YOUNG children prefer live animals to playing with toys as a study has found humans have a natural affinity for wildlife.
Children as young as 11 months showed more interest in live animals than toys, even ones made to replicate real living creatures, it was found.
Parents should consider having a pet in the home to help their child learn and develop, expert said.
In addition toddlers are not naturally afraid of spiders and snakes but learn this behaviour as they grow, they said.
Researchers Rutgers University and the University of Virginia, in America, conducted a series of experiments with young children aged between 11 months and just over three involving live animals and toys.
The study demonstrated that children spent more time with both benign and scary animals than with the toys and they gestured more towards animals, talked about the animals more, and asked their parents more questions about the animals than about the toys.
Vanessa LoBue concludes “The fact that children find animals so appealing suggests that children may benefit from having an animal, like a pet, in their lives.
"Our research develops the idea that animals may be a good instrument for learning. This is borne out by the widespread use of animal characters in children’s books and TV programmes.”
In the first children were presented with a live hamster in a cage and a fish in tank along with 14 small toys including a police car, a doll and blocks, and they were observed with their parent in the room.
Then the children were given four of the most popular toys, the doll, aeroplane, fire engine and ball alongside four animals, the hamster and fish with a Tarantula and a California Mountain King snake.
The animals were all enclosed and the children could not touch them.
In the third experiment the children were in rooms with three pairs of a live animal and a toy replica of the animal. Both were attached to a shelf out of reach to control for the fact that the children could not touch the animals in the previous experiments.
The animals were a green gecko, the hamster, fish.
In all three scenarios the children interacted with and talked about the animals more than the toys and parents spent more time directing their child towards the live animals.
The parents were more cautious when talking about and relating to the threatening animals.
The researchers wrote in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology: "It is important to point out that although these differences were significant, they were subtle and avoidance behaviours were extremely rare. Many researchers might find these results surprising, as they suggest that children prefer snakes and spiders to a group of highly attractive toys.
"However, the snake and spider were in cages, creating a safe environment for the child, and the parent to interact. If they were presented with a snake or spider in their back yards, they may not have reacted with such interest."
Prof LoBue added: "The implications are that children are really interested in all animals from an early age, and that fear of threatening animals is learned at some point in development.
"The implication is that fears, even our most common ones, are learned at some point in development, and the next step is to examine how they might be learned so that we can avoid the development of intense fears and phobias.
"Given children's avid interest in animals, they would most definitely benefit from having a pet at home. Parents can even use their pets as a platform for learning.
"Pets can be used as an exemplar. For example, if you're trying to teach your kids something about biology, children might be more interested if you explain using a live pet instead of a book."