Do Reptiles Have Emotions? Can They Feel Happiness?

Written by Kyle Glatz
Published: March 17, 2023
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Authors have described cold, unfeeling human characters using reptilian qualities. After all, it’s hard to imagine an alligator as anything other than a killing machine driven by its desire to feed. The assumption that reptiles are nothing more than the sum of their instincts may not be the whole story behind them, though. Discover what scientists have to say on the matter and learn the answer to the question, do reptiles have emotions?

What Are Emotions and What Is Happiness?

baby camel smile
Humans have a habit of anthropomorphizing wild animals.


Before considering whether or not reptiles have emotions, it’s necessary to define them. According to the definition adopted by the American Psychological Association, emotions are generally defined as “conscious mental reactions (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feelings usually directed toward a specific object.”

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Even with this broad definition, it’s clear that emotions are not merely something every living thing can experience. For example, plants cannot experience emotions because they lack the physical and mental capabilities required to feel them.

Going along that line of thinking, it’s only natural to wonder, what things are necessary to feel and experience emotions?

What Is Required to Feel Emotions?

Human Brain Anatomy
Humans process their emotions using their central nervous system.


Emotions do not simply spawn from nowhere. They require some form of stimuli and biological components to interpret them. Human emotions are interpreted by the central nervous system, especially the brain.

Scientists argue that three things are needed to feel emotions: an experience, a behavioral response, and a physiological response. If a person turns a corner and runs into someone they were not expecting, that’s an experience. The behavioral response could be fear or surprise. The physiological experience could be the activation of the fight-or-flight response and the individual jumping.

Some typical human emotions include fear, surprise, disgust, happiness, anger, and sadness. Other human emotions can be a combination of two emotions, taking facets of each and melding them into a new discernible emotion. Humans have the central nervous system needed to interpret these feelings, but other creatures do not.

Do reptiles have emotions? Do they have what it takes to feel them? Well, it seems that they have the required elements to feel them at the very least. Let’s explore the concept in greater depth.  

Can Reptiles Have Emotions?

Northern ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii)
Reptiles do have emotions, but they’re probably not as complex as human emotions.


Yes, reptiles have emotions, but the depth to which they process them is the subject of an ongoing debate in the scientific community.

Generally, reptiles have a central nervous system and brain. Crocodiles have a central nervous system complete with a brain and spinal cord. In that sense, they are analogous to humans in the most basic sense. Crocodiles also have nerves that run throughout their bodies, including some very sensitive ones on their heads.

They have a very profound sense of touch, and they certainly feel pain and pressure. They use those traits to hunt. However, that’s a far cry from emotions.  

However, studies have repeatedly shown that reptiles like crocodiles experience a variety of emotions. Of course, crocodiles feel fear and aggression. When they experience fear, they often flee from a situation.

More interestingly, they appear to feel pleasure and satisfaction derived from playing. Professor Vladimir Dinets of the University of Tennessee found that crocodiles engage in three types of play as defined by behaviorists. Therefore, they play, and their desire to play could stem from the sense of satisfaction they experience from taking part in it.

A meta-analysis found that various reptiles could feel “anxiety, distress, excitement, fear, frustration, pain, stress, and suffering.” The animals can experience a wide assortment of feelings. Yet, humans cannot talk to these animals or otherwise communicate with them to understand the depth of their feelings. There is no way to know if reptiles’ feelings are completely analogous to human feelings.  

Do Reptiles Feel Happiness?

Although the meta-analysis revealed that reptiles feel a wide variety of emotions, they did not mention happiness. What is happiness?  Some sources say that happiness is a mixture of emotions like joy, amusement, contentment, and other positive feelings.

If crocodiles can play, surely there must be some link to contentment or amusement in there. Yet, that provokes the question of whether these creatures have the capacity to feel that kind of subjective satisfaction from an overall sense of well-being.

Are reptiles happy when they get food? Do they feel relief when they kill prey or avoid death? If that’s the definition of happiness that humans are satisfied with attributing to the nebulous concept of happiness, then, yes; reptiles feel happiness. Yet, it’s not wise to think that the same emotions felt by reptiles or many other animals are completely akin to those felt by human beings.

Do Reptile Pets Love Their Owners?

Jamaican iguana
Some iguanas prefer certain humans to others, but that’s a far cry from love.

©Bohgan Zeleniuk/

Even though reptiles do experience emotions, they do not experience all the emotions that humans feel. Also, the emotions that they feel are certainly not human-like in every regard. Thus, it’s unknown whether a reptile has some specific feelings that humans have.

While the answer about reptiles’ feelings of happiness is somewhat clear, many people wonder if they can love their owners. Some iguanas demonstrated preferences for certain people feeding them compared to others. That may not be affection, though. This could simply be the reptile gaining familiarity and associating the human with food, warmth, or other factors.

Reptiles may not be capable of exhibiting the same sort of love and connection as humans and domesticated mammals. At least, no species of reptile is domesticated in the same sense as dogs and cats. At best, it seems like reptiles may be more tolerant of some people, but their instincts and behaviors aren’t akin to human affection and love.

Do reptiles feel emotions? Research shows that they do. However, their emotions are not the same as humans. We may anthropomorphize crocodiles and snakes in certain ways, but they are not conniving evil beasts. They feel fear and anxiety and contentedness, even if it is in their own way.

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About the Author

I've been a freelance writer since 2013, and I've written in a variety of niches such as managed service providers, animals, and retail distribution. I graduated from Rowan University in 2014. When I'm not working, I enjoy playing video games, reading, and writing for fun.

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