It seems that one of the never-ending controversies among pet owners has to do with whether dogs or cats are the more lovable and better-loved species. It is well established that, at least in North America, more cats are owned as pets
than dogs (although not by all that much of a difference). On the other hand many surveys have indicated that the affection that we have for our pet dogs is considerably stronger than that which we have for our pet cats (click here for an example
). Scientists have been trying to determine the reason why our affection for canines is stronger than that for felines. Some social scientists have suggested that this affection for dogs is simply a learned cultural attitude. However a recently published study suggests that our preference for dogs over cats might be "prewired" in children and that, if anything, it is our fondness for cats that may be learned through experience.
This research was done by Marta Borgi and Francesca Cirulli at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, in Rome, Italy, and may be found in the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin. Actually, the research was not targeting our different attitudes towards dogs and cats, but rather was trying to identify the facial features in pets that most appeal to toddlers and young children. Specifically the researchers were looking at whether baby-like facial features affected the attractiveness of animals.
As all mammals age the shape of their faces changes. You can see that in the figure here. The more infantile face has certain characteristics, namely the face is flatter, the head is rounder, the eyes are larger, the forehead is high and protruding, and the nose is not as prominent and elongated as it will be in the adult. Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel prize-winning ethologist, suggested that this constellation of features makes infants appear to be "cuter" and brings out nurturing and affectionate responses in adults. Several different research reports seem to confirm that suggestion. The question that Borgi and Cirulli wanted to address was whether or not similar baby-like features make animals, as well as people, appear to be cuter, and whether or not young children also responded to those particular cues.
Different breeds of dogs, and dogs of different ages, vary in the degree to which their faces have infantile characteristics. The same goes for cats and this can be seen in the accompanying figure. These scientists tested a sample of 272 children, aged 3 to 6 years. They prepared a series of photographs of humans, dogs, cats, and even teddy bears, which varied in terms of how baby-like their faces appeared. These were presented on a computer in pairs, and the children were asked which one of each pair they liked the best. The pairings were a mixture of different types of images, so that it would include not just pairs of infantile versus adult looking dogs, but an adult dog versus an adult cat, a teddy bear versus a dog, a human baby versus a kitten, and so on.
If we just look at the pairings of cats, the results indicate that children do have a preference for the cuter cats with infantile features as compared to cats that lack such qualities. The same goes for pairings of teddy bears or humans. But when you look at the results for dogs the specific facial features no longer seem to matter to these children, since both infantile and adult looking dogs are preferred equally.
The result which is most interesting for our current concerns is the fact that whenever a dog was paired with anything else (cats, teddy bears, or people) regardless of their cuteness, the dog won out. Marta Borgi summarizes her results saying, "Children in our study preferred dogs over cats in every comparison, and regardless of their familiarity with this species."
When researchers went back and checked to see whether the children were growing up with a dog or a cat, they found that the likelihood that the child would prefer a cat was higher among participants who lived with a cat in their home. When a cat was chosen over anything else it appeared that it was the more adorable, baby faced one that was most likely to be selected. However, even in the group that was living with a cat, the preference for dogs was strong. Furthermore in this group there was developmental trend such that the preference for the cat increased with age. Borgi suggests that "The appreciation of less-popular animals, like cats, probably needs time to develop, and appears to be more dependent on their physical appeal and on our contacts with them."
When I look at this data, it seems to me that it suggests that human beings have a favorable bias toward dogs which might well be part of our heredity or at least may well be something that matures very early since it is clearly apparent even in three-year-old toddlers. When it comes to cats, and presumably to other less popular companion animals, these results suggest that children must learn to appreciate them through age and familiarity. However this process of learning to love animals other than dogs does seem to be facilitated when the target animal has those baby-like facial features which trigger a positive and nurturing response in all human beings, including young children.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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