Understanding if they enjoy being handled, is just one part of the equation, you need to know signs they give you when they do not want to be handled, what things may stress them out and how to avoid this, and more. Keep reading for this.
Origins and Misconceptions of Bearded Dragons
For an animal that shares its name with the fabled, fire-breathing beasts of antiquity, bearded dragons are actually very docile, gentle creatures that can make great pets. Originating in Australia, bearded dragons were introduced to the US in the 1990s.
Since then, they have exploded in popularity as companion animals and have been bred in a variety of colors, patterns and varieties. These days, bearded dragons can be found for sale in almost every pet store around the country.
One misconception that’s become particularly widespread has to do with whether they enjoy being held by their human caretakers. Let’s explore this question in depth to make sure we provide the best care possible to our reptilian companions.
Do Bearded Dragons Really Enjoy Being Handled?
It is widely debated among reptile keepers whether lizards can feel affection or attachment for their humans. A common belief among some people is that reptiles are emotionally cold and unfeeling, leading to the expression ‘cold-blooded’ being used to refer to humans who don’t show their emotions.
This idea is partly based on a theory proposed in 1957 that divides the human brain into three sections – the modern neocortex, responsible for reasoning, language and abstract thought, the older limbic system, that controls emotions, and the deeper brain-stem and basal ganglia, termed the ‘reptile brain’, where basic survival impulses are regulated.
Called the triune brain theory, this explanation oversimplified the complexity of evolution and failed to account for the high intelligence of other species, such as birds, who have brains very similar to those of reptiles. It became very popular however, as pop-science often does, and to this day many people still believe that since reptiles only posses a ‘reptile brain’, they’re biologically limited to only feeling fear, aggression and hunger.
In May of 2018 the triune brain theory finally came crashing down. A cutting-edge genetic analysis of mammalian and reptilian brain cells showed that reptile brains possess their own versions of the two ‘higher’ brain systems that they were long believed to lack, including limbic structures responsible for emotional attachment and pleasure.
This study supports what bearded dragon owners have known all along- bearded dragons are very friendly, gentle creatures that can bond with specific people and will enjoy being held by their humans. If trained correctly, your bearded dragons will gladly sit on your arm, shoulder or chest for long periods of time and may even choose to climb up on you themselves.
Bearded dragons will recognize who their owners are and feel comfortable with them, but may behave skittishly around strangers. The will also let you know if they’re scared or uncomfortable, so always pay attention to your dragon’s body language before trying to pick it up.
How Do You Handle a Bearded Dragon Correctly?
In order to keep your dragon healthy and safe, always wash your hands before touching or holding them. This will reduce the chances of passing any germs to your pet. If you have sensitive skin you may want to consider wearing gloves, as bearded dragon skin can be rough.
Like any other animal, a bearded dragon has to be approached in the correct way, otherwise it may see you as a threat and either try to run away or attack. For bearded dragons, this means not coming at them from above.
They have sensory cells on the top of their heads intended to sense attacks from predators and reaching down to grab them may trigger their fight or flight response.
Move your hand towards their face slowly but surely. If you’re afraid of them they won’t trust you and will be hesitant to let you hold them. Once you’re close enough to touch them, pet your dragon gently on the head or under the chin. This will get them used to to your touch and will relax them, as they’ll see you’re not trying to hurt them.
Once your bearded dragon has closed its eyes or blinked, it is ready to be picked up. Gently scoop your hand underneath them with your palm upwards and pick them up. Make sure you’re supporting all four legs, their head and their tail with one or both hands.
Once you’re holding your bearded dragon securely, you can place it on your arms, chest or back, gently petting them in the direction of their scales. Your touch will help to keep them relaxed and happy, and they may even fall asleep as you hold them. This is a great way to build a strong bond with your dragon!
When Should You Be Handling Them?
It’s important to handle your bearded dragon from a young age in order to get them used to human presence and interaction. However you should learn to read their body language so you leave them alone if they’re stressed or upset. Don’t try to handle your dragon if:
- Their “beard” is black and inflated: When a bearded dragon feels threatened the underside of their necks will expand and turn black. This is why they’re called “bearded” dragons. They do this to look intimidating and let you know they’re not in the mood for any games.
- They’re bobbing their head: Males will bob their heads in a display of dominance. If your lizard is doing this, they’re letting you know they’re agitated.
- Their mouth is open wide: Bearded dragons will gape their mouths to show how threatening they are when they feel scared.
What Can Stress Out a Bearded Dragon?
Being in a house with humans is very different than living in the natural environment that bearded dragons are adapted for, that’s why there are a lot of things that can stress out your lizard.
Each dragon will be different though, and not all of them will get stressed out over the same things. As they adjust to their new surroundings, they may even stop being scared by some of the things that used to cause them anxiety.
Here are a few things that might stress out your beardie:
- Too many people, strangers and too much noise. Trying to show them off to a lot of people at once can stress out your dragon.
- Other bearded dragons – some dragons can be very territorial.
- Being too hot or too cold. Like all reptiles, bearded dragons can’t regulate their own body temperature and need a warm and a cool side to their enclosure.
- Too much attention. They need their rest and can get stressed if you don’t give them some down time.
- Not enough attention. Beardies also need enriching activities so you should take them out to play at least once a day.
- Not enough food or water.
- Too small of a cage. You wouldn’t want to be cramped into a tiny room, right? Neither does your dragon.
These are just a few things that could stress out your lizard, so it’s up to get to know what your bearded dragon does and doesn’t like.
How To Tell If Your Bearded Dragon Likes You?
Bearded dragons can be very affectionate with the people they feel safe with, so it can be pretty easy to know if your beardie likes you. If it stays calm when you pick it up and hold it, it’s because it trusts you. Does it close its eyes around you, and even try to snuggle closer to you when you’re holding it? If so, your bearded dragon definitely likes you!
However, if your dragon flinches, runs away or gapes its mouth at you, it probably still sees you as a threat instead of a friend.
How Do Bearded Dragons Show Affection?
Like other friendly animals, bearded dragons will show their owners affection in their own way. Don’t expect them to come lick your face like a dog though. Reptile affection is much more subtle, but it is still there. While each beardie is an individual and will do things in their own way, yours may walk up to you, follow you around and even sit on your lap, letting you know that they care.
How To Calm a Stressed Bearded Dragon?
If your bearded dragon is showing signs of being stressed, don’t worry! There are a few things you can do to help it calm down.
- Give it some alone time and reduce sensory stimulation to a minimum.
- Talk to your dragon so it gets comfortable with your voice.
- Give it a piece of your clothes so your beardie becomes familiar with your smell.
- Give it a nice warm bath to help it relax!
Bearded dragons are gentle and friendly reptiles that make great companions. It’s important to take them out of their cage and handle them daily so they become properly socialized. Once your beardie is comfortable around you, holding it will help form a lasting bond between the two of you and ensure it will enjoy your company and your touch for the rest of its life.