Meow! Who Let the Human Out? Understanding and treating separation anxiety syndrome (SAS) in cats

My cat Olly lying on top of me, preparing to lick my face (to groom me)

Ah, adoption day! You meet a kitten or cat, fall in love, and form an ever-lasting bond. Everything seems perfect until life happens and forces you to leave your furry soulmate at home…alone. Everyone talks about dogs having separation anxiety but no one warned you that your cat might not be as calm, cool, and collected about your departure as you assumed they would be. About five years ago, I rescued my cat, Olly. We clicked instantly and he adjusted seamlessly to living with me in my first New York City apartment, until I needed to go to work and he freaked out: wailing at the door, throwing up, and totally breaking my heart. If you have had this experience too, know that you are not alone. In this article, I will walk you through why and how cats might experience separation anxiety syndrome as well as ways to treat it!

There is a common misconception that cats are asocial and, therefore, incapable of experiencing separation anxiety. However, through her 2002 study and 2003 review, Dr. Stefanie Schwartz reports on 136 cases of separation anxiety syndrome in domestic cats. Based on her research and experience, she insists that domestic cats can develop separation anxiety because they are more social than many realize. In fact, they have a critical period of socialization just like puppies! In their 2004 article, scientists Sharon Crowell-Davis, Terry Curtis, and Rebecca Knowles detail the social nature of both indoor and outdoor cats. Though typically solitary hunters, even feral cats will form social groups called colonies if there are enough resources for everyone. Though the number of bonds may vary drastically between cats, cats choose others to be their partners in crime! These others include other cats, humans, and dogs (as is the case with my cat and my dog as well as some of the dogs I board at my apartment). Cats have so many ways of communicating using both their voice and their body. Purring, rubbing, grooming, and nose touching are just some of the ways they tell their buddies they love them!

My cat Olly touching noses with my dog Stanley

Dr. Schwartz explains how, growing up with human parents, domestic cats have become more friendly and adaptable but also more baby-like since they have a maternal human to depend on way past kittenhood. Based on their 1996 study on domestic cat behavior and use of space, researchers Penny Bernstein and Mickey Strack claim that most domestic cats have become ingrained in their humans’ routines. They sleep with their owners. They eat with their owners. When their owners come home after a hard day at work, they greet them as they walk through the door. As a result, humans tend to view their cats as their children.

The Ainsworth Strange Situation test is famous for demonstrating healthy mother-child attachment. In this test, a human baby placed in an unfamiliar room generally feels more comfortable exploring the room with their mother than with a stranger, cries when their mother leaves them alone, and happily reunites with their mother when she returns. In 2007, researchers Claudia Edwards, Moises Heiblum, Alberto Tejeda, and Francisco Galindo adjusted this test to see whether domestic cats could form attachments with their owners like human babies form with their mothers. In their unfamiliar rooms, the cats were much more affectionate and comfortable moving around and exploring with their owners. They also only played with their owners! However, with the strangers, the cats were much more alert and fixated on the door, anxiously awaiting their owners’ return. Like the human babies, when the owners left the cats alone, the cats cried for them (with meows) and happily greeted them when they returned. The researchers agreed that the cats passed the test and were certainly capable of forming attachments to their humans!

Dr. Schwartz says that cat-owner attachments can be so strong that the cat’s separation anxiety looks more like phobia, panic, or bipolar disorder. For this reason, it is called separation anxiety syndrome (SAS) and not separation anxiety disorder (SAD), the term used for humans. If your cat’s separation-related distress goes beyond kittenhood, then you might have a SAS-sy cat on your hands! According to Dr. Schwartz, these are the four main signs of cat SAS:

  1. Peeing or pooping outside the litter box, most commonly peeing on the owner’s bed
  2. Excessively calling or crying for the preferred human when they leave
  3. Compulsively self-grooming, often causing baldness and/or irritation (more common with females)
  4. Destroying the house (more common with males)

Dr. Schwartz warns that a cat with SAS might also act aggressively towards their preferred human to prevent them from leaving the house. If your cat has any of these listed signs, be sure that you only see the sign or signs right before, during, or following your departure. Also, do not jump to any conclusions before seeing your veterinarian. All the warning signs for SAS can also be warning signs for various medical conditions.

Which cats are more likely to be SAS-sy?

Marie from Disney’s The Aristocats

Dr. Schwartz says…

Gregarious cats!

These are our favorite “lap cats,” snugglers, and bathroom buddies, who follow us around like puppy dogs and never fail to make us feel special.

Cats who have only one owner

With only one owner, sometimes the attachment is even stronger than if there were another parental figure in the cat’s life.

Spayed or neutered cats

De-sexing is one the hallmarks of domestication, making companionship a priority over passing on genes.

Cats adopted from an animal shelter beyond 3 months old

Change is tough for cats, especially if they are anxious about another favorite human leaving them.

  Older cats

When cats get old and senile, separation can be disorienting. In Dr. Schwartz’s (2002) study, all the cats with SAS age 7 and up were female so older females might be more susceptible than older males. Dr. Schwartz suggests females might crave more social interaction since pregnant females can benefit from nesting with other pregnant females.

When he first struggled with SAS, my cat Olly checked all the paw print boxes except older age. I adopted him by myself from an animal shelter when he was 2 ½ years old. The shelter veterinarian neutered him that same year, so I am not exactly sure about his history prior to going to the shelter and being returned twice (the poor guy!). As you can see from his pictures in this article, he is also quite the love bug!

My cat Olly snuggling with me

Dr. Schwartz claims that owner behavior can also trigger SAS onset. For instance, cats can start to become anxious if their owners do not spend enough time with them. This could be because of long work hours, frequent travel, or extensive time out with others. Cats can also develop SAS when there is a significant change. This change could be the death or removal of an owner or fellow pet, a change in owners’ schedules, or the introduction of a new romantic partner. Domestic cats can also be sensitive to owners’ mood changes and react anxiously so it might be difficult to tell, for instance, whether a cat is feeling anxious because someone has died or because their owner is grieving. Unfortunately, less than ideal life circumstances and changes are inevitable. You might find many uncontrollable events positive too! Fortunately, whatever the cause of your cat’s separation anxiety, you can help your cat recover with either behavior modification or a combination of medication and behavior modification!

First off, Dr. Schwartz warns not to encourage your cat’s separation anxiety by refusing to leave the house. Instead, gradually increase time away if possible. For example, I started out leaving my cat alone for just two or three hours and, as he adjusted, I kept adding an extra hour until I hit the maximum number of hours I would be gone in a day. Make sure to spend plenty of time doing activities your cat loves to do and introducing new, fun ones! Play and interact with your cat the most before your departure so that, when you are ready to leave, your cat is ready to rest.

Stay calm and leave your house the way it usually is when you are relaxing at home, with lights and some noise to keep the cat’s environment as consistent as possible. Personally, for my cat, I leave on relaxing movies, music, or television shows at a comfortable noise level for cats, which scientists Judith Stella and Candace Croney (2016) describe as “quiet conversational level.” Stella and Croney also recommend leaving your cat with interactive self-play opportunities, like puzzle feeders, to distract and entertain them. My cat has a maze with a light up ball inside, bottle caps and assorted balls to kick around, and a scratching post with hanging feathers to bat. If your anxious kitty has a tendency to pee or poop outside the litter box when you are away, you can also consider blocking off their inappropriate pee or poop spots or making these spots unattractive by adding citrus scent or sticky material. Reward your cat upon your departure! The reward should be your cat’s favorite treat, preferably one a little tougher to chew, so they can orally release some anxiety. I leave extra treats out for my cat when I need to leave for longer than usual so he can munch on them throughout my time away as well.

If behavior modification alone does not work, you can consider giving your cat medication but should not dismiss the above techniques. Just like with humans, medication usually only works when you combine it with therapy. Dr. Schwartz recommends benzodiazepines or tricyclic antidepressants but advises consulting your veterinarian to see what medication best fits your fur baby. If you are unsure about getting your cat prescriptions, calming treats are also great alternatives! My cat likes “COMPOSURE” by VetriSCIENCE Laboratories and “Calming Aid for adult cats” by Well & Good. 

Thanks to research and practice with feline SAS patients, you and your cat can overcome separation anxiety! Confidence is key. Do not dilly-dally while getting out the door. Keep departures as quick, calm, and rewarding as possible! If time passes, your cat is still suffering, and you do not know what to do, please do not hesitate to contact an expert. It can be difficult to resolve your cat’s separation anxiety by yourself and an animal behavior specialist or veterinarian is happy to help. Your cat will thank you!


Bernstein, P. L., & Strack, M. (1996). A game of cat and house: spatial patterns and behavior of  14 domestic cats (Felis catus) in the home. Anthrozoös9(1), 25-39.

Crowell-Davis, S. L., Curtis, T. M., & Knowles, R. J. (2004). Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. Journal of feline medicine and surgery6(1), 19-28.

Edwards, C., Heiblum, M., Tejeda, A., & Galindo, F. (2007). Experimental evaluation of attachment behaviors in owned cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior2(4), 119-125.

Psychology Unlocked. (2017, April 27). The Strange Situation | Mary Ainsworth, 1969 | Developmental Psychology [Video]. YouTube.

Schwartz, S. (2002). Separation anxiety syndrome in cats: 136 cases (1991–2000). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association220(7), 1028-1033.

Schwartz, S. (2003). Separation anxiety syndrome in dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association222(11), 1526-1532.

Stella, J. L., & Croney, C. C. (2016). Environmental aspects of domestic cat care and management: implications for cat welfare. The Scientific World Journal2016.

The Internet has fueled the cruel exotic pet industry, but can also be a powerful force in ending it.

The Internet has made it easier than ever to buy and sell exotic pets; harming wild populations and changing the way that people view wild animals. Fortunately, online tools can also help understand the exotic pet trade and how to combat it.

History of the exotic pet trade
The popularity of non-traditional pets has exploded in recent years. Among them are wild animals, including many different kinds of reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, and mammals. Humans have a long history of keeping wild animals as pets, with people having kept animals as pets or for entertainment for thousands of years[2]. In modern times the continued growth of the exotic pet industry is a significant threat to wild animal populations worldwide, increasingly causing the loss of species in the wild and driving many of the traded species closer to extinction. This trade has many far-reaching impacts, including the introduction of invasive species, the transmission of disease, and the welfare of the trafficked animals[8]. There is no one definition of exotic pet, but they tend to be wild animals that are not domesticated like cats and dogs. This lack of a clear definition could have to do with the fact that to some individuals there is no such thing as exotic pets – they are simply wild animals.

“. . . they are not pets, they are wild animals. Is this a subconscious way to make them appear more domesticated than they ever will be, or to help these animals become more socially acceptable?”

Shakira Free-Miles[3]

Since these animals are not domesticated it is often very difficult to meet their specific needs in the average household. They are not adapted to life in a person’s home, and so exotic animals often suffer from poor welfare and high levels of stress[4]. The pet trade restricts these animals’ natural behaviors and causes fear, stress, pain, and usually early death[2]. Many people who bring home an exotic pet also have unrealistic expectations of the animal’s behavior and may expect them to behave as if they were a typical domesticated pet[4]. This can contribute to the animal’s suffering, as many end up neglected or abandoned.

Impact of the Internet
The exotic animal trade has been hugely influenced by the Internet, however, the online market remains poorly understood and regulated. The growth of the Internet has led to more people having access to the exotic pet trade and allowed sellers to expand their businesses. Animal parts have shown up for sale on high-profile sites like eBay and Amazon, and the Internet has provided an easily accessible platform for illegal animal trafficking where wild animals can be sold as companion pets. Social media plays a part as well, with traffickers using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other platforms for advertising their sales. Purchasers posting videos and photos to their own social media channels also spreads the influence of keeping exotic animals as pets. These videos and images don’t just affect the animals involved directly, but also the public’s view of their wild counterparts.

Seeing species that are threatened with extinction as pets makes people think that they are less endangered than they really are[5].

The attention generated on social media from posts about exotic pets can increase the number of people buying them, despite being uninformed about their care or the legal status of purchasing the animal as a pet[8]. Social media also provides an avenue for communication between exotic pet owners and prospective owners, allowing for the exchange of information for individuals to ask about acquiring their own exotic pets[8]. Unfortunately, even the biggest social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube have been very slow to react to the exploitation of wild animals on their platforms[5].

Welfare concerns and ethics
The appeal of many frequently traded exotic pets is sometimes obvious. They may be cute, a status symbol, or a means of gaining attention. However, the ethics of keeping these animals as pets is often dubious. The exotic pet trade affects the welfare of animals as they face terrible conditions during transportation and compromised care once they arrive at their destination[6].

Transportation conditions can be so bad that it is estimated that for every one animal that survives its trip to the buyer, three more die[2].

Capture itself can lead to injuries; for example, one method of capturing birds involves coating trees with a sticky resin that can permanently damage feathers and limbs[2]. When it comes to primates, mothers are often killed so their infants can be sold into the pet trade. Captivity means having to adjust to a completely different life and environment. Animals are often fed inappropriate diets consisting of food that is convenient for humans, which can lead to a variety of health problems and early death. Housing will always be smaller than the animal’s natural range, and keeping social animals in appropriately-sized groups is often impossible[2]. Among exotic pets, rates of premature mortality are high, quality of life questionable, and access to proper veterinary care very difficult to find[3].

Exotic pets are often taken directly from the wild, or if they were bred in captivity they are likely only a few generations away from wild populations[2]. It is often easier to capture animals from the wild rather than breed them in captivity. Even those with successful captive breeding programs regularly have to take new animals from the wild to add genetic diversity to their breeding stock. For these reasons and others, captive breeding is not a solution for the conservation issues associated with the exotic pet trade.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments with the goal of ensuring that the trade of animals and plants does not affect their survival in the wild. Despite the regulations laid out in CITES, many traders are either unaware of the legalities of their businesses or unconcerned about the potential consequences[2]. The penalties for breaking these laws are often not severe enough to discourage wildlife traders, and the potential for profit can be high. Also, those tasked with enforcing these laws are often lacking the technical skills or knowledge base to combat this illegal trade[2]. The availability and ease of use of the Internet has lowered the barrier to entry for these crimes, while also decreasing the risk involved[6]. The constantly changing nature of social media has made it difficult for law enforcement methods to keep pace, and their tools are often outdated[8]. Even when it comes to animals captured or being sold illegally, sellers rarely feel the need to post on the dark web (the part of the Internet not indexed by search engines) and advertise openly on public sites[8]. These sites are currently largely unregulated and only loosely monitored. There are also potential links between animal trafficking and organized crime[6], and the trade can lead to the exploitation of rural communities[2].

Asian small-clawed otters
Wildlife trade researchers Penthai Siriwat and Vincent Nijman investigated the trade of the Asian small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter in Thailand through the use of Facebook groups[8]. Though otters are protected in Thailand, they are frequently traded within the country and international trades have also been intercepted. Thailand is a hub for the illegal wildlife trade, with a high rate of social media usage, and the wildlife trade is widespread and easily accessible[8]. Otters as young as newborns were taken from the wild and sold, despite a very low chance of survival. Though each seller only had a small number of otters, all together the trade poses a significant risk to wild populations of both otter species. They concluded that the continued prevalence of the trade highlights the need for better enforcement and increased legislation in both Thailand and worldwide.

Slow lorises
Slow lorises are frequently exploited on social media both as pets and also as props for tourists to pose with. These nocturnal, venomous primates are very sensitive to light. Slow lorises are often sold at a cheap price because they are known for not living long as pets[2]. This inevitably leads to more slow lorises being captured from the wild to replace the deceased. Through investigating Instagram posts, nocturnal primate researchers Honor Kitson and K.A.I. Nekaris found slow lorises being used as photo props in a bar in Marmaris, Turkey[5]. The bar staff kept them under bright lights and allowed the use of flash photography which causes both stress and potential damage to their eyes. The slow lorises were kept in unsuitable housing, fed inappropriate foods, and had their teeth clipped to prevent them from inflicting a venomous bite.

Slow lorises are also frequently kept as pets, and videos of them being inappropriately handled or fed unsuitable foods have been viewed millions of times. Encouragingly, a counter social media campaign by International Animal Rescue called “Tickling is Torture” gained widespread attention and educated many people on the reality behind these viral videos.

Combating the trade
Though the Internet has likely increased the amount of wildlife being sold as exotic pets, it also provides exposure to this widespread issue and the opportunity to both better understand the industry as well as educate the public. Since it is not realistic for law enforcement agencies to monitor the trade on the Internet, there is also the possibility for the recruitment of the public’s help in reporting instances of illegal wildlife trading[8]. They also suggest that discouraging people from sharing online photos and videos of exotic pets through education also makes a difference in stopping the spread of online trade.

Since the traders themselves are so difficult to legislate, another way of combating the trade is to reduce the demand among consumers through education and public awareness campaigns[7]. Changing human behavior is never easy, and simply providing information usually isn’t enough. Most attempts to reduce the demand for wild animals as pets focus on conservation and welfare issues, however, it is unknown how effective these methods are at reducing demand[7]. Wildlife conservation researchers Tom Moorhouse, Margaret Balaskas, Neil D’Cruze, and David W. Macdonald wanted to find out what factors would actually lead to a change in people’s behavior when it came to their opinions of purchasing exotic pets[7]. They used an online survey to test for the impact of information concerning the risk of disease the animal presented, legal consequences, welfare concerns, and conservation issues when it comes to the demand for exotic pets. They found that informing people of the risk of disease and the legalities of purchasing an exotic pet were the most effective, and could reduce demand by up to 40%.

Emphasizing the personal risk that exotic pets pose to people is the best way to reduce demand for them.

It may be surprising that a species’ conservation status doesn’t particularly discourage people from wanting to own them, but the researchers think that could have to do with the (incorrect) notion that the pet trade helps conservation or that an animal’s rarity could make it more desirable to collectors.

Though more work is needed, large online retailers like eBay and Alibaba have pledged to end the sale of all wildlife products on their platforms, and social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are also cracking down[8]. Facebook is known for taking tips on illegal activity seriously, and Instagram has launched a Wildlife Alert System that warns people searching for certain hashtags of possible animal abuse[8]. Especially among species where the exotic pet trade is affecting their conservation, better regulation and enforcement on the Internet is needed. Improved analytical methods to understand these online networks and the creation of new tools to combat them should be a conservation priority[8].

[1] Baker, S. E., R. Cain, F. van Kesteren, Z. Zommers, N. d’Cruze, and D. W. MacDonald. 2013. Rough trade: animal welfare in the global wildlife trade. BioScience 63:928–938.

[2] Bush ER, Baker SE & MacDonald DW (2014). Global trade in exotic pets 2006-2012. Conservation Biology, 28 (3): 663-676.

[3] Free-Miles, S. (2019). Exotic pet welfare and ethics. BSAVA Congress Proceedings 2019, 270–271. doi: 10.22233/9781910443699.35.6

[4] Grant, R., Montrose, V., & Wills, A. (2017). ExNOTic: Should We Be Keeping Exotic Pets? Animals, 7(12), 47. doi: 10.3390/ani7060047

[5] Kitson, H., & Nekaris, K. (2017). Instagram-fuelled illegal slow loris trade uncovered in Marmaris, Turkey. Oryx, 51(3), 394–394. doi: 10.1017/s0030605317000680

[6] Lavorgna, A. (2015). The Social Organization of Pet Trafficking in Cyberspace. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 21(3), 353–370. doi: 10.1007/s10610-015-9273-y

[7] Moorhouse, T. P., Balaskas, M., Dcruze, N. C., & Macdonald, D. W. (2017). Information Could Reduce Consumer Demand for Exotic Pets. Conservation Letters, 10(3), 337–345. doi: 10.1111/conl.12270

[8] Siriwat, P., & Nijman, V. (2018). Illegal pet trade on social media as an emerging impediment to the conservation of Asian otters species. Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity, 11(4), 469–475. doi: 10.1016/j.japb.2018.09.004

Rats are fun and talented pets too!

Rats! For a lot of people that very word sends a shiver down their spine and brings up images of terrifying, shifty-eyed little pests that spread disease. Movies like Lady and the Tramp, The Princess Bride, and The Great Mouse Detective instill this perception from a young age with their antagonistic rat characters. Although media is starting to recognize the kinder, cuter side of rats with movies like Ratatouille, ask most New Yorkers how they feel about rats and they’ll probably respond with a look of disgust. When most people think of rats, they think of the little critters scuttling across dirty subway tracks or stealing slices of pizza. However, these little rodents aren’t actually so dirty and evil when you get to know them! Rats actually make excellent pets, because these little beings are incredibly social, intelligent, and friendly! While I’m sure any rat owner can tell you this, we have science to prove it too! (Pictured below is the nasty rat from Lady and the Tramp, 1955)

First of all, rats are friendly! The first study highlighting a rat’s sociable qualities is a 2011 study by first author Dr. Bartal. Here, rats were given the opportunity to free a cagemate from a small box, called a restrainer. The authors found that once the free rats learned how to open the restrainer, a vast majority of them would open it and free their cagemate quickly and intentionally. Even when the rats didn’t get to come into contact after, they still freed their cagemate. To test this kindness a little further, the scientists added another restrainer with chocolate instead for the rats to choose between. Even with such a delicious treat available, the freed rats opened the restrainer just as quickly as before, showing that the chocolate didn’t slow them down from freeing their friend! In fact, free rats often ate less chocolate when the cagemate was present than when they were alone, indicating they even saved some for their friend.  This study shows rats will help out another rat in need and a lot of times even share treats. If you’d like to learn more about this study you can check out the following youtube video!

Rats are also playful, and they enjoy spending time with their human companion too. At least, that’s what another study by authors LaFollette et al. found in their 2017 review of tickling rats. Yes, tickling! It turns out rats love being tickled and they really love when their human tickles them. When rats are tickled they even make very high pitched vocalizations, too high pitched for us to hear, but rats only make them when they’re feeling positive so it’s similar to human laughter in that way! That rats enjoy this contact at all shows that rats enjoy the companionship of humans. (Photo below of tickled rat by Megan R. LaFollette.)

The final study I would like to share in favor of the rats is a new study by Dr. Crawford et al. put out just this year. In this study, these scientists at the University of Richmond trained rats to carry out an impressive and complex task; they taught rats to drive a tiny car! The rats seemed to enjoy learning this complex task too, given the fact that not only did they voluntarily participate in the training (no rat was ever forced to practice!), but after driving the little car around, the researchers found that the rats’ metabolized stress hormones more efficiently after learning to drive. Essentially, this means that the rats were more emotionally resilient and, therefore, healthier and happier, afterwards! So not only are rats smart enough to learn such a tricky task, but they seem to enjoy it too. (Photo below of rat in vehicle by Kelly Lambert with the University of Richmond)

So overall, we’ve learned quite a bit about what rats can do! They’ve shown us that they are social because they are concerned about other rats and they enjoy playing with us, their human companions. They’ve shown us they’re intelligent because they can figure out tricky skills like how to open boxes and how to drive their tiny little rat-made vehicles. There are plenty of humans who can’t even drive a car! So now I’d like to turn your attention to a final part of their stereotype; the assumption that all rats are mangy little grey rodents. Again, this is not so! As a parting gift, here is a lovely graphic of some of the many interesting varieties rats can come in, courtesy of artist Rebecca Karlén.

Follow me at @mirandatrapani for more talk about science and animals!

Rebecca Karlén’s facebook for more of her work:

Works Cited:

Bartal, I. B. A., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2011). Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats. Science, 334(6061), 1427-1430.

Crawford, L. E., Knouse, L. E., Kent, M., Vavra, D., Harding, O., LeServe, D., … & Lambert, K. G. (2019). Enriched environment exposure accelerates rodent driving skills. Behavioural Brain Research, 112309.

 LaFollette, M. R., O’Haire, M. E., Cloutier, S., Blankenberger, W. B., & Gaskill, B. N. (2017). Rat tickling: A systematic review of applications, outcomes, and moderators. PloS one, 12(4), e0175320.

Reptiles as Companion Animals

“…keeping a pet is a lifestyle choice made by the owner…”—Frank Pasmans 

So, you have decided that you want a companion animal, but not the traditional cat or dog, something more exotic. Well, you are not alone; according to the National Pet Owners survey from 2017-2018, approximately 37 million households in America had a pet other than a dog or cat, and of that, 4.7 million or 3.26% had a pet reptile. Several recent studies have cited the keeping of reptiles as pets to be a continually increasing trend that might surpass keeping other small pets such as hamsters.

Interestingly, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or RSPCA, released a report as to the motivations that people have when it comes to getting a pet reptile. They found that the motivations for having a pet reptile vary from media-based interest, wanting a reptile for a status symbol, wanting a pet, wanting a reptile since childhood, and interest in biology or natural history. Additionally, they found that age group and sex of responding individuals resulted in different motivations and owning different reptiles. For example, owners of reptiles in the age group 20-30 were more often males owning corn snakes or royal pythons, while females more commonly owned bearded dragons. To read more, check out RSPCA’s report. Keep in mind that the RSPCA works in the United Kingdom, and for more information for companion animals in America, check out the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.

Commonly kept pet reptiles include lizards, snakes, and turtles. In this post, you will find pros and cons of owning a pet reptile, information about the exotic pet trade, how to keep reptiles alive, healthy, and safe, and why enrichment is important for reptiles.

Pros and cons

If you are still deciding whether or not a pet reptile is for you, it is important to consider some pros and cons to keeping a reptile as a pet in your home and life. In a review by Frank Pasmans and colleagues from 2017, they list some of the cons of keeping a reptile as a pet as zoonoses (or diseases transmitted between the animal and the human caretaker), allergies, trauma from injury resulting from the pet such as a bite, and poisoning. Pros of keeping a reptile as a pet include benefits to human well-being, connecting with animals, public education, interest, and dispelling prejudice for reptiles and amphibians. For more information on selecting a pet reptile, check out this article from the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Keep in mind that you CANNOT release a pet reptile into the wild for any reason. Not only is this illegal, but the animal can become an invasive species to the area. One example is that of Burmese pythons released in Florida, which are now second in predatory status in the state.

Before you buy:

  • Remember that a reptile is just as much of a commitment as other pets
  • ALL pet reptiles are considered exotic, which means they are non-domesticated species that are not as selectively adapted to the companion animal role as a dog or cat would be, which means any exotic pet has highly specialized and diverse needs.
  • Knowing how to care for a pet reptile isn’t necessarily common knowledge, so you will likely need to do some research in addition to what the pet store tells you.
  • Be aware of mislabeling and understand easy, moderate, difficult, and extreme level of experience before obtaining pet reptile. An example of this is pictured below of advertising a lizard as a beginner level pet when lizards require higher levels of experience.
  • Consider setting up the enclosure before you buy the animal, and at least a week before bringing it home.
  • Rules, regulations, and laws vary depending on the country or state you are in, so be sure to do the research prior to obtaining a pet reptile, specifically larger snakes. For more information, check out the US fish and wildlife state directory here.
Text Box: Above Photo Credit: Warwick et al., 2018
Above Photo Credit: Warwick et al., 2018

Think about where to obtain your pet reptile and the deeper issue of the pet trade

If you have decided or are in the process of obtaining a pet reptile, it might be easy to simply buy one from a pet shop, but there is a very critical step: be informed and buy responsibly. As a potential owner, you should ask where the animal was acquired. For example, you can ask “is this animal captive bred or wild caught?” One reason to seek out captive bred over wild caught is because it is likely that the reptile was illegally taken from the wild and traded. According to one study by Robinson and colleagues in 2017, mortality rates in captive bred animals may be lower than that of the exotic pet trade, and another study by Toland and colleagues in 2012 reports that 80% of exotic trade animals are sick, injured, or even dead, and so it is important if not crucial to consider where your new exotic pet is coming from.

Now that you have your pet reptile, what does it take to keep your pet alive, healthy, and safe?

What should the enclosure be like? In 2013, Warwick and colleagues proposed two common myths about reptiles and the amount of space they need. The first myth is that reptiles feel safer in small environments because they are sedentary and do not need space. A second common myth is that reptiles are not active and therefore do not need free space. While reptiles may seem slow moving, they still require adequate space, temperature, humidity, light, airflow, and furnishings. So, it is best not to assume that your pet reptile is sedentary and do provide a spacious and diverse shelter that allows for voluntary withdraw. In other words, provide enough space for the animal to move, crawl, or slither including areas to hide, which helps regulate body temperature, allows species specific behavior, and provides diversity and choice in the environment.

Should you handle your pet reptile?

Text Box: Above: photo of leopard gecko (left) courtesy of Allie Woodhouse, photo of ball python (middle and right) courtesy of Jordon Kenneally
Above: photo of leopard gecko (left) courtesy of Allie Woodhouse, photo of ball python (middle and right) courtesy of Jordon Kenneally

Handling can be an important method to assessing your reptile’s physical health, but some reptiles should be handled more than others. For example, slider turtles should not be petted whereas leopard geckos can be held (see images above). Sliders are fragile especially when they’re young, so improper handling has the potential to hurt this reptile. Additionally, if you are handling your slider turtle, RSPCA recommends picking the animal up from the sides of its shell to avoid being bitten. It is important to keep in mind how long the reptile is out of its enclosure, as the temperature may be different and harmful if too much time passes. RSPCA recommends 10-15 minute intervals for handling and to never surprise your reptile or force them into your hand. Howell & Bennett (2017) point out that, “even if daily handling is not recommended, daily behavioral observation of the lizard is desirable.”

What are some unhealthy behaviors?

You can’t always see negative effects physiologically, but you can look at behavior. Specifically, you want to look for captive stress related behaviors such as interaction with transparent boundary (i.e. persistent climbing of glass walls), hyperactivity, hypoactivity, co-occupant aggression, habit related consumption such as pica (see images), which is consumption of non-food materials such as bedding. Pica can be a sign that your pet is under stimulated. You want to ask and answer questions such as, is my reptile basking (a species-specific behavior), or is my turtle acting unusual, such as extension of its neck, which can be a possible indicator or anxiety, according to Benn and colleagues. The full list of behaviors to measure welfare can be found here.

A picture containing indoor, wall

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Above Photo Credit: Emma Nicholas (left) and Clifford Warwick (right)

How to keep your pet snake healthy and safe

You might have a corn snake, royal python, or garter snake and as mentioned above, you will want to look at behavior to get a better understanding of your snake’s well-being. If the animal is stressed, you may see clutching behavior, for instance clinging to something tightly, or the snake might demonstrate escape behavior by interacting with a transparent boundary. Especially if these behaviors are repetitive, they can be signs of stress. You can also look at physical signs that the environment isn’t safe for your snake. This can be lamp burns (see right image below) from artificial lights—are the lights too close to the snake or is there self-mutilation behavior? According to RSPCA’s “Handle with Care,” snakes need access to a range of temperatures, which can be provided through a diverse enclosure giving the snake choices (i.e. provide areas in enclosure for snake to hide in hot or cooler area). However, it is important not to raise the temperature for a sick or injured reptile as you might do more harm than help. Most importantly, your snake needs AT LEAST a large enough enclosure to be able to be stretched out in a straight line. This is for comfort and proper digestion. The image on the left shows an extreme example of improper space for a snake.

A close up of a reptile

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Above Photo Credit: Animal Protection Agency (left) and Warwick et al., 2013 (right)

What about lizards?

Text Box: Above: photos of veiled chameleon courtesy of Kristin Dudra
Above: photos of veiled chameleon courtesy of Kristin Dudra

Whether you have a bearded dragon, leopard gecko, chameleon, or blue-tongue skink, all pet lizards have some environmental needs in common, such as space, light, humidity, substrate, etc. Reptiles are ectothermic, which means they use their environment for temperature regulation, so the enclosure should include a heat source in one area, and another area such as a rock that is cooler. The temperature, size of the enclosure, and diet varies among the different species, so it is important to look up the specific requirements for your reptile. For individual species care sheets in more detail, check out RSPCA’s website.

Tricky Turtles

Text Box: Above: photo of Russian tortoise courtesy of Allie Woodhouse
Above: photo of Russian tortoise courtesy of Allie Woodhouse

If you’re keeping a turtle, keep in mind that zoonotic transmission of salmonella can occur easily without proper cleaning and care, which puts especially the younger population at risk. Turtle diet can have specific, even difficult, requirements, and again how and where you obtain your turtle can be problematic. To read more, check out this article about whether or not you should keep a turtle from the wild.

How to provide enrichment for your pet reptile

Most people might not think to buy toys for their pet reptile as you would for a cat or dog, however, reptiles benefit from enrichment that increases behavioral opportunities. A study by Gordon Burghardt in 1996 showed that providing a captive turtle with objects such as balls, sticks, and hoses lead to a decrease in self-mutilation behavior. In other captive settings such as a zoo, Komodo dragons showed increased activity levels as well as nearly triple the amount of behaviors they exhibited. This was done by Veasley and Guerra at the Woodland Park Zoo by providing Komodo dragons with various forms of enrichment. This shows that providing different enrichments will result in different responses and aid in keeping your pet active. Importantly, you should provide enrichment items based on motivation and interest and not just novel items. For your reptile, you can provide balls, natural items such as sticks, hide food in the enclosure, and create scent trails in hopes that these items will promote digging, climbing, and other natural or species-specific behavior. It is very easy to observe exploratory behavior in reptiles, and even just small changes to the enclosure, such as moving the heat source or rearranging furnishings, can encourage exploratory behavior.

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Above: photo of corn snake courtesy of Lyndsay Hage

Snakes, and Lizards, and Turtles, oh my!

Keeping reptiles as pets is becoming more common in households. To help decide if a pet reptile is for you keep in mind to be aware of mislabeling, buy informed and responsibly, and understand how to provide a safe and enriching enclosure for your reptile. Regardless of which species you choose to keep as a companion animal, it is a commitment. When considering all of the above information, it is understandable to take some time to think about making the commitment to keeping a companion reptile. After all, “…keeping a pet is a lifestyle choice made by the owner…”—Frank Pasmans


American Pet Products Association, Inc. (n.d.). The 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey Debut. Retrieved from

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Retrieved from

American Veterinary Medical Association. (n.d.). Selecting a pet reptile. Retrieved from

Beaudry, F. (2019, November 5). Should You Keep a Wild Turtle? Retrieved from

Benn, A.L., McLelland, D.J., & Whittaker, A.L. (2019). A Review of Welfare Assessment Methods in Reptiles and Preliminary Application of the Welfare Quality® Protocol to the Pygmy Blue-Tongue Skink, Tiliqua adelaidensis, Using Animal-Based Measures. Animals, 9, 27, 1-22.

Burghardt, G.M., Ward, B., & Rosscoe, R. (1996). Problem of Reptile Play: Environmental Enrichment and Play Behavior in a Captive Nile Soft-Shelled Turtle, Trionyx triunguis. Zoo Biology, 15, 223-238.

Burman, O.H.P., Collins, L.M., Hoehfurtner, T., et al. (n.d.) Cold-blooded care: understanding reptile care and implications for their welfare. Testudo, 8, 3 83-86.

Daley, J. (2019, October 7). How Do We Prevent Pets from Becoming Exotic Invaders? Retrieved from

Handle with Care: A look at the exotic animal pet trade. (2004). RSPCA pp. 1-40.

Leopard Gecko Care Sheet. (2019). RSPCA. pp. 1-4. Retrieved from

Moorhouse, T.P., Balaskas, M., D’Cruze, N.C., et al. (2017). Information Could Reduce Consumer Demand for Exotic Pets. A Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology, Conservation Letters, 10, 3, 337-345.

Morrison, M. (2018, October 26). Burmese python invasion in Florida a hidden legacy of Hurricane Andrew. Retrieved from

Pasmans, F., Bogaerts, S., Braeckman, J., et al. (2017). Future of keeping pet reptiles and amphibians: towards integrating animal welfare, human health and environmental sustainability. Veterinary Record, 1-7. 

Robinson, J.E., St. John, F.A.V., Griffiths, R.A., et al. (2015). Captive Reptile Mortality Rates in the Home and Implications for the Wildlife Trade. PLoS ONE, 10, 11, 1-14.

Toland, E., Warwick, C., and Arena, C. (2012) Pet Hate. The Biologist, 59, 3, 14-18.

Understanding the motivations of beginner reptile owners. (2017). RSPCA pp. 1-20. Retrieved from

Veasley, J.A. & Guerra, G. (2013). Environmental Enrichment for Captive Komodo Dragons. Retrieved from

Warwick, C., Steedman, C., Jessop, M. et al. (2018). Exotic pet suitability: Understanding some problem and using a labeling system to aid animal welfare, environment, and consumer protection. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 26, 17-26.

Warwick, C., Arena, P., Lindley, S. et al. (2013). Assessing reptile welfare using behavioural criteria. In Practice, 35, 123-131. Retrieved from

“An old man can cry, too”: On companion animals and human grief

            During my senior year of high school, my family had to put our dog, Snickers, down via euthanasia. Snickers was a 7-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and our first family dog. My parents, not knowing much about dogs at the time, bought Snickers from what we would later come to realize was a backyard breeder,[1] and as a result, Snickers, while incredibly sweet, was inbred and had a slew of health issues. He was diagnosed with heart mitral valve disease (MVD), a leading cause of death in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.[2] I still remember the day he died – February 13, the day before Valentine’s Day (my sister, devastated over Snickers’ passing, wrote a tribute to him at school and say he had a “heart too big for Valentine’s Day”). Snickers was choking and coughing incessantly, and it was obvious he was struggling to breathe. It was apparent to all of us that his quality of life had plummeted, but even still it was a gut-wrenching decision to bring him to the emergency animal hospital and put him down. My parents, my siblings and I were all crying and my sister, once Snickers was put down, refused to leave the room for 10 minutes afterwards, sobbing into Snickers’ still body. We all woke up the next day exhausted, drained and sad. But there are no excused absences from school or work for the death of a pet, so off we went to school that morning, at least temporarily – both me and my sister had to leave early because we felt sick and were crying in class. Even though there wasn’t being a rule about leaving school for your dog dying, our teachers and administrators were incredibly sympathetic and assured my mom it wasn’t a problem. They understood the pain.

            Now imagine if I told that story and Snickers was a guinea pig. Would the teachers have still understood?

            When we think about traditional “pets,” such as dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters and fish, there is an implied hierarchy to grief: fish are less important than guinea pigs, which are less important than dogs, and therefore, you should be the most sad about the dog and the least sad about the fish. However, what this does not account for is that grief is neither rational nor linear, and the relationship between a human and an animal is a unique, individualized relationship. This is why I prefer the term “companion animals” to “pets.” Not all humans can understand the loss of a pet, but most can understand the loss of a companion. And a companion animal can be a dog, guinea pig, fish, or any other animal. It is a term that reflects the many ways animals can provide humans with a sense of companionship.

            For example, it has been found that the presence of tropical fish in a room can have a profound impact on humans and blood pressure rates. The tropical fish lower blood pressure rates significantly more than the inanimate objects in the room, despite the fish being in a tank.[3] This means that when the fish are gone, the humans in the room will notice. They will not experience the same blood pressure drop and feeling of relaxation. In fact, the humans may even feel sad that the fish are not there anymore. And this, according to Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, is what truly defines a companion animal: “In the end, we know they are companion animals because when they die, we miss them, we grieve, and we notice they are gone.”[4]

            Despite the term “companion animals” being inclusive of all animals by name, dogs and cats are still the animals most associated with the term, and therefore, the animals with the most research on loss and grief. One study created a Mourning Dog Questionnaire to evaluate the process a human goes through when grieving the loss of a dog.[5] These researchers found that the 369 Italian dog owners surveyed perceived the loss of their dogs as similar to the loss of an immediate family member, as the owners viewed their dogs as part of the family. A second survey conducted at the University of Michigan-Flint found similar results when they surveyed 174 adult cat and dog owners using a different survey instrument.[6] They found that 85.7% of the owners surveyed experienced at least one symptom of grief upon the loss of their cat or dog, and that symptoms of grief lasted anywhere from six months to a year, with the average length of grieving being around 10 months.

            Although the abundance of research on the grief humans experience when their companion animal dies is focused on cats and dogs, when the studies expand to include other species, the grieving process stays the same. A survey of 400 Japanese pet owners found that over half of the bereaved pet owners experienced neurotic symptoms shortly after the death of their pets, rates similar to those observed during spousal loss.[7] These owners were not just grieving the losses of cats and dogs, but also of chickens, parakeets, rabbits and hamsters – and despite that, the grief of the owners was just as strong.

            It is not just the research that is starting to show that if one views an animal as a companion, regardless of species, the loss of the animal will have a profound impact on the owner or caretaker – it is also the anecdotes and stories from the humans themselves. The pain of companion animal loss is frequently captured online, as many people write and post tributes to their deceased animals on the internet. As Kirsten Schultz wrote in her post “What My Guinea Pig Oreo Passing Away Taught Me About Myself,” when her guinea pig Oreo died, “I spent a lot of time crying and chiding myself for not preventing death from stealing this little bub from us,” as Oreo was “not just a pet.”[8] She writes that following Oreo’s passing both she and her husband were “both inconsolable, barely sleeping but more holding each other and crying.” Other stories detail similar pain. When Alex, a parrot who made national news for having a confirmed vocabulary of over 100 English words that he could understand, passed away in 2007, his owner and trainer, Irene Pepperberg, described it as “the worst day of my life.”[9] More recently, Harambe, a 17 year old silverback gorilla, had to be shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after a 3 year old boy climbed into his enclosure. The public shooting of an endangered animal combined with the gross negligence of the parents let to a societal outcry and made national headlines. However, to some, the death was not just a public spectacle or horrifying news story, but the loss of a companion. Jerry Stones, Harambe’s caretaker for 15 years: “An old many can cry, too. He was a special guy in my life. Harambe was my heart. It’s like losing a member of the family.”[10]

             The outcry over Harambe is one example of a new phenomenon in companion animal grief: as traditional pets become more a part of the family, and the internet and social media make videos and stories of animals more accessible, even when we aren’t directly a companion of the animal, we still feel the pain a companion would, albeit temporarily. Dr. Susan Cohen DSW, who was the Director of Counseling at the Animal Medical Center in New York City for 20 years, notes that “[our] affection for companion animals has perhaps changed how we view the natural world… as a result, more people seem passionately interested both in individual animals and in the larger issues of animal keeping and species preservation.”[11] When Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, passed away at age 45 in 2018, it wasn’t just his keepers who mourned. Many people across the world grieved the rhino’s passing. Nargis Fakhri, an American actress who met Sudan before his passing on a trip, wrote that “When I heard Sudan had died, I felt like humanity had failed. A feeling of hopelessness took over.”[12] Ed Yong, a staff science writer for the Atlantic magazine, remarked that “Sudan’s death is certainly a tragedy—the heartbreaking end of a momentous individual life, and a moment of symbolic import for the world.”[13] I myself remember feeling a deep sadness and sense of loss when reading about Sudan’s passing, feelings which came up again as I read the tributes by Fakhri and Yong. I was able to read many articles about Sudan and see pictures and videos of online. I saw how Sudan’s caretakers interacted with him and saw the love that was there. As a result, I related the pain Sudan’s caretakers were going through to the pain I experienced when Snickers passed. While Snickers’ death was not a symbol of larger issues with poaching and climate change as Sudan’s was, at the most granular level, the pain was similar: Sudan and Snickers were companion animals, and their respective caretakers were saddened and grieved over their losses.            

            Grieving over the loss of any companion animal is normal. There has been a rise in programs that can provide support for owners or caretakers follow the loss of a companion animal, like the Honoring the Bond program at OSU[14], which provides access to social workers and pet loss support groups free of charge for companion animal owners who use their veterinary clinic. As grieving the loss of companion animals continues to be more accepted by society, we need to be mindful that how a loss impacts a human is driven more by closeness and relationship than by species. There is no “ranking” for companion animal losses. Hopefully, more research will be done on how the deaths of companion animals of all types impact humans emotionally, mentally and physically, so we can provide all owners and caretakers the support they need. In the meantime, if you are struggling with grief due to a companion animal’s death, no matter whether it’s a dog or a koala, you should reach out to a friend, family member or therapist for further help. You are not alone.   

[1] Beware Backyard Breeders. (2017, September 16). Retrieved December 8, 2019, from Animal League America website:

[2] Swift, S., Baldin, A., & Cripps, P. (2017). Degenerative Valvular Disease in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel: Results of the UK Breed Scheme 1991–2010. Journal of veterinary internal medicine, 31(1), 9-14.

[3] Axelrod, H. R., & Schultz, L. P. (1983). Handbook of tropical aquarium fishes. TFH publications.

[4] Zawistowski, S. (2008). Companion animals in society. Delmar Pub

[5] Uccheddu, S., et al. (2019). Pet Humanisation and Related Grief: Development and Validation of a Structured Questionnaire Instrument to Evaluate Grief in People Who Have Lost a Companion Dog. Animals, 9(11), 933.

[6] Wrobel, T. A., & Dye, A. L. (2003). Grieving pet death: Normative, gender, and attachment issues. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 47(4), 385-393.

[7] Kimura, Y., Kawabata, H., & Maezawa, M. (2013). Frequency of neurotic symptoms shortly after the death of a pet. Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 13-0231.

[8] Schultz, K. (2016, December 29). What My Guinea Pig Oreo Passing Away Taught Me About Myself. Retrieved November 21, 2019, from Medium website:

[9] Chandler, D. (2007). Farewell to a famous parrot. Nature.

[10] Bult, L. (n.d.). Former caretaker mourns death of Harambe, gorilla killed after toddler fell into his cage; family thanks Cincinnati Zoo for “quick action.” Retrieved November 24, 2019, from website:

[11] Cohen, S. (2019). Loss, Grief, and Bereavement in the Context of Human-Animal Relationships. NEW DIRECTIONS IN THE HUMAN-ANIMAL BOND, 395.

[12] Fakhri, N. (2018, December 20). This Photo of the Last Rhino of His Kind Helped Define 2018. Retrieved November 24, 2019, from Time website:

[13] Yong, E. (2018, March 20). Sudan, the Last Male Northern White Rhino, Is Dead. Retrieved November 24, 2019, from The Atlantic website:

[14] Honoring the Bond, Support for Animal Owners. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2019, from The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center website: