Is your feeding schedule causing stereotypic behavior?


When it comes to captive animals, feeding is often on a schedule. This schedule is likely one based on when is most convenient for the caretaker or facility. For example, the animals eat on exhibit and must be on exhibit by 8 AM. Or your ideal routine is shift, clean, prepare diets, enrich, shift, feed, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Like faithful church bells ringing, the lions roar, the bears pace, and the gorillas sing like ghosts. What do these behaviors have in common? Anticipation. In a study on elephants, stereotypic behavior increased immediately prior to reinforcement such as water, hay, and behavioral training. This indicated ‘anticipation.’ 1

Obviously, reinforcement isn't the problem. Anticipation of reinforcement, however, can be. But what can we, as caretakers, do to alleviate anticipatory stereotypies? Should we:

Increase the number of scheduled feedings?

This would seem like an obvious answer. However, a study on giraffes and okapi revealed: "Specifically, animals that were fed more often during the day were more likely to exhibit stereotypic licking than animals fed less often."2 If animals exhibit anticipatory behavior prior to a scheduled feeding, increasing the number of scheduled feedings may just increase anticipatory stereotypic behavior.

Feed unpredictably?

If stereotypic behavior is caused by anticipating a scheduled feeding, removing the schedule can reduce this behavior. Variable feedings decreased stereotypic pacing compared to predictable feedings in a group of cheetahs. 3 At some point, anticipatory stereotypic behavior can become a superstitious behavior that is rewarded by the feeding, whereas a random feeding is more likely to reward a natural behavior. Understandably, variable feedings may not be practical for your routine or facility.

Increase feeding time?

Foraging is a natural behavior for many species. Increasing foraging time using enrichment techniques such as puzzle feeders and scattering, hiding, or freezing food can relieve stereotypic behaviors.

One study found that "the key to disrupting walrus stereotypic activity was providing methods that

increased the amount of time it took a walrus to consume food..."4 If variable feeding is not possible, enrichment is a practical way to increase foraging time and potentially reduce and prevent stereotypic behaviors.


1. Friend, T. H. (1999). Behavior of picketed circus elephants. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 62(1), 73-88.

2. Bashaw, M. J., Tarou, L. R., Maki, T. S., & Maple, T. L. (2001). A survey assessment of variables related to stereotypy in captive giraffe and okapi. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 73(3), 235-247.

3. Quirke, T., O’Riordan, R. M., & Zuur, A. (2012). Factors influencing the prevalence of stereotypical behaviour in captive cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). Applied animal behaviour science, 142(3-4), 189-197.

4. Fernandez, E. J. (2010). Appetitive search behaviors and stereotypies in captive animals.

#enrichment #stereotype #behavior #feeding #schedule

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