People keep a lot of different types of pets, but reptiles exhibit some distinct differences from cats, dogs, horses, pigs, and other popular mammalian pets.
Obviously, (non-avian) reptiles are ectothermic and clad in scales, while mammals are warm-blooded and covered in fur. Additionally, most common mammalian pets are fully domesticated, while reptiles are not – they are indistinguishable from their wild-living counterparts. And finally (and most importantly, given our current topic of discussion), the majority of mammals living alongside people are inherently social animals, while true social interactions among reptiles are rare.
These differences manifest in many different ways for the humans caring for these species.
Your dog doesn’t require a basking spot, while your ball python does. Your cat will gladly answer nature’s call in a designated location, while your painted turtle will relieve himself wherever and whenever the urge strikes. You can keep your parakeet’s food in a cabinet alongside your breakfast cereal, but you probably wouldn’t want to do so with your leopard gecko’s crickets.
Circling back to our primary focus, another difference is that most true “companion animals” are allowed to roam freely in our homes. But we tend to keep reptiles by themselves in enclosures that isolate them from the world.
This causes many reptile enthusiasts to ask a compassionate and obvious question: Are our reptile pets lonely?
We’ll dive into this issue below and try to examine how it should lead our husbandry efforts and overall goals.
First Thing Is First: Nobody Really Knows
We can never know exactly what’s going on inside the heads of our iguanas, tortoises, or kingsnakes. We can’t even be sure what’s happening in the heads of our dogs or cats, and their brains likely work much more like our own.
So, we can never definitively answer issues relating to loneliness. We can only try to interpret their experiences, desires and struggles based on our knowledge of animal behavior. And we may be able to draw some conclusions based on the lifestyles of our pets in the wild.
But while doing so, we must try to avoid anthropomorphizing them (projecting human emotions on non-human entities). This is easier said than done, and we’re all guilty of it at times. Nevertheless, it is a worthy goal that we should strive to achieve, while we try to get to the bottom of the reptile loneliness question.
Reptiles Are an Incredibly Diverse Group
One of the biggest challenges we’ll face when trying to determine if reptiles get lonely is the size of the group. Even if we set aside birds (who’re part of the reptile family tree, yet very different biologically, behaviorally and socially), there are thousands of reptiles scurrying, slithering and swimming on the planet. And few generalizations will apply to them all.
But while we’ll try to focus primarily on those animals that are available to reptile-keeping hobbyists, it is important to note that we still want to consider some of the species that aren’t commonly kept as pets. This includes species ranging from sea turtles to king cobras to crocodilians.
We mention all three of these groups specifically because they exhibit rudimentary social behaviors. Some sea turtles, for example, appear to aggregate and interact in large numbers during the breeding season. King cobras are some of the few snakes to construct actual egg chambers, and there is some evidence to suggest they directly communicate with each other via low-pitched “growls.” Like sea turtles, crocodilians often form very large groups as well, and their parenting skills are unparalleled. Further, some crocodilians are thought to communicate with their siblings while still inside their eggs!
However, at the other end of the spectrum, many reptiles lack any obvious signs of sociality. The average rat snake probably doesn’t encounter very many other members of his species during life, save for the occasional breeding partner or rival. And it doesn’t appear as though these interactions are terribly consequential for them either – at least, not from an “emotional” standpoint.
Semi-Social Reptiles We Keep as Pets
We’ve talked about some of the ways crocodilians and other reptiles exhibit social behaviors, but let’s turn our attention to a few of the most social species we often keep as pets.
Slider turtles often live in habitats alongside scads of other slider turtles. And this, in turn, has caused them to evolve methods for interacting with each other. Most of these interactions seem pretty shallow, but slider turtles commonly do things like “share” basking spots, which suggests that they can at least distinguish other turtles (who are typically harmless) from animals they’d need to fear. And as anyone who’s kept an aquarium with several slider turtles before can tell you, the individuals often exhibit varying personalities. Simply put, some slider turtles seem to get along better than others.
Bearded dragons – one of the most commonly kept lizard species in the world – likely live their lives in semi-solitude. However, they’ve also evolved a series of behaviors that help them to interact with other dragons. They’ll bob their heads to assert dominance and wave their arms to signal submission, for example.
Anoles also live in close proximity to other members of their species, and – like bearded dragons – they’ve evolved a variety head bobs, “push up” displays, and other behaviors to communicate with conspecifics. The males have even evolved colorful dewlaps, which serve like billboards that advertise their presence.
But perhaps the most social species that is common to the pet trade is the monkey-tailed skink. These lizards are unusual for a variety of reasons (they’re nocturnal herbivores for starters), but one of the most noteworthy things about them is their tendency to raise their young and live in small family groups at times.
Sociality Does Not (Necessarily) Mean Reptiles Get Lonely
Thus far, we’ve been talking about reptiles that exhibit social behaviors. But it is important to note that the tendency to interact with other members of their own species does not mean these animals feel “lonely” when deprived of this kind of contact. That’s a leap we should be careful to avoid making.
For example, your bearded dragon may very well have evolved methods for communicating with other bearded dragons. But that doesn’t mean he sits around in his enclosure all day longing for companionship. He may simply spend his time thinking about juicy mealworms or the way the sand feels under his feet. He may also just sit around not thinking about much at all. We simply do not know.
So, while social behaviors are an important clue to consider when pondering the issue of reptilian loneliness (and they may even be a prerequisite for loneliness), it is important that we don’t automatically assume that because some species interact with conspecifics, they get lonely when deprived of the company of others.
Instead, it is possible (if not likely) that we’d see reptiles deprived of contact with other reptiles to exhibit poor health or fail to thrive. That’s likely what would happen to most humans or other truly social animals.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case – almost every reptile species in the world that can be kept in captivity will tend to thrive when maintained alone. And that’s a pretty strong argument against the notion of loneliness in reptiles.
Bottom Line: Do Reptiles Get Lonely?
With all caveats about the uncertainty of the reptilian mind in place, we generally find the notion of reptilian loneliness unlikely. Again, there is no way to know for certain, but it seems very unlikely.
For starters, it isn’t clear that reptiles have the intellectual capacity for loneliness. We may love these animals deeply, but they probably don’t sit around pondering social issues all day or pining for other members of their own species. It’s unlikely that they even have a concept of “self,” let alone a good concept of “others.”
Additionally, there aren’t any commonly kept reptile species that will fail to thrive when maintained alone. And this is perhaps the most telling evidence. Even the most social reptiles will typically thrive when maintained in isolation, and some species likely prefer to be alone, as interactions with conspecifics can prove stressful.
Husbandry and Loneliness
We’re pretty confident that most pet reptiles do not feel lonely. However, in the interest of taking the best possible care of our pets, we should at least consider the alternative. In other words, if reptiles were capable of feeling lonely, how would that change our approaches to husbandry?
For starters, we’d likely refrain from keeping animals singly, without other members of their species. If they were, in fact, capable of feeling lonely, we’d want to help them avoid the emotion, which would essentially mean providing them with cagemates.
This would have a number of trickle-down effects, such as the need to utilize larger enclosures, the need to purchase more food, and the need to provide multiple sets of important resources, such as hiding spaces and basking spots. It’d also increase the amount of money we’d have to spend on the actual reptiles, as well as their housing and veterinary care.
Further, we’d also have to pay more attention to the interactions between our animals. Some reptiles simply do not appear to “get along” with other members of their own species. This could lead to considerable stress (or even physical confrontations), so we’d need to be very careful about the individual animals we housed together.
Finally, we’d have to consider the possibility that our reptiles enjoyed their interactions with their human keepers. They may even feel “lonely” when deprived of this kind of keeper-reptile interaction. This would mean that we’d want to make handling our reptiles an important and regular component of our husbandry regimens.
Again, we don’t think these things are necessary, as we don’t think reptiles are likely to feel “lonely.” However, if you were to come to the opposite conclusion, the above-mentioned issues demand consideration.
Should We Breed All Pet Reptiles?
There’s one final question to ask ourselves when discussing the possibility of reptilian loneliness: Should we allow all pet reptiles to breed? After all, even the most non-social reptile species interact with conspecifics during breeding attempts. This is the one time all reptile species display some form of social interaction.
If you were to assume that reptiles can feel lonely, then it would logically follow that breeding interactions would likely make our pets “happy.” And this would mean we should probably afford all pet reptiles the opportunity to carry out one of life’s key activities.
However, given the fact that we do not think reptiles can feel lonely, this is probably unnecessary. In fact, it is likely not advisable for most hobbyists. Breeding reptiles entails some degree of risk for the health of each participant (particularly the female animal), and it will also leave you saddled with the responsibility to care for numerous offspring.
This is not necessarily a big problem for professional breeders but caring for a large number of hatchling reptiles can be quite imposing for the average hobbyist. You’ll not only have to house and feed all of those new mouths, but you’ll have to provide them with veterinary care too. For that matter, you’ll have to eventually find new homes for them all – which is often easier said than done.
Accordingly, while it would make sense to breed all reptiles if we thought they were capable of loneliness, it is likely unnecessary, and doing so may cause headaches for hobbyists, without contributing meaningfully to the quality of life of your pets.
As we discussed earlier, no one understands the inner workings of reptilian minds with certainty, so we just don’t know whether they feel lonely or not. Several lines of evidence make this seem to be unlikely, but there are a few ways we can take a “better safe than sorry” approach to our husbandry practices.
Nevertheless, the average hobbyist – particularly novices – should likely focus on husbandry and the well-being of a single animal before considering social issues. In many cases, simply helping the animals thrive will prove challenging enough.