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There are a lot of opinions on this topic, with a lot of different views. We know from Mythbusters that even goldfish have memories. Is there any reliable science on fish boredom?

For common house pets, like cats, dogs, and rabbits, a bored pet tends to be a destructive pet. It is hard to imagine a fish destroying your furniture, so what kind of behavior might a bored fish exhibit?

  • Good question, but destructiveness isn't really a sign of boredom, but rather a sign of frustration. Boredom can cause frustration which then leads to destructiveness. This is important to note as other things that might frustrate a pet can also cause destructiveness (like leaving you shoes in their spot). – virtualxtc Jan 16 '14 at 18:46
  • I believe we should assume fish can get bored. Boredom just means a creature with somewhat advanced intelligence/memory has nothing to do with its brain. There is a fair body of work into the intelligence of fish. After all, some kinds of fish do migrate across huge distances in open oceans. The wiki article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fish_intelligence has good info on the topic. One particular quote caught my attention "In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of ‘higher’ vertebrates including non-human primates." – Yogesch Oct 24 at 12:26
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    @Yogesch you have some good points there, Do you want to flesh your comment out to be an answer? – James Jenkins Oct 24 at 13:42
  • Thank you for the encouragement. Yes, I will try and do that soon :-) – Yogesch Oct 24 at 15:11
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From what I've seen, there's not a lot of settled science about the inner lives of fish. It's not really obvious whether they even experience emotional states like boredom in a way we would recognize. Most of the research in this field of animal behavior focuses on larger vertebrates from what I can tell.

When we talk about a bored pet, what we're basically talking about is whether the environment we provide offers enough stimulation to meet its behavioral needs. In other words, how do we recognize when we inadvertently cause stress by keeping an animal from interacting with its surroundings in the ways it's instinctively prepared for?

Like many animals, unusual behavior is one of the most visible indicators of stress in fish. Changes in behavior from things like poor water quality or disease are usually easy enough to spot, but the stresses we're concerned with here tend to cause more chronic problems. Identifying these means knowing what's typical behavior for the species, and recognizing when an individual is acting out of character. That could mean aggression in a peaceful fish, a heightened fear and startle responses in a calm one, or constant hiding in a bold one, for example. If a fish is known to readily breed in healthy conditions, it probably won't when it's under significant stress. The trick of course is that all these things can be caused by more urgent physical problems, but if your water parameters are good and no obvious disease presents itself over time, the stress may be psychological.

In many cases, it's not too hard to identify the source of the problem. A fish acting aggressively might need to be in a larger school, or it might need more hiding spaces it knows it can retreat to. These kinds of needs are often collectively known about your animal; if you have something kind of new to the trade, you may need to look at what's known about similar species, or even better, its natural behavior in the wild.

Generally this sort of thing is known as environmental enrichment, and my own opinion is that it will help minimize stress for most captive animals, aquatic or otherwise. Many aquarists provide some degree of this already. We keep community tanks, so there's plenty of inter- and intra-specific interaction. We keep plants and driftwood and other decorations that can be grazed on, hidden under, and claimed as territory. We (hopefully) provide enough physical space for the fish to be explore and be active within. All these things present our fish with regular "natural" events to initiate or respond to.

There are more proactive things we can do as well. Food in general is one of the best approaches we have: if you can, present it in a way that mimics how the fish would encounter it in the wild, like chasing down food in the water column or foraging in the substrate. (Fortunately, this is a big part of the branding for many prepared foods.) Live food that needs to be hunted is great, but just having a varied diet is helpful. Species that have distinctive reproductive behaviors, such as parental care or elaborate courtship rituals, should be encouraged to breed if you can accommodate it. Basically, look at the kind of puzzles your fishes are specialized to solve -- like "all my food lives in the sand" or "I need to defend my own little kingdom about 30cm in diameter" -- and try to provide safe opportunities for them to solve those puzzles. I suspect this is what the cause of "boredom" in pets, and even humans, ultimately boils down to.

Unfortunately the research I've found on this is mostly paywalled, and for the most part I can only get to abstracts. Here are some of the more interesting pieces:

This wiki article on fish intelligence has a lot of good information and references.

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I recently moved to Georgia and inherited 3 Pond comets which live outside regardless of temperature. Their names are winkin blinkin and Nod. When My Friends Ask which one is which I told them the orange one is nod. All humor aside this last weekend I took a lot of stones from a live Running Brook that runs through my yard and put them in the pond which is a plastic Pond and wasn't very interesting. I moved the filter from the middle of the pond that blocked the fish's path to right under the waterfall. Then I threw Stones along the hoses to cover them up and I put stones all around the periphery giving the fish a place to hide in the crevices on the stones in the floor also give the fish a place to go and explore. Now there's shallow areas and deep areas for the fish and they're very active. I'm sitting here right now in the dark with a flashlight just shining straight across the water and the fish are very active and playful and running in and out of crevices and appear to be having what could be called a good time. The only toy that was in the bottom of the pond when I inherited it was a piece of roof drain tile that the fish would hide in. I suspect that this roof drain tile was put there to protect them from predators but there was nothing else for them to do. Now that there is points of interest in the pond I can see them getting in and out and doing what looks to be playful activities with each other. One of the fish even plays underneath the spout of a decorative spitting fish and seems to enjoy it. So I would say that the fish definitely appreciate the change of scenery and or think they are in a new place. LOL

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