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Do Bearded Dragons Feel? [sentience and science]

Do Bearded Dragons Feel? [sentience and science]

Bearded dragons feel emotional states and the physical feelings generated by those emotions. Bearded dragons are sentient beings capable of feeling pleasure and suffering, positive feelings, negative feelings and emotional pain as does any animal.

There has been a long held belief that where an animal sits on the phylogenetic tree determines whether, and to what degree, it experiences emotion. This has placed reptiles in an unfavorable position when it comes to recognition of their sentience and subsequently their treatment.

For many of us that have dogs or cats in our lives, we accept that they feel pleasure and pain. We know they are capable of great intelligence and can learn from others. We also interact with dogs and cats for longer periods of time than reptiles since they have the same environmental needs as us. Reptiles are more limited in their interaction time since they need their specialised environments. Dogs and cats can be vocal, have some facial expressions and together this makes it easier for us to connect to their affective state.

Sentience in mammals has been widely studied and recognized. In fact, there have been so many studies on this, that Dr Marc Bekoff felt compelled to write an article posted on Live Science titled ‘After 2,500 Studies, It’s Time to Declare Animal Sentience Proved (Op-Ed)’. (Link to Live Science article)

In 2012 at the University of Cambridge a group of well respected neuroscientists gathered to formally recognize sentience in animals. They made a declaration that we humans are not alone in our consciousness, that other beings are just as capable of experiencing affective (emotional) states. The declaration signed by the neuroscientists ended with:

“Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Author: Philip Low. Edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Christof Koch. 2012
The video of the group of neuroscientists that gathered to declare animals are sentient beings.

“Negative feelings or emotions include pain, fear, boredom and frustration, whilst positive emotions include contentment and joy.”

RSPCA Australia (2019)

Sentience in animals is slowly filtering into law. One instance of laws being applied for emotional cruelty was reported by CBC. In 2019 a dog owner was convicted for causing anxiety to his dog by whipping it. (link to the CBC article)

So, what about reptiles, do they feel emotion and pleasure? Are they really different to dogs and cats? Does being on a different branch than mammals on the phylogenetic tree truly make the difference between whether an animal can feel emotions or not?

Lambert et al (2019) set out to investigate. They reviewed numerous studies and found evidence of research being able to demonstrate that reptiles can experience:

  • Anxiety,
  • Distress,
  • Excitement,
  • Fear,
  • Frustration,
  • Pain,
  • Stress, and
  • Suffering.

So, reptiles do feel and experience emotions. If reptiles have been so hugely underestimated, what other species have? Fish!

There is now evidence that fish are sentient beings. In a research paper by Culum Brown (2015) he wrote “…extensive evidence of fish behavioral and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate.” Further studies since then have continued down the same thread, fish are sentient.

In 2016 Professor Key argued against fish being able to feel pain in his paper ‘Why fish do not feel pain’. This paper brought dozens of responses from scientists around the world who opposed his essay. In a more formal response Antonio Damasio and Hanna Damasio wrote a paper stating, “It does not seem warranted to deny the possibility of feeling in animals on the grounds that their cerebral cortices are not comparable to those of humans.” Although this paper was in direct response to the contention on fish feeling pain, its implications spread across all animals.

Countries Protecting Animals as Sentient Beings

Since science can, and has, proven that animals are sentient beings, it would seem logical that governments would pass laws protecting them. This is certainly the case for New Zealand where in 2015 testing on animals was banned and offenders can now be fined or imprisoned for mistreatment.

Reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians, fish crabs and so on are all protected under the New Zealand Animal Welfare Act 1999.

The Australian Capital Territory didn’t go quite as far in animal protection but it did amend the Animal Welfare Act 1992 (ACT) stating that the objectives of the Act include to “recognise that animals are sentient beings that are able to subjectively feel and perceive the world around them”.

France and Quebec also have clauses to their legislation stating animals are sentient beings. Quebec continues its expansion of animal welfare laws to more species, especially farm animals. Brussels in 2018, recognized animal sentience under new legislation with the statement that declares animals are a “living being endowed with sensitivity, interests of its own and dignity, that benefits from special protection.”

World Animal Protection provide an interactive map of countries that recognize animal sentience ‘Recognition of animal sentience and prohibition of animal suffering’ (link to map).

She loves me ❤️ – Otto – Justin Peter

Posted by Bearded Dragons World on Friday, 13 October 2017
Justin’s Otto wanting attention.

Reptile Emotions

Science is invaluable in the quest to progress animal protection. However, one of the frustrations is that research typically focused on negative states. While this is important for animal welfare, well-meaning pet owners are much more focused on invoking positive states and reactions such as ‘what makes my bearded dragon happy’ and ‘how do I recognize happiness’.

Affection is another affective state often queried by reptile owners. How can we recognize when a bearded dragon is being affectionate? Can a bearded dragon become attached to its owner? In fact, can a bearded dragon become attached to another bearded dragon or perhaps a cat or dog?

Dr Hoppes in the article ‘Reptile Emotions’ (link to article on Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences) points out that some reptiles seem to like some people more than others and that they can show pleasure when stroked.

Dr Marc Bekoff is certain that reptiles not only experience a wide range of emotions but are also more complex than many understand. In his post on Sentient Reptiles Experience Mammalian Emotions he writes that reptiles kept as companion animals are often mistreated in the belief that they are “dumb and insentient”. However, reptiles are far from that. (Link to article on Psychology Today)

Dr Marc Bekoff (former professor at the University of Colorado of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) is known for his work in protecting animals and has written numerous books and works including The Animal Manifesto and The Emotional Lives of Animals (co authored with Jane Goodall).

This wouldn’t surprise many bearded dragon owners; in fact, many go much further. In the Bearded Dragons World community, we see much talk about bearded dragons being attached to their owners. They pace up and down in their cage until they are let out to be together. Some bearded dragons enjoy a little scratch, closing their eyes to the gentle touch until they fall asleep. Yet others show curiosity, eager to be a part of the action.

On the other hand, there are also the negative emotions with some owners reporting emotions such as loneliness, boredom and fear.

The opinion of pet owners and the public in general on sentience of reptiles is important. Along with the help of science qualifying and quantifying these states, opinions and emotions on animal sentience is what will drive governments to add new layers of protection for animals.

Members of the Community Said…

So the question of bearded dragons feeling was posed to the Bearded Dragons World Community. The question was “Do you believe your bearded dragon feels emotions and if so, what sort of emotions have you witnessed?”. Here are some of the responses:

“My Woody loves when Mommy comes home, he runs back and forth in his tank until I take him out.”

“I have beardies but I also work at a vet. We did surgery on a young male beardie. He stayed with us for several days after that surgery. He was pretty mellow and easy to work with as most beardies are, but when it was time to go home and he saw his owner, he got so excited, he nearly jumped out of our arms trying to get to his person. It was the cutest thing!”

“Curiosity – mine loved to sit in the window and watch the world go by. Happiness- when he got his horn worms and would give us a smile. He would feel remorse when he played with his dad and would bite him lol. And very alert and loved to watch cartoons.”

“Boredom, loneliness. I remember when my bearded dragons were still alive and they would always perk up when I entered the room. I would take them out of their viv when they were lonely and comfort them and put them by the window when they were bored to have some sunshine and get to look and see a different scenery , they loved that !”

Do you believe your bearded dragon feels emotions and if so, what sort of emotions have you witnessed?

Posted by Bearded Dragons World on Saturday, 21 March 2020

Yes, Bearded Dragons Feel!

From the pet ownership perspective, knowing that bearded dragons feel, that they are sentient beings, means we need to be conscious of our decisions and how they impact the care and wellbeing of our reptiles.

Bearded dragons can become attached to their owners and perhaps other animals. Many pet owners tell stories of their bearded dragon’s affection from seeking attention to cuddling up (article on bearded dragon cuddles).

We don’t need science to realise and experience bonds between human and reptile. However, science is important to enable governments to formally establish protection for animals. Perhaps we should no longer ask if bearded dragons get attached to their owners and change it to ‘can humans recognize when a reptile is attached to them’.

Unfortunately, stress can be endured and the behavioral indicators of that stress may not be clear to humans. Stress can manifest into illness over time. Tuning in on behaviors and being prepared to change our own behaviors when things don’t go in the right direction is important for the wellbeing of our reptiles as well as our own.

Bearded dragons feel emotions.

Need legal help to protect an animal?

The following organisations provide legal support, and some representation, for animals and their advocates in court; advance the interested of animals through the legal system, lobby for compassionate laws; and provide legal education.


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