18 Sep Why Animals play and why it’s important
There is no better joy than watching animals play without a care in the world. But why are they doing this? Is it complex instinctual survival behavior or are they simply just ‘having fun’? And, is it important? A Vaucluse Vet will answer these questions and more.
Extensive animal play and behaviour research across all species has provided interesting theories, but not one explanation fits all examples of play.
Play may “prime” adult behaviours such as crucial combat skills and winning breeding battles, thus allowing natural selection to occur.
It also cements friendships and reduces aggression as it was found meerkats that “play together, stay together”.
When a young animal experiences stress, its brain chemistry changes to make it less sensitive to stress hormones. Thus, as an adult, they recover more rapidly after negative experiences. Play, which consists of ‘fight or flight’ behaviours, activates the same neurochemical pathways as stress. Therefore, young animals may be using their own play to prime their stress responses used as an adult.
The domestic rat is one the most playful earth creatures. If not allowed to play, social interactions are lost and they succumb to ‘rat rage’. Interestingly, evidence has shown primates behave similarly.
Companionship and social interactions also allowed rats to develop larger brains compared to rats raised in grim settings, thus allowing more neural connections and quicker learning.
Sensory stimulation and arousal (even together) couldn’t increase brain cortical growth unless coupled with interactive behavior (play or training). And it was play that had the biggest impact. The more a young rat played, the more rapidly its brain grew.
Play may also be “training for the unexpected” by increasing versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks, such as loss of balance and falling over. It may also enhance the animals’ ability to cope emotionally with stressful situations. To obtain this training, animals may energetically seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves in to disadvantageous positions.
Dogs provide endless hours of entertainment and many owners have witnessed the “Play Bow”. This is a highly ritualised and stereotyped action where dogs crouch on their front legs, raise their hind legs, wag their tail and bark. But what are they doing? Are they temporarily confused by their next move or just being silly? They are actually making rapid and careful assessments of what their play partner is likely to do next. It is almost exclusively used in play as an invitation and to maintain play mood. It rarely escalates into injury.
“Rough and tumble” play however, is the competition where one animal attempts to gain advantage over another. It may escalate into serious aggression. However, it is often diffused by a degree of co-operation and various signals.
These play derived gestures may provide new mechanisms by which more sophisticated communication forms can evolve during life says Dr. Angela, our Vaucluse vet.
Although these complex neuropsychological systems are naturally occurring without animals even realising it, they are essential to ensure normal growth, development and survival. To ensure these mechanisms do occur unhindered, their brains have made play pleasurable, fun and the feeling that it “simply feels good”.
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