In the May/June 2017 issue of Reptiles Magazine there’s a great article called “Reptiles as Therapy Pets,” by Alexia P. Bullard, who asks, “Who says a pet snake or lizard can’t provide emotional support?”
As the mommy and caretaker of three Eastern Box Turtles and a Red-Eared Slider, I can definitely say that caring for them gives me daily emotional support. The use of animals in therapy and for emotional support is not new, but the choice to carry one’s support animal with them into public places has increased recently.
You may be wondering how Emotional Support Animals differ from Service Animals. Even though both must be prescribed by a health care professional, an ESA doesn’t go through any special training. According to the organization Service Dog Central, “Service animals are task trained to actually do something which mitigates the person’s disability. Their defined function is not to provide emotional support (affection on demand or a security blanket) but to do something the handler cannot do for themselves which allows that handler to overcome or ameliorate an inability to perform major life activities. Emotional support animals don’t have to be trained, so long as they do not disturb neighbors or pose a threat to public safety.”
What is it about reptiles that people find comforting? For one thing, they are mostly quiet. For someone whose anxiety is triggered by sounds, a squawking bird or barking dog could make things worse. That being said, my Eastern Box Turtles get really loud and annoying when they ceaselessly dig and scratch at the walls of their enclosure!
Another benefit of choosing a reptile for your support animal is that they don’t produce any dander. People who are allergic to feathered or furry friends won’t find any comfort if they’re sneezing and scratching. Dander, which is dead skin cells, is the main cause of allergies to animals, but fur and feathers also collect allergens like pollen, mold and dust, which can have the same effect. No fur, no feathers? No problem. You can cuddle up to a chameleon.
Perhaps a scaly skink is the answer to your worries. Whichever reptile you choose, here’s a word of caution: Do your research!!! Brian Barczyk, of SnakeBytes TV and the Discovery Channel’s Venom Hunter, suggests a bearded dragon or leopard gecko. He discourages people from using snakes as ESA’s because so many people are terrified of them. But, if you choose a snake, start with a kingsnake, milk snake or rat snake.
Another thing to consider when choosing your reptilian ESA, is the care they will require. For example, Red Eared Slider turtles are easy to find, and cute when they’re little, but as they grow they need a spacious aquarium that you can keep clean. Aquatic animals are not the best choice for ESA’s because they depend on the water to survive. Taking them on a long trip could kill them. You also need to find out the life span of the reptile you are considering. Corn snakes can live 15-20 years, Ball Pythons live 20-30, but Box turtles can live from 50-100 years.
If a caiman calms you down, I say go for it. I’m a big fan of using unconventional animals for support. When I chose a Chihuahua mix to be my service dog, I had no idea how much flack I’d get from strangers because of his size. But the experience taught me a lot about tolerance and understanding, and Henry has helped me so much over the years The least I can do is share my experience and hopefully help others in similar situations.