7 of the Cutest Small Animals & the Science Behind the Squee!

We all have a big reaction to the cutest, smallest critters. And "brain science" is the answer why.

Published October 29, 2023

Humans can't resist the magnetic charm of small, cute animals; it's like they have a secret spell that pulls us in. And these 7 are hands-down some of the cutest, most-adorable ones there are. Weirdly, the why is all in our brain's design. We're actually — for real — biologically drawn to them!

But, before you run out to get a cute, exotic critter, do your research. Many wild and exotic species don't do well outside of their natural habitats. After all, we want them to thrive, not just survive!

Sugar Glider: Irresistible Eyes


Sugar gliders are insanely adorable. They're tiny with huge eyes — what could possibly be cuter? It could be these exact features that are triggering a biological response in us.

A man by the name of Konrad Lorenz, a German ethnologist, introduced the theory of kindchenschema in 1943. Lorenz theorized that certain features common in human babies pull us in closer and make us want to take care of them. This means we have an irresistible urge to be close to something that has similar features, like an adorable sugar glider!

But it's best to fight the urge unless you're a licensed wildlife rehabber. Sugar gliders are wild and do best when loved from afar.

Prairie Dog: Adorable Sentries


Prairie dogs are like nature's little charmers. Their rounded, chubby cheeks give them an eternally snack-stuffed look that's hard to resist. Then there's the way they stand upright on their hind legs, scanning their surroundings with bright, curious eyes. They're always on a cute little sentry duty! As charming as they are, though, they're still wild animals and are better off roaming free. 

Even though you shouldn't bring one home, watching prairie dogs on TV could give you a serious mood boost. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that cute critters may cause a kama muta response — that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you see something so adorable that you just want to cuddle it. This could come in handy when you need a pick-me-up. 

Fast Fact

In the wild, prairie dogs live in communities called “towns.” OMG the adorableness. 

African Hedgehog: Soft Little Underbellies


The hedgehog's spiky exterior and adorable button nose make them seem both adventurous and adorable. The contrast between their spines and soft underbellies can create a simultaneous sense of awe and nurturing. And the way they roll up in a ball is irresistible. But whhhhy can't we take our eyes off these little guys?

When we look at something super cute — like a pinwheel of hedgehog — our brain lights up like a Christmas tree, especially in this area called the orbitofrontal cortex, which is basically our emotional headquarters. It's like everything else takes a backseat, and that cute thing gets VIP access to our attention.

Need to Know

In their natural home, they're munching on a smorgasbord of bugs and plants. Trying to pull that off in your living room? Pretty tough and pricey, so this is another exotic happiest left in the wild.

Chinchilla: Floof for Days


Chinchillas are undeniably some of the fluffiest creatures you’ll ever see. Their ultra-soft, dense fur feels like a cloud, making you want to cuddle them for hours on end. Pair this with oversized, round ears and their curious, sparkling eyes, and it’s like they’ve jumped straight out of a fairytale. Their tiny hands and feet, perfect for grabbing treats, only add to their overall cuteness factor.

Although they're considered an exotic pet and not allowed in all localities, chinchillas were domesticated in the 19th century, so bringing one home is an option if you're prepared to meet their substantial needs. You might, however, be happier just gazing at cute photos of them. Research has found viewing cute pictures can give your attention and concentration levels a serious boost. 

Capuchin Monkey: A Human-Like Face


You know those super cute capuchin monkeys with those tiny hands that remind us of our own and faces that could rival a baby's for cuteness? I mean, who wouldn't get lost in those playful eyes and quirky expressions?

This ties back to the concept of kindchenschema. We see the adorable human-like face of the capuchin, and it turns on our instinct to nurture and protect them. The human brain adores these heartwarming sensations. As much as we might dream of having one as a buddy, though, we just can't provide everything they need.

Kinkajou: The Honey Bear


It's easy to see what pulls us to these guys — they're like a mix between a super cute cartoon character and a teddy bear, with their big, round eyes and velvety soft fur. When we spot small animals with big, captivating eyes, our bodies respond by releasing oxytocin, often dubbed the "love hormone." This hormone plays a key role in building emotional connections. It's like our heart skips a beat and our minds get fuzzy.

Kinkajous are illegal in many states. These guys come from the rainforest and do best in the wild. 

Need to Know

Unless you're thinking of starting your own personal rainforest, it's best to appreciate them from a distance.

Wallaby: Kangaroo Jr.


These guys are like the kangaroos' cuter, smaller cousins! They have big ears and soft, doe-like eyes that make your heart melt. And they've got this bouncy, carefree vibe that seems to add much-needed livelihood to any home. On top of releasing the love hormone oxytocin, our brain also gets a splash of dopamine when we encounter cute critters, like the wallaby. Dopamine is the "feel-good" hormone and adds feelings of joy and positivity. When these two hormones team up, it's a potent mix!

But what would be sadder than a sad wallaby? Wallabies are wild at heart and in their DNA, so don't do well as pets. Keep the cute coming by sticking to wallaby pictures instead of taking one of these guys home. 

Cutest From Afar


Now that you've unlocked the secret behind our fascination with exotic pets, why not have a blast watching their cute videos and pictures? Most of these creatures come with special needs that aren't a good fit for your typical home. So, let's cheer them on by enjoying them in their natural habitats or well-cared-for sanctuaries, where they can truly shine.

7 of the Cutest Small Animals & the Science Behind the Squee!