We breed our pets for cuteness

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Since last November when we bought her, I've posted more photos than are sensible of our dog Lucy online. We find her irresistibly cute still, even as she approaches her first birthday, and pretty much everyone else she encounters seems to agree:

Well hi there

That is no accident. As Jerry Coyne explains, we find certain animals cute. More specifically, in breeds like the shihtzus and poodles that are Lucy's ancestors, we have made them cute:

...in the big eyes of the Chihuahua, the short snout of the fluffy Pomeranian, in the round face and small ears of the Scottish fold cat [...] in all the features of animals bred for appearance rather than work, we find our desires, evolved and otherwise, sculpting the beasts in our environment.

Lucy is growing out of her puppyhood—she's reached close to her maximum size, her behaviours are changing and settling down (for example, she is better housetrained and a bit less hyper than before, and now she barks at unfamiliar dogs instead of staying silent and unnoticed), and she seems comfortable with her place in our household (or, more accurately in her doggy mind, our pack hierarchy).

But while she acts less like a puppy, she still looks like one, and she always will. Not only that, she looks more like a human baby or child than any wild wolf cub, ancestral dog puppy, or typical newborn mongrel mutt does. That's because as humans bred her ancestors—especially the shihtzus—they preferred:

  • Smaller size
  • Rounder, higher foreheads
  • Floppier, less pointy ears
  • Bigger eyes relative to the rest of the face
  • Shorter snouts
  • Coats more like hair than shedding fur

It makes sense that we find human babies cute. Indeed, sometimes their cuteness seems like the only thing that keeps us parents going in the early sleep-deprived days of parenthood. And so it makes sense that we have bred many of our pets, especially the most popular ones that are mammals (as well as many fish and birds) for neoteny, to resemble our children too.

People must have other reasons for getting reptiles or spiders or other creatures as pets, though, since none of them are inherently cute on the face of it. Surprisingly, and probably by mere coincidence, some cephalopods are. But, with their generally short lifespans and hard-to-maintain aquarium requirements, squid and octopuses make lousy pets anyway.

I'm not sure about this, but I think we even speak in baby talk to Lucy more than we did to our own children when they were little.

11 Comments

I've heard that along with puppy physical traits, puppy behaviour has also been selected for in Labs ... so you'll get Labs that still prance and play like a puppy well into what should be their "middle age".

Plus, it may make us less likely to wring their little necks! I'm joking of course, but as an owner of 13 week old puppy, that face is a deterrent that must have some evolutionary consequences, especially for bad, bad puppies in more barbaric times.

Even though Lucy will always look like a puppy because of her breeding,we seem to always see our dogs as puppies and our cats as kittens. this maybe because they usually act somewaht goofy and childlike all their lives, vie for our attention and just plain make us feel good. it is not surprise that dogs lower human blood pressure and alleviate pain and depression. Oh and Lucy is one of the cutest dogs ever and a big part of that is her personality.

A friend once commented that they have to breed dogs to be cute, but breed cats to be ugly. Mind you, like human babies perhaps cats have evolved cuteness so that humans will accept their bad behaviour.

Lucy is kind of ridiculous, though. I don't think that amount of cute is legal.

She is very cute and I am somewhat of an expert! I think she is awesome and you have given her an amazing home!

Hi Derek !

No comment about puppies, but did you get Jean-Hugues' e-mails ? He has to go to Vancouver in the fall for some kind of seminary or meeting, and would like to get in touch with you.

This cuteness fad is a mixed blessing. I mean, unthreatening cuteness per se is very, very in right now, whether it's a 40-year-old wearing Hello Kitty shorts or Justin Bieber being the most popular person in the world.

On the one hand, awww, cute!

On the other, you have things like Puggles, which are the world's cutest puppies, but the world's ugliest, stupidest, stubbornest dogs. And pugs themselves, also very trendy, cannot be born naturally, as we've bred their heads too big (for cuteness) and the must all be born by C-section. There are any number of performance breeds that have been ruined by breeding for looks, like the collie. The Morgan Horse registry used to have a performance requirement before they'd accept your horse as purebred, as did the Canadian Hunter registry: they had to give it up under pressure from the show industry. "Hey, what's more important: getting over that fence and pulling that load of cement, or selling thousands of pretty horses?"

You got me thinking about how our pets have reached the point where they couldn't survive if we weren't around. Even some cat breeds are so needy and poor mousers that they probably wouldn't last a month in the wild. I remember a particularly affecting passage in the book 'Earth Abides', one of the first post-apocalyptic sci fi novels (and inspiration for Stephen King's The Stand), that describes the low moan of a Golden Retriever after their masters are no more.

There is even a breed of cat, the 'ragdoll' that goes limp when held, and is unlikely to defend themselves when threatened. Natural selection would definitely weed those traits out of the gene pool.

I'd also heard recently that the IQ of dogs has gone down since we started domesticating them. That is particularly interesting, as I would appreciate a smarter pet (although too smart, as in opening the fridge, doors, causing general havoc, could indeed be a significant downside). Still, it would be a shame to have a pet so dumb that we pity them, and that's a different thing altogether from how cute they are - although it could be related. The intelligence of cats has frequently offset the view of them as cute, especially when they are no longer kittens. When dogs or cats do dumb things, we can sometimes see that as cute. Still, I'm not willing to buy into a dumb=cute pet.

I

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