscientist James Danckert from the University of Waterloo in Canada.

James - Whether sheep get bored with the same old patch of grass or not is hard to say, but animals do get bored. If you house animals in bland surroundings – pens or cages with little to nothing for them to do – their behaviour when they get out of those environs is what you would expect from a bored animal.

Researchers in Canada did this with mink and showed that the mink housed in bland cages were quick to approach all kinds of objects once they were released. The researchers reasoned that if the mink were depressed or apathetic they would have shown little interest in any new objects. But if they were bored they would quickly approach anything, even things they would normally avoid – like the smell of a predator.

And that’s precisely what they found. They even showed that the bored mink overate treats at the end of their experiment. And we see this in humans too – overeating out of boredom!

Whether all animals feel boredom is an open question. If we assume that boredom’s function is to signal the need to explore your world for something new and valuable to you, then I suspect it won’t just be mink who feel boredom.

Katie - I wonder if boredom explains why one of my cats just loves attacking my slippers whenever she comes across them in the hallway? Thanks very much James for enlightening us on that one.

Next time, we’re computing this chromosomal conundrum from Mattie.

Mattie - If humans have too many or too few chromosomes, it can cause them to be infertile. So how do different creatures get different numbers of them? For example humans normally have 46 chromosomes, but mice have 40.


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