Young children are very interested in animals. One study even found children between the ages of 11 and 40 months would prefer to look at an animal behind a glass screen (even if the animal is fast asleep) rather than play with a toy. Now researchers are asking whether this interest in animals means that children with a cat or dog know more about biology than those without.
A study released earlier this year, led by the University of North Carolina—Greensboro's Megan Geerdts, was conducted in two parts. First of all, the scientists needed to know how preschool children actually interact with cats and dogs. Although this is observed by parents every day, it seems it hasn’t been recorded in enough detail for science. So the researchers observed 24 preschool children in a free-play session with their pet, and asked their parents to complete a questionnaire about their child’s daily experiences with the animal. Then, in the second part, they tested three- to five-year-old children with and without a pet on their knowledge of biological concepts.
First of all, the children’s interactions with pets were mostly social. They were not really involved in taking care of the animals, which is not surprising given their age. A study of older children (between the ages of seven and 13) found they also mostly had social interactions with their pets, and left the care-taking to their parents.
"Our findings help to support the hypothesis that treating animals as social creatures may help children to analogically understand animals as more similar to humans in other ways, including biologically."
Children typically interacted in reciprocal ways that would elicit a response from the animal, such as holding out a hand to be sniffed, trying to engage in play, or giving the pet a command. The questionnaires completed by parents confirmed that interactions were social, and children were not involved in care-taking behavior. They interacted with cats and dogs in the same way, but girls interacted more than boys.
So, if a young child’s experiences of spending time with a pet are of being sociable with it, would you expect them to learn much about biology from this? It’s not like they are dealing with the biological end of things—feeding, grooming, cleaning, making sure the animal has peed and pooped. And yet they did show a better understanding of biological concepts.
The way this was tested is pretty neat. If you were to ask something like “People have a heart. Does your cat have a heart?” you couldn’t rule out the possibility that some children might have learned about hearts at their preschool or playgroup and have existing prior knowledge. So the researchers used a made-up word that none of the children would have come across before.
Ninety-six children between the ages of two and six took part in the second study. One group were told: “People have andro inside them. Andro is round and green and looks like this!” The child and experimenter drew a picture of andro together. Then, the child was asked whether various animals, plants, and inanimate objects also had andro inside. Another group did the same thing, but instead of being told that people have andro, they were told that dogs have andro.
Then the children were asked questions about their own cat or dog (if they had one) and the experimenter’s cat or dog (if they didn’t). The questions were about whether or not the cat or dog had various psychological and physical properties, including emotions, sleep, food, and parents.
A control group of adults did the same study, but they skipped drawing a picture of andro. Adults were equally likely to relate properties from humans to dogs as vice versa (i.e. if a dog has andro, so does a human).
Half of the children had a cat or dog, and just like in the first study, their parents said their interactions were mostly social. Among three- to five-year-olds without pets, they were more likely to relate properties from humans to dogs, rather than vice versa. If five-year-olds had pets, they were more likely to relate properties from dogs to humans than their peers without pets.
Five-year-olds and adults were more likely to say properties applied to other living things rather than to plants and inanimate objects. Three-year-olds tended to apply things equally to plants and inanimate objects. Having a pet made no difference to these results.
But in both age groups, if a child had a pet, they were more likely to say animals had biological properties compared to children that don’t have a pet. This effect was not found for psychological properties.
This study shows that children who have social experience with pets are less likely to be anthropocentric in their reasoning. "Our findings help to support the hypothesis that treating animals as social creatures may help children to analogically understand animals as more similar to humans in other ways, including biologically," the researchers write.