Do Children Prefer Baby-Faced Animals?

We know that adults prefer animals with a baby face. Research shows this applies to children too.
Photo: Hriana/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

It’s widely known that adults find a baby-face attractive, whether on a human baby or an animal such as a puppy or kitten. There’s a neural basis for this, which makes us want to care for babies and things that resemble them. A new study by Marta Borgi and Francesca Cirulli (2013) asks if young children show the same preference as adults for neoteny in cats and dogs.

Several research studies have found that children are attracted to animals. For example, LoBue et al (2013) found that young children have apreference for live animals over an attractive set of toys. In this study, children spent more time interacting with the animals, and also more time talking about them, than the toys.

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The new study asked children aged three to six about their preferences for dogs vs puppies, cats vs kittens, and dogs or cats with baby-face features vs those without. Each child sat at a laptop with the experimenter, who asked them to choose which of two photographs they preferred. The photographs showed the heads of animals as well as some showing babies or inanimate objects. 

Children showed a strong preference for infantile features in cats, preferring the kittens or the cats with baby-like features over cats without them. However, they didn’t prefer infantile features in dogs. Nonetheless they still preferred teddy bears with infantile features than those without.

The children also tended to prefer dogs to cats. When the researchers looked at pet ownership in the home, they found that children who lived with a cat were more likely to show a preference for cats than those who didn’t. It could be that children learn about cats through having regular contact with them, and are less likely to prefer them if they are unfamiliar to them. However, the number of children with a cat as a pet was quite small. Future research could investigate further the role of childhood pets in shaping children’s understanding of companion animals. 

Children preferred the photos that showed animals (dogs and cats) to those that showed either human infants or teddy bears.

Girls were more likely than boys to choose photos of dogs with infantile faces, but the same did not apply to photos of cats or teddy bears. 

Overall, these results show that even young children are able to recognize infantile features in animals and inanimate objects (teddy bears). They also show that, in general, children have a preference for animals with infantile features over those without. So a preference for neoteny seems to start early in life.

The authors acknowledge some flaws with the set of photographs, for example some had coloured backgrounds, although they were chosen as they had been used in previous research with adults. Their paper says they are already developing a more standardized set of photographs. This study also only used one measure of neoteny, called the Facial Index, and future studies could include other features (such as big eyes).

Do you prefer kittens to cats, and puppies to dogs?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
Borgi, M., & Cirulli, F. (2013). Children's preferences for infantile features in dogs and cats Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 1 (2), 1-15

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