Behavior Consulting for Reptiles

Written by IAABC Editing Team

We talk to Danielle Beck, ABTC registered clinical animal behaviourist, and the United Kingdom’s only reptile behavior consultant working with pet lizards, about the unique challenges of working with these fascinating and often misunderstood animals.

How did you get started working with reptiles?

My work as a behaviour consultant for reptiles began with a love of weird and wonderful creatures. I got my first lizard, an iguana called Dexter, when I was 16 years old, and I knew right away that I wanted to learn as much as I could about herpetology.  Since then, my collection grew until it reached a peak of around 40 individuals when I was studying zoology at Bangor University! During this time, I also worked in an exotic pet shop, zoo, and safari park, which gave me a great chance to learn about behavior.

Now I work as an animal behaviorist with many different species of exotic and companion animals, including companion lizards. These are mostly green iguanas (Iguana iguana), monitors (Varanus sp.), bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) and leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius).

What are some of the most common behavior problems your clients’ reptiles have?

The most common ones I see are aggression towards caregivers, feeding problems, and repetitive behaviours like scratching on the side of an enclosure.

Like most behaviour consultants working with companion animals, the most common issue I’m called in to address is aggression. I approach the issue in a very similar way to how I’d start working with a client’s dog. First, I ensure all the animal’s ethological needs are being met, before moving on to directly intervening to modify behaviours if that’s necessary. I remember one case with an aggressive savannah monitor that makes a good example. Here’s a video:

The first thing we did was reduce human contact and increase environmental enrichment, ensuring he had places to hide and dig. Then we introduced feeding toys like treat balls and Kongs; savannah monitors are a foraging species that like to hunt, and we found that he would often have a preference for the food in the toys over the food we just left in the enclosure, despite the food being the same. Over time, this built his confidence. He began to associate his caregiver with being given the enrichment he enjoyed. At no point had the caregiver attempted to touch him at this stage. We slowly progressed through to feeding in the presence of the caregiver, and then built up to target training to help the monitor feel more comfortable moving around human hands.

What kinds of challenges are there when you’re doing behavior modification in reptiles as opposed to dogs or cats?

Like working with dogs, I find that the challenges are often client-related. Their confidence in the ability of their animal to change often isn’t there, which I feel is exacerbated when it comes to reptiles because they are sadly sometimes seen as animals with little intelligence. Reptile owners can be very traditional in their keeping habits, and often view the animal as an “object” rather than a creature able to learn, in my experience. With dog owners, there’s far more evidence out there and support for clients to gain confidence in what you’re telling them, and dogs work faster so they see results sooner. However, most reptile owners do want to help their animals and are willing to learn and try new things.

In more practical terms, working with reptiles requires a lot of patience because reptiles do work almost in a different “time zone,” and have a sort of delay between perceiving something and responding to it. They also won’t work for long, so sessions need to be kept short. Although reptiles have a reputation for being slow, once they realise that training gains them access to food, some are surprisingly excited, particularly monitors!

You also have to bear in mind where you train—if you take them away from their heat source, they are going to be less interested in training and more interested in conserving energy. For the arboreal species it helps to do your training sessions in high places, as they’re naturally more confident when they’re off the ground, so they’re more likely to work better.

What about the relationship between health status and challenging behaviours—do you find that owners aren’t giving their animals the right habitat to be behaviorally healthy?

Oh my gosh, yes! So many of the behaviour problems I am called in to help with can be prevented or treated with environmental management, to reduce stress and provide ethologically appropriate enrichment. It is similar to cats in a lot of ways. As lizards are generally a prey species, or both predator and prey, they can hide stress well. Reptiles will demonstrate signs of stress through their behaviours. The most common are residing in atypical locations—an arboreal species spending time on the ground for example. I also see repetitive behaviours like scratching the glass—some species will rub themselves so much they cause abrasions on their face. Pica is another telltale sign of physiological or psychological stress, where they will ingest large amounts of inedible material, often substrate on the ground of their enclosure, which leads to gastrointestinal impactions and ultimately death. The substrate is often blamed here, when in reality the cause is more likely one or a combination of poor health, inappropriate diet, and poor husbandry. This mistaken belief in particular prevents a lot of keepers from housing their reptiles in more naturalistic environments and instead preferring newspaper, tile, or carpet, none of which provide any appropriate forms of ethological enrichment. Other signs of stress include:

  • Dark skin coloration and lack of movement
  • Aggression to caregiver or conspecifics
  • Reduced appetite
  • Lack of movement within the enclosure
  • Constantly hiding

You can enrich lizards in many ways; the best way to get some good ideas is to start with the species ethology. However, most species will interact with Kongs, treat balls, and kitchen roll tubes. Simple scatter feeding, or leaving scent trails, will also help to easily provide some enrichment.

One of the easiest places to start with stress reduction is optimising the reptile’s environment to ensure it supplies everything the reptile would naturally require. For example, it’s often common to find fossorial species living in an enclosure with little to no substrate. This can lead to the reptile becoming largely inactive, or displaying repetitive behaviours. A commonly kept species of lizard, a savannah or Bosc monitor (Varanus exanthematicus), will naturally dig burrows of 2 feet or more in length, to gain access to humidity, hunt, and escape predators and the midday heat. In captivity, they are often denied this opportunity to dig, which can create stress. It can also lead to health problems, such as gout, if their access to humidity is denied in this way.

For an arboreal species, it’s important to make sure the environment has plenty of places to climb and hide, with various types of branches, vines, or rocks. Ensuring they are able to thermoregulate by providing different temperatures ranges and “air tunnels” in the enclosure through rock piles, basking outcrops and shady crevices, allows them to choose a variety of places to bask or cool down, rather than just a hot side and a cool side. It sounds simple, but reptiles are commonly kept in very barren environments when compared to what they actually require. It’s amazing how quickly you can reduce stress by providing natural opportunities for that species to climb, dig, swim and thermoregulate. Many snake species, especially some of the colubrid species, are active hunters as opposed to sit-and-wait predators. These species will make use of different heights, hides, and tunnels if given the opportunity to use them. Some will even use maze feeders and enjoy scent trails leading to their food.

Varying the enclosure to create as natural a habitat as possible will enrich most species, and I find that changing small parts will increase exploration and build confidence, if done gradually and from a young age. Too much change will have the opposite effect on some sensitive species, particularly the adults. However, hiding food inside objects or laying scent trails to buried food are good ways to start, particularly with monitor (Varanus) species and any other active forager. Even sit-and-wait predators such as bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) will interact with Kongs and treat balls once they learn that food is in there, which is great fun to watch. However, make it really easy at first, as lizards are experts in energy conservation and have little frustration tolerance—they will give up if they feel the energy spent will outweigh the energy gained.

Do you think more reptile owners would benefit from a behaviour consultation?

Yes, I do, or even from just a little more knowledge about how the environment affects their animal’s behaviour and how they can train them to be okay with handling and life with humans, rather than forcing them into situations they can’t handle or keeping them in enclosures that are detrimental to their welfare. For most reptile keepers, simply being able to keep the animal alive is considered good welfare, and that really needs to change.

What’s the most satisfying thing about working with reptiles?

Changing the opinions and mindset of the reptile keepers. Once they see the difference the training, management and environmental enrichment makes, it makes it all worthwhile. One day these basics will be common knowledge; though that day is probably decades away, I believe it will come!