To Handle or Not To Handle

beardieonhandIf you are looking for a pet that you snuggle and cuddle with, a reptile is definitely not for you.  In fact, excessive handling can actually be life-threatening to a reptile. 

Reptiles are not domesticated animals.  Yes, there are some bred in captivity, but unfortunately the fact remains that the bulk of the reptiles in the “pet-trade” are wild-caught specimens.  They have been caught in pitfall traps, netted, noosed, caught by hand and many other horrifying methods.

In the wild, a caught-reptile is typically going to end up as a dead-reptile, in other words it ends up as food for the predator.  Reptiles have evolved to be quite the creative escape artists, using any number of techniques to get away including:

  • biting
  • autotomize their tail (drop their tail completely off)awesome-snake-bite-photo
  • slapping/whipping with their tails
  • smearing their cloacal contents
  • wriggling strongly
  • becoming catatonic
  • changing color
  • inflating their body or throat
  • tearing big patches of their body skin free

Simply by observing the body language of most reptiles, you can rest assured that they are not overly thrilled at being handled.  Your hand will often appear as a huge predator to them, and when they see it approaching them some will become quite defensive or attempt to escape – a very stressful situation for the reptile itself.  It’s a rare instance that a healthy reptile will simply carry on with it’s business and allow itself to be handled readily.

Being held is a completely alien concept to a reptile!

Some reptiles will tolerate a small amount handling a little easier than others.  Typically speaking, larger reptiles tend to be less stressed than smaller reptile species by handling – but then again, there is great variation from one reptile to another, even within the same species.

Handling, and especially excessive handling, generally causes a lot of stress – and too much stress to a reptile WILL kill it.  Most will view handling and touching as a threat to their survival. I cannot stress this enough:


With all of that said, there are some lizards for example that you can tolerate occasional handling – providing you don’t just suddenly reach towards them and grab them.  Always move slowly and keeping your eyes open for any sort of reaction from your pet.

For example, you can gently shepherd a leopard gecko onto the palm of your hand where they will often sit quietly.  Lizards like bearded dragons and blue-tongue skinks can be slowly and carefully grasped and gently lifted up.  Always support them with your other hand.

SOME iguanas will let you lift them if they are approached slowly and at at the same level (never swoop down on a reptile!).  In fact, some iguanas over time will become accustomed to you and will readily crawl up onto your shouder.

Iguana BiteWith that said: BEWARE! The attitude of a lizard, especially a male iguana, can change suddenly!  Always play close attention to the body language of your reptile while handling.  Trust me – you don’t want to be bit by a large male iguana in heat!  I’ll tell you about my visit to the Emergency Room one day (that’s not me in the pic – but could have been)!  And you also don’t want a reptile to suddenly dart and injure itself in the process.

With all that said, not all lizards and snakes are handleable … and those that are, may not be under all circumstances.  Your reptile will use its body language to make you aware of its moods … as well as the potential mood swings!

In short, if you are looking for a pet that you can hold and snuggle with, you should consider a mammal – not a reptile.  But if you are looking for pet that you can value and watch without a lot of touching, a reptile might be for you.


About Candace M Hansen

Wildlife advocate, conservationist and environmentalist.
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