Pet Talk: Can a reptile be man’s best friend?
From College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University
When thinking of reptiles, the image that comes to the minds of most people can vary from a garter snake slithering through the grass to lizards of Jurassic proportions roaming the earth. The idea of bonding with such creatures may seem creepy, or even impossible, yet some people insist their reptiles know them and enjoy being with them. Can reptiles feel or portray emotions?
Generally, reptiles do demonstrate basic emotions. According to Dr. Sharman Hoppes, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, the main two are fear and aggression, but they may also demonstrate pleasure when stroked or when offered food.
“A snake that is feeling aggressive may warn you with a hiss,” states Dr. Hoppes. “This can occur when you are forcing your attention on the snake, and if you persist, they may strike out. Typically, snakes hiss or coil when they are feeling hostile, but most pet snakes are not aggressive animals unless threatened.”
A reptile that is feeling fear may simply try to get away, but it can also exhibit actions similar to aggression. For this reason, it is a good idea to keep handling sessions with a new reptile to a minimum until it gets used to you. Otherwise, you may scare it into striking at you, a perceived threat. It is better to have a good session without upsetting the animal that lasts two minutes than a longer session trying to force a reptile to accept you.
A more controversial emotion in reptiles is the concept of pleasure, or even love. Many feel that they have not developed this emotion, as it does not naturally benefit them. However, most reptiles do seem to recognize people who frequently handle and feed them.
“I don’t know if it is love,” says Dr. Hoppes, “but lizards and tortoises appear to like some people more than others. They also seem to show the most emotions, as many lizards do appear to show pleasure when being stroked.”
Another interesting fact is that while many reptiles lay their eggs and then leave their young to fend for themselves, some, such as prehensile-tailed skinks, form family groups and protect their young. Female alligators also stay with their young and will guard them for up to six months, teaching them survival skills and vocalizing with them through a series of grunts. Whether this is the result of a survival instinct or concern for their individual offspring is unknown.
When it comes to interactions with humans, some reptiles do seem to enjoy their company. A tortoise that enjoys being petted might stick its neck out or close it eyes and become still and calm during the interaction. The same is true of lizards.
“Some reptiles do appear to enjoy human contact,” adds Dr. Hoppes, “especially when food is offered. Many will respond to feeding times, coming to certain people they associate with food. And certainly most iguanas prefer certain people over others.”
Iguanas have individual personalities that can vary from tranquil and laid-back to aggressive and dominating. The latter can be very difficult to live with and care for. The more calm iguanas, however, tend to bond with their person but may only endure handling by that individual. It is the rare iguana that is social with strangers.
Many reptile owners believe their personal reptiles do recognize the good intentions they have toward them. Others deem that their cold-blooded dependents only tolerate them when they have to and would prefer to be left alone. By careful observation and handling of your reptiles, you can determine which are more social and which may not be quite so impressed with having a human as a best friend.
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at http://tamunews.tamu.edu. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Aug. 24-30, 2011, issue
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