Emotional Attachment Between Reptile Guardians & Their Companions
When most of us think of companion animals, we think of dogs, cats, and maybe parrots, rabbits, or guinea pigs. But the practice of keeping reptiles as companions is growing; almost 2% of U.K. households now report having a companion reptile, more than the number of households keeping hamsters. However, there are some welfare issues that have arisen with this popularity – U.K. veterinarians report common nutritional and husbandry problems with captive reptiles.
One theory behind this lack of care is a difficulty empathizing with reptiles, especially compared to mammals like dogs and cats. Reptiles are less likely to be anthropomorphized than mammals, especially those which evolved with us as companions, and many people disbelieve the capacity of reptiles to even feel emotions or attachment. In addition, some reptiles like snakes are somewhat inherently feared, even among our non-human relatives like chimpanzees. The authors of this study sought to find out whether poor care outcomes in companion reptiles are linked to a lack of attachment by their guardians. That is, do reptile guardians feel the same connection to their scaly companions that we generally see with cat and dog guardians?
The researchers composed an online survey including the Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale (LAPS), a formalized questionnaire that has been used to determine our depth of connection to non-human animals. Also included were demographic questions as well as questions about species and number of companions kept – lizard, snake, tortoise, and dog. The researchers were particularly interested in guardians who kept both reptiles and dogs, to test whether a difference in attachment was noticeable. The survey was distributed on reptile hobbyist websites, newsletters, forums, and social media pages, pet shop websites and social media, and a U.K. parenting website. Paper flyers with a link to the survey were also distributed among British pet shops that sold reptiles. Around 2,000 respondents filled out the full questionnaire.
Respondents were most attached to lizards, then snakes, then tortoises, amongst reptile guardians. 90% of dogs were found to be the subject of stronger attachment than tortoises and snakes. However, the mean attachment score of reptiles was found to be within the normal range for all companions, and was actually higher than the average score for dogs kept outside. The researchers put forward some theories as to why people were more attached to lizards than snakes and tortoises, including the fact that many pet lizard species like leopard geckos have traits traditionally seen as cute, and that pet snakes tend to spend much of their time hiding from human eyesight. The attachment scores for reptiles in this study were lower than those for dogs, though the authors note that the average score for dogs in this study was higher than the observed average overall. This may be due to a higher overall baseline of attachment towards animals among the respondents.
The authors conclude that low levels of attachment to reptiles should not be assumed to be the cause of husbandry issues amongst reptile guardians, as most seem to have a normal level of attachment to their companions. It is clear that the majority of respondents do not see reptiles as “disposable,” as is often assumed. However, they note that the LAPS measures strength of attachment, not style or quality of attachment – reptile guardians may just express their attachment in a different way than dog or cat guardians. The authors believe that lack of information is a more likely culprit and call on pet stores and hobbyist groups to broaden their outreach efforts. The reptile trade is problematic for innumerable reasons – poor regulations of breeding and buying, escaped/released animals becoming invasive species, the capture of wild reptiles for sale, and so on. The least we can do is ensure that companion reptiles already in captivity are given a good quality of life, which this research suggests most reptile guardians also want.