Reptiles As Therapy Pets

The use of animals during therapy sessions is hardly a new concept. Back in the late 1800s, Florence Nightingale made huge discoveries regarding the use of animal therapy. She noticed small pets helped reduce anxiety in both children and adults who were living in psychiatric hospitals and institutions, and she took notes on the fact small animals played a key role in helping patients recover. This was a pivotal moment for animal therapy, and is what helped it get its start as a trusted treatment for anxiety and emotional disorders. 

corn snake

eric isselee/shutterstock

A London hospital uses a corn snake during group therapy sessions, in which patients touch, feed, and take care of the snake.

In the early 1930s, Sigmund Freud became a strong proponent of animal therapy after he began using his dog during psychotherapy sessions. He observed his dog having a positive effect on both himself and his patients. In the 1960s, child psychiatrist Boris Levinson observed a nonverbal, emotionally disturbed boy starting to once again communicate when Levinson’s dog sat with the boy during therapy sessions. 

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There are myriad examples of animals positively affecting both adults and children during therapy sessions, as well as in the performance of daily activities. Many people afflicted with psychiatric and emotional disorders have therapy pets, with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, pigs, and horses being the most popular types of pets. 
However, reptiles tend to go overlooked when patients are picking out a therapy animal or emotional support animal. Their long life spans, different levels of care, beautiful and unique coloring and patterns, and fascinating behaviors are all factors that make reptiles excellent emotional support companions.

About Emotional Support Animals 

So, what is an emotional support animal anyway? In an official sense, an emotional support animal (ESA) is someone’s pet that has been prescribed by their licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or other mental health professional. The animal then becomes a salient aspect of the patient’s treatment program, and will bring them comfort and reduce the anxiety and other negative symptoms associated with the patient’s emotional or psychological disorder. Unofficially, an ESA is one that brings a person comfort in times of distress. 

bearded dragon

gina cioli

Thousands of people have found that reptiles provide a tremendous amount of emotional support.

According to the National Service Animal Registry, all domesticated animals are able to qualify as an official emotional support animal. These animals can be of any age or domesticated species, and are not required to have any specific task-training in order to qualify. Their presence alone is what reduces the negative symptoms associated with a psychological or emotional disorder, which is what sets the pet apart from a service animal. The only requirement for a pet to be an ESA is that the pet must be manageable in public and isn’t problematic in a home environment.
When asked about pets being used for emotional support, psychiatrist Dr. Louis Milstein explained, “The positive effect is unconditional emotional support from an animal that is non-judgmental [because a pet] can truly help a person with free-floating anxiety, as it allows a sublimation of emotions to release.” 
This is different from a service animal in that ESAs are not trained to perform certain activities and do not have to pass any sort of test to prove their training. Their very presence is what helps them contribute to a person’s wellbeing, and is what makes them a major part of an individual’s recovery or treatment plan.

Reptiles as Emotional Support Animals ESAs 

This reduction of free-floating anxiety, as well as other negative psychological symptoms, is exactly why the National Health Service (NHS) has recruited snakes as animal “therapists” for patients who are suffering from depression and communication issues. For instance, the Huntercombe Hospital Roehampton, in London, England, uses Angel, a 7-year-old, 5-foot-long corn snake during group sessions. Patients are able to touch, feed, and take care of Angel.
Doctors in this hospital have observed that those participating in this animal-assisted therapy have shown great improvement. Those that are in the strong grip of depression often find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, yet Angel and other snakes serve as a great motivator to get up and get moving. Taking care of the snakes is fun, and it also gives patients an undeniable sense of responsibility. This provides the motivation they need to step through their depression and take their first steps to starting their day each morning. 

These therapy snakes also help male patients who don’t feel as comfortable taking care of cuddly animals. The male patients don’t feel there is any weakness or perceived stigma surrounding caring for a reptile like there sometimes may be when it comes to adorable, furry pets.
Furthermore, reptiles don’t judge, like other animals can, and they have the added benefit of being unusual. Caring for them and handling them gives patients a sense of accomplishment they are proud to share with their friends and family. 

Snakes are serving as ESAs, elsewhere, too. The Seattle Times and other media outlets have featured articles about Daniel Greene and his “service snake,” a red-tailed boa constrictor named Red Rock. According to Greene, who is epileptic, Red Rock gives him a little hug to let him know when a seizure is imminent. This warning allows Greene to make proper preparations, or even avoid, the oncoming seizure. 

The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo in Jeruslaem, Israel, offers an animal-assisted therapy program that allows children with special needs to handle and observe all types of exotic animals, including reptiles. This program makes it possible for children with special needs to overcome their physical and emotional challenges in order to realize they are capable of reaching their full potential. The exotic species, including snakes and a tegu, have a calming effect on the children, which is especially helpful for the children who suffer from ADHD.

Reptiles are also able to assist patients suffering from depression, something Skippy the Iguana proves time and time again. His owner, San Francisco, Calif. resident Cosmie Silfa, states Skippy offers him stable companionship and numerous other benefits that help keep the effects of depression at bay. Silfa’s psychiatrist is highly supportive of the iguana being used as a therapy pet, and even wrote a note “prescribing” the pet iguana to Silfa. His psychiatrist stated that Skippy enables Silfa to maintain an emotionally stable mindset and gives him the motivation he needs in order to continue his treatment. The psychiatrist stated that Skippy is an essential part of Silfa’s treatment plan, and Silfa has gone on to add a blue-tongued skink and bearded dragon as additional “service lizards.”

When asked about the use of reptiles as emotional support animals, Brian Barczyk of SnakeBytes TV stated, “I know a lot of people that suffer from PTSD and anxiety that use their reptiles as a calming effect. I think it is easier to carry around a bearded dragon or something similar than a dog or miniature horse. In the end, whatever animals for whatever your need is should be allowed — within reason, of course. It’s probably not good to have a 16-foot python at the grocery store.”

Barczyk recommends smaller reptiles, such as bearded dragons or leopard geckos, as the best types suited for emotional support animals. “People just have an irrational fear of snakes, and it might be unfair to subject the general public to them as an ESA,” he said, “but I think calm and rather small lizards should certainly be classed as service animals. I know I hate flying and it causes me a lot of anxiety, and if I could bring my pet bearded [dragon] with me, it would totally keep my mind off the stress of the plane ride.” 

Scaly is the New Cuddly 

When people think of emotional support animals, they tend to think cuddly is better. Dogs, cats, ferrets, pigs, birds, and horses have certainly earned their place in the therapy world. However, a pet shouldn’t be overlooked just because it isn’t traditionally adorable and cuddly. 

green iguana


Doctors have recommended that patients keep a reptile, such as a green iguana, in an effort to help them maintain an emotionally stable mindset.

Thousands of people have found that reptiles provide a tremendous amount of emotional support. Not only do these animals require careful husbandry, but they can also provide hours of fascinating observation, a relaxing activity. And so many are available, and can be kept successfully at every skill level, from beginner to advanced.
As with any pet, it’s best to hold off on buying a pet reptile until you are sure you can care for it over the long term. Do all the necessary research. Tegus, for example, can grow up to 5 feet long and can live for 20 years. While they can make great companions — some even like to snuggle with their owners, as various YouTube videos can demonstrate — they do require specialized care. Green iguanas, too, make great pets, but they require a lot of upkeep and special accommodations, and the majority of people who purchase them don’t have the proper requirements for their care. And let’s face it: People suffering from anxiety who are looking for a relatively easy-to-care-for pet probably don’t need a very large lizard that they find they are unable to care for properly. This could easily become a new source of anxiety in and of itself.

When it comes to lizards as pets/ESAs, as Barczyk recommended, bearded dragons and leopard geckos are great, especially for people who do not have a lot of experience, or who do not have a lot of room to accommodate larger pets. 

Boas and pythons are popular choices when it comes to picking out a snake, but again, primarily due to size/housing issues, beginners are better off with kingsnakes, milk snakes, or one of the various types of rat snakes, especially a corn snake such as the previously mentioned Angel that’s already providing comfort to patients at Huntercombe Hospital Roehampton. 

If you find a reptile that you believe would suit your needs, and that would make a great emotional companion pet for you, do some research before taking it home. Read through different books and care sheets, talk to experts, and speak with people you know who may already own reptiles. While all of this requires more effort, it’s better to do things this way than to take a snake home that you later find out will grow to 30 feet! 

Once you do find the reptile that best suits your needs, and which has care requirements that mesh with your individual lifestyle and budget, you’ll find your new pet to be incredibly rewarding. When it comes to finding a therapy pet, a reptile can provide just as much emotional support as a traditionally furry, cuddly animal will! 

Alexia P. BULLARD has owned reptiles all her life, and has worked with animals in both a professional and personal setting. From volunteering at an animal rescue as a kid to working in a veterinary hospital as an adult, she’s always looked for ways to help animals. Find her at alexiapbullard.com.

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