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I always wondered how well bearded dragons bond with humans. Do they have feelings similar to dogs and cats and do they show signs of affection to their human companions? Before getting a bearded dragon, I decided to do some research to find out if bearded dragons had feelings and how well they do as pets.
So, do bearded dragons have feelings? The general consensus is yes, bearded dragons do have feelings, although they are not on the same order as those shown by mammals like cats and dogs, or even some other reptiles. They can bond to their human companions, but the level of affection and comfort they show depends entirely on their individual personality.
The real difference between bearded dragons and other more traditional pets is the type of emotion they display. Bearded dragons have been known to show feelings of anger, fear, boredom, and restlessness. Some bearded dragons will also cuddle up with their owners and seek comfort from them in moments of fear or stress.
Do Bearded Dragons Have Emotions?
According to most scientific literature, bearded dragons, along with most other reptile species, do not have a strong emotional component as the hypothalamus (which plays a big role in response to emotional circumstances) is said to be underdeveloped.
The vast majority of reptiles live solitary lives, so they never had to develop the emotions necessary to live in a social group. There was no evolutionary benefit to reptiles in developing the emotional part of their brains, so it never happened.
However, many owners report that their bearded dragons do show a range of emotions. Like all creatures, their reaction to their environment and the humans they interact with is based mainly on their personality. Some bearded dragons like to be left alone and may even react with hostility to humans, but others seem to actually enjoy the company of their owners.
The types of feelings displayed by bearded dragons include
The Latest Research Into Reptile Emotions
The ability to bond emotionally with other creatures is considered to be one of the higher orders of brain function. Forming social groups or engaging in group learning behaviors like mimicking is a key indicator of emotional development. Recently, British and Hungarian researchers working with the University of Lincoln in the U.K. completed a fascinating study into bearded dragon social behavior.
The study involved seven bearded dragons, one of which was trained to retrieve its food from behind a closed door by opening it with its claws. Two of the other six bearded dragons were allowed to observe this behavior and then took turns at trying to mimic the behavior themselves. These two dragons did manage to open the door (as shown in the clip below). However, the other four did not witness the behavior of the trained dragon and couldn’t open the door.
The researchers behind this project argue that the lizards’ ability to learn behavior from other members of their group indicates a higher order of emotional development than previously suspected. In short, if bearded dragons can mimic social behavior in this way, they do have the emotional development necessary to form bonds with others of their own species and with humans.
Do Bearded Dragons Show Affection?
So, can bearded dragons show affection to their human companions? The short answer is yes, although this is to some degree dependent on how you define affection. Dogs, for instance, show a lot of loyalty to their owners and many rarely leave their owner’s side. Bearded dragons do not show affection on this level, but they can still definitely enjoy one on one time with their owners.
Based on my experiences and anecdotal evidence from other bearded dragon owners, it seems very clear that these reptiles do bond with their owners. Bearded dragons frequently engage in the following behaviors, all of which indicate a certain amount of affection.
- Recognizing their owner
- Sitting on their owner’s lap
- Curling up on their owner’s neck
- Going for walks with their owner, both on and off of a leash
- Seeking out their owner for comfort when frightened
- Displaying excitement at their owner’s return by scratching at the glass on their tank
- Sleeping next to their owner at night
- Watching TV with their owner
- Reacting with pleasure when stroked
- Reacting with hostility or aggression when someone other than their owner tries to handle them
In fact, many reptile enthusiasts, myself included, consider bearded dragons to be one of the most sociable reptile species around.
How to Read Your Bearded Dragon’s Emotional Cues
Bearded dragons do certainly show a range of emotions that run the gamut from affection to anger. Creating a strong relationship with your bearded dragon requires a clear understanding of their emotional cues.
As with all creatures, human or reptile, a bearded dragon’s individual personality traits have a lot to do with how they react to their human companions. Some are naturally more ornery than others, while some are more curious and open to bond with their owners. Below is a table that can act as a general guideline to understanding your bearded dragon’s emotional cues.
|Emotional Cue and meaning||Appropriate Response|
|Scratching at tank – Boredom, restlessness, excitement, curiosity||Remove bearded dragon from tank and allow them to explore the room or spend some time with you.|
|Arching or reaching head towards you – Seeking attention||Stroke your bearded dragon gently, allowing them to move onto your lap if they wish. Do not force them to sit with you if they prefer not to.|
|Closing eyes when stroked – Displaying pleasure||Keep petting your bearded dragon. This is a very clear indicator of affection and pleasure.|
|Calm, still posture Displaying pleasure||A bearded dragon will remain motionless under your hand if it is enjoying being petted. This is again a clear sign of enjoyment and bonding.|
|Puffed out beard, flattened body – Anger, hostility, fear||Leave your dragon alone. If it will let you handle it, return it to its tank to ensure its safety.|
|Color change from light to dark – Anger, hostility, fear||Again, it’s best to leave an angry bearded dragon alone. Remove it from the source of its aggression and do not try to force it to be stroked or petted.|
|Vocalizing through hissing – Aggression||Bearded dragons only vocalize when they are angry. Separate hissing dragons and keep your distance from an angry bearded dragon. Keep it away from the source of its aggression till it calms down.|
|Quick head bobbing or weaving movements with enlarged beard and color change – Dominance||Male bearded dragons display dominance behavior by bobbing their heads up and down. They typically show this behavior around other bearded dragons but have also been known to show dominance behavior towards humans.|
|Slow head bobbing or weaving movement – Submission||Typically displayed by female bearded dragons to males, this behavior has also been observed in captive solitary female dragons towards their human owners.|
|Arm waving in a circular motion – Submission||Male bearded dragons will show submission to other males by slowly waving one arm and backing away. If your male bearded dragon is frightened of you, it might show this behavior or even engage in more hostile behavior by hissing at you.|
|Violent, rapid head bobbing or head weaving – Deep stress, fear, and anxiety||Male and female bearded dragons engage in this behavior when they feel threatened. Back away from your bearded dragon and remove the source of its fear if you can identify it. If the behavior persists over a long period of time, even with the removal of the animal’s source of fear, take it to your vet. Your bearded dragon’s stress might be due to an underlying medical condition.|
|Open mouth, stiff posture, hissing, leaping forward in small bursts – Aggressive attack mode||If your bearded dragon displays these behaviors, it feels that it is under significant threat and is ready to attack. Do what you can to calm him down, but be careful of handling your bearded dragon in this state as it can bite you.|
How to Form A Bond With Your Bearded Dragon
Based on all the research available, it seems that the key to developing an affectionate relationship with your bearded dragon is to form a strong bond with it by engaging in activities it enjoys. While the personality of your bearded dragon has a lot to do with the type of bond you will have, there are many things you can do to improve that bond.
- Start with a hatchling
The best way to develop a strong and lasting bond with your bearded dragon is to get one that is very young, preferably a hatchling. Hatchlings do tend to show more fear, to begin with, but as long as you go slow and allow them some time and space to get used to you, they will adapt to your company very quickly.
Make sure your new bearded dragon has a tank that is large enough to allow it to hide if it gets stressed. Provide it with adequate hiding spaces as well, such as ornamental tree branches and reptile dens. Take your hatchling out for a few minutes at a time when you first get it to allow it to get used to you. Be patient – this process may take time.
- Food-based Bonding
One of the best ways to bond with your bearded dragon is to let it associate you with food. Most lizard species quickly learn to recognize their human owner as the source of their food, leading them to display pleasure and excitement when they see you. Make a point of feeding your bearded dragon often and by hand in the first few weeks you have them.
Young bearded dragons need to eat a lot, so you can give them a cricket or two whenever you approach their tank. You could also encourage your bearded dragon to sit on your lap while you feed them. This allows them to associate you specifically with food and will help them to form a stronger bond with you.
- Getting out and about
Bearded dragons are naturally inquisitive creatures and love to spend their time exploring outside the confines of their tanks. Take your bearded dragon out of his tank several times a day and allow him to explore a safe room that is clear of other animals. You can also purchase a special lizard leash (click to view on Amazon) and take him out for controlled walks in your garden or at your local park.
Bearded dragons that are allowed a lot of freedom to explore seem to associate their owners with fun activities and will scratch at their tank to be let out when they see you. Just make sure that you keep an eye on what your bearded dragon is doing so they don’t hurt themselves.
While frequently bathing your dragon is highly recommended, swimming may seem like an odd choice. Nevertheless, bearded dragons actually make great swimmers and it can be a great activity for them. While many will enjoy spending time in the water, you definitely shouldn’t force this upon them. Let them approach the water in their own time as each dragon is different. Some may not enjoy it at all and you could put them under a lot of stress.
If you want to try this out with your dragon, they’ll need three to four times their length to allow enough room for movement. Also, make sure they have somewhere to rest. The water temperature should be between 85 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit and remember to dry them off with a towel before placing them back in their enclosure. This is particularly important if you have a sand substrate!
Now this one is somewhat controversial and I for one wouldn’t encourage it. However, some bearded dragon owners like to sleep with their pets and say that they have a stronger bond as a result. There are risks involved such as crushing or losing your pet and not all bearded dragons will take to it either.
Nevertheless, if you do want to try this approach, you can start by placing a heating pad next to your pillow and placing your bearded dragon on top of it. Bearded dragons do like sleeping on warm rocks, so this is a great way to encourage them to sleep next to you.
- Pay attention to emotional cues
This is the most crucial aspect of bonding with your bearded dragon. Living in captivity can be stressful for any animal, so it’s important to gauge how your bearded dragon is feeling and to react appropriately. Some key points to remember are:
- Never force your bearded dragon to accept attention – if they don’t want to be petted, let them go.
- Don’t introduce new people to your bearded dragon abruptly. The chances are your bearded dragon will react aggressively to anyone who is not their owner. You can get them used to new people very slowly over time. Never force your bearded dragon to accept handling by someone who is a stranger to them.
- Be careful about allowing your bearded dragon to be around other animals, especially excitable animals like big dogs. Many bearded dragons will become used to their interspecies animal companions, but it does take time and patience.
- If you do want to keep multiple bearded dragons and mating pairs, make sure to provide each one with their own vivarium. Bearded dragons, especially males, can be very territorial.
Picking the Perfect Bearded Dragon Companion
Alright, so now that you know how much fun it can be to have a pet bearded dragon and how well they bond to humans, you’ll probably want to the perfect companion for you! There are a number of different subspecies of bearded dragons which are available at most pet stores. They generally exhibit a fairly similar range of behaviors, so the main difference is in size and appearance.
Below is a short list of some of the most popular types of bearded dragons sold at pet stores.
- Inland Bearded Dragon
This is the most commonly sold bearded dragon in the world, and the variety that you will find most often in pet stores. Also known as the Central or Yellow-headed bearded dragon, this subspecies has the typical light brown to yellow coloration and is relatively inexpensive. They have a lifespan of approximately ten years and do very well in captivity.
- Eastern Bearded Dragon
Considered to be more aggressive than the Inland bearded dragon, this subspecies is distinctive for its dark greyish-black or reddish-brown coloring. They are extremely territorial, so they cannot be housed with other bearded dragons. This particular subspecies is on the larger end of the scale, with males growing up to 60 centimeters long.
- Western Bearded Dragon
The Western bearded dragon is typically grey or light brown in color, although it does assume a darker hue when angry. Smaller than its eastern cousins but still pretty large, the Western bearded dragon grows to be about 38 to 40 centimeters long. They are also an arboreal species, so you will need to provide them with plenty of climbing branches and fresh vegetation.
- Rankin’s Bearded Dragon
Also known as the Pygmy or Dwarf bearded dragon, this diminutive subspecies only grows to be about 30 centimeters long. It has a yellowish-brown coloration, similar to the Inland bearded dragon, but has a shorter lifespan of 6 to 8 years. Known to be a very social creature, this particular type of bearded dragon is a great choice for kids or classrooms.
- Kimberley and Nullbor Bearded Dragons
There are two other subspecies of bearded dragon that you can occasionally find at pet stores, namely the Kimberley bearded dragon and the Nullarbor bearded dragon. However, not very much is known about these subspecies because they live in small, remote areas in their native Australia. If you do come across one, you will need to seek out specialist information on their care and diet.