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When Your Reptile Is Too Aggressive

By: Dr. Margaret Wissman

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Does your beloved reptile repay your love and devotion by treating your hand like a thick, juicy hamburger? Don't take it personally.

Reptiles can make great pets, but some of them are more likely to bite than others. That's because these animals are truly wild. They are not domesticated like dogs and cats, mammals that have lived in harmony with humans for thousands of years.

Reptile Not Angry at You

Many ``herps'' - the nickname for reptiles stemming from ``herpetology,'' the study of reptiles and amphibians – have been captured in the wild and imported to the United States for sale. These animals still react by instinct, and usually not out of anger toward you.

For example, your hungry snake may strike at your hand as you reach into the cage to change its water. You might end up with hurt feelings on top of an injured hand, but the snake was just striking at what he thought was a meal being delivered.

Try to understand what provoked the attack. If you learn your herp's instinctive patterns, you can anticipate many problems. Animal behavior experts identify several different kinds of aggression.

Defensive Aggression

This occurs when your animal perceives a threat, whether it's real or not. A shy or reclusive reptile might feel threatened when someone makes a quick move nearby, or a reptile that's a prey species might react by biting because it fears becoming a meal for another animal. Very shy herps shouldn't be startled.

Territorial Aggression

If you've ever lounged by a pool in Florida, you've probably seen territorial displays by male anoles, a kind of lizard. A male that encroaches on another male's territory will be greeted by a display involving head-bobbing, push-ups and exposing the red dewlap – a loose fold of skin under its chin. Although the same routine is used to lure females, this behavior with another male is meant as a warning to move away.

If you were to scoop up a male that's fired up, you may well get bitten. While a nip on the hand from a little anole isn't likely to injure much more than your dignity, imagine the same type of territoriality demonstrated by a mature male green iguana! These males shouldn't be housed together or even kept within sight of each other – not even in the same room.

There have been many instances of a mature male iguana, during breeding season, attacking someone who entered its perceived territory. With its sharp teeth, strong bite, fast reflexes and a powerful tail it can use as a whip, the iguana can inflict great damage. Several owners attacked by large male iguanas needed plastic surgery on their faces.

Natural Aggression

Some herps are naturally pugnacious. Tegus and monitor lizards are considered the most aggressive of the species. Veiled chameleons are more aggressive than other chameleons. A Gila monster that's warmed itself in the sun is more likely to turn and bite than to slink off. A wild snapping turtle can be nasty. And venomous herps often have an attitude of invicibility – they seem to know they're bad. Cobras and some venomous vipers are quick to anger, and they strike quickly.

Acquired Aggression

Some herps become more aggressive at the onset of sexual maturity or during breeding season. Large, adult male pythons become very restless during breeding season and can be very dangerous adversaries, striking and coiling around an unsuspecting keeper if given half a chance. It's important to stay very focused when working with and feeding mature pythons and other species of snakes to prevent severe injury.

Promoting Good Behavior

Many mature herps should be isolated from each other, out of sight of other members of its species. And they shouldn't be allowed to view themselves in mirrors, which can provoke an aggressive display.

To prevent painful bites, don't handle herps when they're basking and their body temperature is at its warmest.

What To Do If You're Bitten

Any bite from a herp should prompt you to seek medical care. Many snakes and lizards carry potentially dangerous bacteria in the mouth area, and their teeth can cause deep puncture wounds, driving the organisms far into your tissues.

Wash a wound immediately after being bitten. Use povidone iodine soap or another antibacterial soap, and wash for at least 10 minutes, with hot, running water. Douse the wound with hydrogen peroxide and then call a doctor, who often will prescribe antibiotics to prevent serious infection.

And, if your pet bites you, don't strike back or try to discipline him. He won't understand; it'll just make him more fearful and aggressive. Try to find out why he bit you. Was he hungry, scared, trying to defend his territory or in a breeding mode?

And again, try not to take it personally. After all, he's only doing what comes naturally.

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