Are Reptiles Capable of Emotion? (Explained for Beginners)

Keep a pet for long enough and you’ll start to observe their little quirks and personality traits. Perhaps your pet lizard acts in a certain way when they anticipate being fed or don’t like being petted at certain times of the day, which may have you wondering about their emotional range.

Reptiles possess many of the same emotions that birds and mammals do such as fear, anger, contentment, and curiosity etc. However, they lack the ‘love’ emotion as we recognize it since reptiles don’t partner bond or care for their offspring.

Although your pet gecko or tortoise isn’t able to greet you with the same warmth as a loyal dog or cat, they do have a surprising range of emotions and are able to bond with their human owner in a small way. Keep reading if you’re curious to understand more about a reptile’s emotional capabilities, whether they make good emotional support animals, and more…

Do Reptiles Feel Emotions?

Yes. We know that reptiles experience simple emotions that enable their survival such as fear and aggression to be wary of predators and be capable of defending themselves. They also need curiosity to drive them to explore their surroundings in search of food and shelter. In this way, reptiles are very skillful and intelligent, but this makes them more logical than emotional animals. Or so we thought until recently…

Animal welfare scientist Dr. Helen Lambert conducted a large-scale study into reptile sentience to find out just how much reptiles actually understand and can express. Together Dr. Lambert and her colleagues concluded that, over the past two decades or so from 1999 onwards, sentience in reptiles has increased, revealing them to be far more complex than we realize.

Lambert’s findings from 37 different studies over this period found that reptiles are actually capable of feeling “anxiety, stress, distress, excitement, fear, frustration, pain, suffering, and even pleasure!” An important takeaway from this research into reptile emotional capability is that reptiles require much better care in captivity, less cramped spaces, and greater stimulation than many of us thought previously.

Can Reptiles Bond with Humans?

Yes and no. According to Dr. Adam Denish, a veterinarian at the Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Philadelphia, “reptiles have retained their primitive characteristics and so can’t bond with humans in the exact same way as domesticated cats and dogs. A reptile’s life is about meeting the basic necessities: feeding, breeding, and surviving.”

Other experts, including Dr. Sharman Hoppes, clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M University, meanwhile suggest that “tortoises and lizards do appear to like some people more than others and will often demonstrate pleasure when they are being stroked”.

So your pet snake or tortoise may ‘bond’ with you in the sense that they come to recognize the person handling them and feeding them on a regular basis. Your pet may, for instance, be seen to nudge you, lean into you, or tamely crawl up your arm as you approach their enclosure as they anticipate some food or a chance to interact with the surroundings beyond their confines.

In essence, the closest thing to a reptile and human bond is mutual trust between handler and pet that develops over time, i.e. they reach a stage where being handled/fed by someone other than you causes them to become stressed or even aggressive.

When you think about it, reptiles have only been domesticated for the best part of 30 to 40 years compared to the 100,000 years plus of dog and human interaction – so we reptile owners can take it as a huge compliment that they enjoy human company at all!

Can Reptiles Be Emotional Support Animals?

Absolutely! Emotional Support Animals are defined as any animal that provides its owner with a sense of calm and for many people suffering from mental and emotional illnesses, this may well be a cute little tortoise or a bearded dragon over a traditional, fluffy pet.

According to the licensed mental health professionals at Emotional Pet Support, reptiles make awesome emotional support animals for the following reasons:

1. They are fairly low-maintenance pets

Reptiles don’t need to eat every day or be cleaned, groomed, and attended to on a regular basis, which is welcome news for those with debilitating mental conditions, as these kinds of pets won’t put as much pressure and demands on you like a traditional pet.

2. They help their keepers develop hobbies and join communities

Keeping a reptile is cool and it can open up the door to greater social interaction for those who may be less willing. Keepers can meet other reptile enthusiasts in person or join online groups and forums to discuss their experience of caring for one.

3. They don’t take up too much space

Unlike taking a huge Alsatian dog to the grocery store or on public transport, reptilian pets are generally smaller and easier to handle (if you don’t count giant pythons and alligators of course!). Most small lizards, snakes, and tortoises are happy to live in relatively small aquarium tanks and enclosures.

4. They’re less likely to aggravate allergies

Reptiles are hairless and don’t shed, meaning people with dander allergies can safely care for them. While some owners may be allergic to the substrate in their cages, there are many types of substrate to choose from to help combat allergy triggers.

Do Reptiles Experience Love?

Technically no. Reptiles are hard-wired for survival and since the emotion of love does not benefit them (i.e. something they require to produce and care for offspring in the long-term), it is not something they evolved to develop.

How Do Reptiles Show Stress?

Reptiles may experience stress from being poorly handled or when kept in poorly constructed enclosures that restrict their movement, and they will show that they are stressed in the following ways:

  • Head-hiding
  • Inflating their bodies
  • Hissing
  • Panting
  • Anorexia
  • Dulling or darkening skin
  • Changes in appetite
  • More hyperactive or lethargic than usual
  • Changes in fecal matter appearance (drier, harder, more viscous etc)
  • Defecating more or less often

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