A client recently asked me how to keep his dog from getting bored while at home alone for hours at a time. Should he leave the TV or radio on for her? Give her a big bone to chew on? Consider getting another pet as a companion? Before giving him any advice, I asked him why he thought his dog was bored. “I’m not sure,” he replied, “I’d certainly be bored at home with nothing to do, so I figured she would be too.”
All of us who live with companion animals make assumptions about what they are feeling at different times and situations. Angry, fearful and happy are all pretty easy emotions to judge, but what about boredom? I see many dogs in my practice that are brought in for destructive behaviors or excessive barking when left home alone. Isn’t that proof dogs get bored? Not necessarily. Some dogs get separation anxiety when left alone for even a few minutes, much less a few hours. This is more an issue of separation causing a negative emotional response, not a lack of mental stimulation that humans associate with boredom. What about a cat that urinates on your bed when you come home late from work? Some animals are very routine oriented, and get out of sorts when schedules are shifted. It seems clear that animals can be quite aware of the time of day, and can become anxious if things don’t happen when they usually do. But once again, does that imply that they can suffer from boredom?
Most of us feel bad for our pets when we have to leave them alone for an extended period of time. It may be comforting, however, to realize that unlike humans, animal’s brains are not likely able to ponder the future or the past to any extent. How can a being be truly aware of the passing of time when all they are able to experience is the present? If the present moment is relatively comfortable, then it follows that stringing together a long series of such moments should not cause any distress or boredom. Buddhist philosophy teaches that much of human suffering is related to our minds worrying about the future or obsessing about the past. For people, boredom is essentially a lack of external stimulus that serves to distract us from our mental gyrations. Animals are spared this particularly human affliction.
Being alone with just our thoughts can be unsettling for humans, but spending time alone seems to be just fine with most pets, as long as their basic needs are met. Adequate food, water and a comfortable place to lie are necessary, of course. Companion animals certainly need plenty of human interaction and appropriate amounts of exercise, and some animals need more than others. Working dog breeds such as Border Collies and German Shepherds can develop behavioral problems when not getting adequate exercise and interaction. This is more due to a lack of adequate time doing the jobs they were bred to do rather than true boredom, I believe. A horse left in a stall too long can develop behavioral and health issue for the same reason. Cats? They are solitary creatures by nature, but still need their basic needs met and human attention between looooooong naps.
So don’t assume that your Golden Retriever, who jumps all over you and excitedly licks your face when you get home from work was bored at home all day. She’s just
living in the moment and is really happy to see you right now!
Dr. Judkins is the owner of Animalkind Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Historic Jacksonville