Traditionally, emotions are only assigned to more highly evolved animals like mammals. But seeing the way a Burmese python drapes around its keeper, or a lizard’s closed eyes while being petted, the question arises: Do reptiles feel emotion?
Factors of Personality
Species: Generally a reptile’s species determines most of its disposition. For example, bearded dragons tend to be laid-back and enjoy human attention. Blue tongue skinks are inquisitive, energetic, and comfortable around humans. Ball pythons are nonaggressive to the point of being reluctant feeders.
Conditioning: Conditioning is the second largest contributor to reptile personality. The most common conditioned response is fear or aggression due to neglect. The reverse also holds true: reptiles who are well fed and handled often are more relaxed with their human.
Environment: Any reptile under environmental stress will come off as afraid or aggressive. Bad temperatures make them lethargic and prone to hiding. Inadequate shelter makes them insecure, always looking for a place to hide. Poor feeding may lead to snappiness.
Health: Sick reptiles often experience drastic personality changes when they become ill. An aggressive iguana may become laid back, a calm snake may become aggressive, or an energetic tortoise may become lethargic. The only way to find out for sure is to take him/her to your vet.
Fear and Pleasure
Most people agree that if reptiles can feel emotion at all, fear and pleasure are where it starts. That is because these emotions are reinforced by instinct: fear involves the “fight or flight” instinct, while pleasure is associated with sex drive.
Fear shows in defensive responses. Aggressive species’ defensive responses are warnings, signalling annoyance. Passive species’ defensive responses are bluffs, signalling fear.
For example, blue tongue skinks pee, a common expression of fear in both reptiles and amphibians. When Hubby and I first got Morgana, we tried handling her and she made her displeasure known by spraying us with urine. Yeech! But by far the most common expression of fear is running away.
Pleasure is a bit more complicated than fear, and it’s not all about mating opportunities. In my experience, reptile pleasure most often comes from human-reptile interaction, closely related to trust.
For example, bearded dragons will close their eyes and stay still when being stroked by a human. And once I observed a large red-tailed boa noticeably leaning into her keeper’s hand while she rubbed her head.
Can a reptile feel irritation? Hop on Instagram and have a look: there are tons of pictures of bearded dragons giving their owners the infamous “stink eye” for waking them up or not filling their food dish. But are we just imagining it as part of the human need to bond?
The stink eye could be anthropomorphized, but other behaviors are unmistakable. A famous sign of irritation in iguanas is tail-whipping. Snakes prefer to hiss — once my Dumeril’s boa, Strider, found a forgotten plate of dinner and tried to eat a piece of curry chicken (please explain to me how that in any way resembles a rat). He hissed at me the whole way back to his bin.
Aggression is fear taken to the next level, demonstrated by nearly every animal on earth — including reptiles. If running away, urinating, or musking doesn’t work, then the response switches from “flight” to “fight.”
Signs of impending attack are diverse and often specific to species.
- The famous rattlesnake ‘rattle’
- Blue tongue skinks gape and stick out their tongues
- Frilled lizards fan out their trademark ‘frill’
- Bearded dragons darken, flare their beards, and gape
- Snakes coil into an ‘S’ shape
Aggressive snakes and lizards most commonly try to bite. Knowing the warning signals — and when to back off — is the first step in understanding your pet’s body language.
In humans and advanced mammals, trust is like love. But reptiles lack the brain development for a complex emotion like love, so trust is the next best thing. And they do show it!
If a reptile, particularly a lizard — remember, snake brains are generally less developed than lizards’ — exhibits the following behaviors in your presence, they likely feel a bond of trust with you.
- sleeping or closing eyes
- staying near you, even if you’re not petting him/her
- not squirming or clawing while being held
- voluntarily climbing into your hand
- head bobbing
One of our bearded dragons, Deliora, sometimes head-bobs at me when she’s in a good mood. Head bobbing, as you may remember from my article on bearded dragon handling and body language, is a sign of confidence.
Can reptiles feel loneliness? Do they suffer without company?
… Yes and no. It’s complicated.
Do reptiles get lonely? It depends on the reptile. Most snakes don’t live in groups in the wild, and if they encounter another snake outside of breeding season, they ignore it. Most lizards (like bearded dragons, monitor lizards, and leopard geckos) are also solitary. But others, (like mourning geckos, iguanas, and giant girdled lizards) thrive in groups.
Do they suffer without company? It appears so. An article, “Lizards Need Social Lives Too,” argues that reptiles appear to be happier and have better mental health when they are raised with regular social interaction. Reptiles — especially lizards — who get little to no human attention often become defensive and fail to thrive. Some iguanas have been known to bond with one, maybe two humans, and suffer extremely if abandoned.
Exceptions to the Rule
Some reptile behaviors can’t really be explained by science — not to satisfaction, anyway. Once I heard a story of a ball python that would relax so much with its human that it would go completely limp!
Here’s some more food for thought: After a cuddle sesh or snoozing in a pile of blankets, my bearded dragons often refuse to go back in their terrarium. They’ll scurry up my arm, try to climb onto the lid, or even cling to my hand — even though the terrarium is much warmer and more comfortable.
Conclusion: Can reptiles feel emotion?
It’s the anomalies that tip the scales: Yes! Reptiles feel emotion much more than we give them credit for. So get up and give your favorite reptile a snuggle!
What are the behaviors that make your relationship with your snake or lizard unique? Tell us in the comments!