Marta Borgi and Francesca Cirulli
Section of Behavioral Neuroscience, Department of Cell Biology and Neurosciences
Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy
A number of authors suggest that children exhibit a natural interest towards animals, and different intervention programs have shown the presence of an animal being able to increase children’s attentiveness and motivation levels. Nonetheless, few research efforts have been devoted to the identification of specific animal characteristics able to attract and engage children. It has been hypothesized that the presence of infantile features in the most common pets (and their appeal for humans) is involved in our motivational drive to pet-keeping and pet-caretaking. This study was aimed at assessing children’s preference for faces of pets with presence (or absence) of infant features and the generalization of this response to an inanimate object, a teddy bear. Children (n = 272) aged 3 to 6 years participated in the study and were tested on a forced-choice task, using paired photographic stimuli. Children’s preferences for different species (dogs and cats) and for animal over non–animal stimuli were also obtained and the effects of sex, age, and pet ownership analyzed. Overall, children showed a preference for more infantile cats, but no differences were found when they were asked to choose between dog faces. Moreover, children showed a preference for animal over non-animal stimuli and for dogs over cats. Factors such as sex, age, and familiarity with animals (i.e. ownership) were able to modulate their responses. Results and their implications for the child-animal bond are discussed.