At just three years old, children already see cats as playing second fiddle to dogs, suggests a new study of kids’ responses to animals.

Though the research sought to identify the facial features that most appeal to youngsters in pets – specifically, whether baby-like traits play a role – what inadvertently emerged was a picture of cats as underdogs.

Reporting in the journal Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, scholars find children have a preference for cats with adorable, infantile features, versus cats that lack such qualities. Throw dogs into the mix, however, and the cats get left in the dust, regardless of either animal’s baby-like cuteness.

“Children in our study preferred dogs over cats in every comparison, and regardless of their familiarity with this species,” said study co-author Marta Borgi, of the Istituto Superiore di Sanita in Italy. “The appreciation of less-popular animals like cats probably needs time to develop, and appears more dependent on their physical appeal and on our contacts with them.”

The study, co-authored by Francesca Cirulli, draws on 272 children, aged three to six, who were presented with forced-choice tasks pairing different types of images. For instance, an adult dog and adult cat, a teddy bear and a dog, a human baby and a kitten, and so on.

Overall, the kids preferred dogs to cats, although the likelihood of favouring a cat was higher among participants with a cat at home. In the cat versus cat comparisons, those with baby-like features (think big eyes and rounded, squishy faces) were preferred over those without, but the chances of choosing the latter increased with age.

Borgi said a yet-to-be published follow-up experiment, in which both children and adults judged the cuteness of animal and human pictures with manipulated facial traits (more or less infantile), similarly found “no effects of having dogs at home but a statistically significant effect of cat ownership.”

Taken together, these results suggest that children learn to appreciate less popular companion animals – in this case, cats – through age and familiarity. And if they resemble babies, potentially triggering a positive, nurturing response, all the better.

“In species whose young completely depend on their caregivers for sustenance and protection, (this) response has a clear adaptive value, contributing to enhance offspring chances of survival,” said Borgi. “What is interesting for us is the possibility that such a response may be generalized to the human-animal bond.”

It’s notable, for instance, that girls were likelier than boys to prefer a dog with infantile traits than a dog without them. Across all the children, however, researchers didn’t see the overall bias for baby-like dogs that was seen with baby-like cats.

Borgi believes the study sheds light on the most efficient ways in which companion animals can be selected for kids – especially those who have deficits in social domains (say, autism) and could benefit from pet interaction.


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