Feelings and emotions are tough to understand in humans, let alone other animals.
But if you’ve spent any quality time for your leopard gecko, it can certainly appear like they have some feelings and emotions. After all, they seem to enjoy food and dislike certain things, right?
Do leopard geckos really have feelings and emotions?
Leopard geckos likely experience very basic emotions and feelings like aggression, fear, and pleasure. It’s not uncommon to see leopard geckos startled by something which can trigger feelings like fear and aggression. Enjoyable food or even petting could trigger pleasurable feelings and emotions but it can be much more difficult to identify positive emotions.
However, it’s worth emphasizing that these feelings aren’t the same as what humans experience and you can’t expect your leopard gecko to feel happiness in the same way that you might. As asocial and relatively simple creatures, more complex emotions like shame and guilt are not something that leopard geckos can feel. But simple feelings and emotions are well within the realm of possibility.
Let’s take a closer look at what we know about leopard gecko feelings and emotions.
How Do We Know That Leopard Geckos Have Feelings and Emotions?
There’s a great deal of debate around whether leopard geckos and their reptile relatives have feelings and emotions. Some experts suggest that leopard geckos aren’t intelligent enough to experience something as complex as emotion while others insist that reptiles can experience basic emotions like fear and pleasure.
While leopard geckos certainly aren’t known for being smart or intelligent, the connection between brainpower and feelings is quite unclear. Some researchers have even suggested that honeybees can experience something like emotion, at least based on chemical findings, so it’s hard to imagine that other creatures with larger brains can’t experience something similar.
But that still doesn’t make it any easier to measure and when it comes to feelings like happiness and joy, it’s an especially difficult question. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to see negative feelings like stress and anxiety in reptiles. Said another way, it’s usually easy to see when a leopard gecko is stressed or anxious but sensing their pleasure and contentment is much harder.
This was confirmed by researchers who conducted a deep dive into the scientific literature around reptiles. They found that “The scientific literature shows us that the capacity for reptiles to feel pain, stress, fear, and anxiety is accepted and utilized in scientific studies.” But what’s missing from studies are comments on a reptile’s ability to feel pleasure.
Most herpers would agree that it’s easy to spot a leopard gecko that’s feeling anxious, scared, or stressed. But when it comes to happiness it can be more difficult to tell. We can look for behaviors like approaching us or staying for petting but beyond that it’s hard to gauge what’s going on.
But what we do know, is that reptiles and other species have been found to experience fear, stress and anxiety which strongly suggests that leopard geckos do as well.
How To Tell The Difference Between Instinct and Emotions
Those that don’t think leopard geckos have emotions or feelings will usually suggest that these reptiles are fueled by instinct and little else.
As an observer, it can be quite difficult to make a distinction but the first step is defining the difference. Most folks would agree that instincts are part of internal drives for basic requirements while emotions are a response to something external.
The drive for your leopard gecko to eat a mealworm is an instinct but the feeling of pleasure after a full belly is an emotion or feeling. While both are hard to measure, there are established connections between some chemicals and certain emotions which can help us understand what’s going on.
It’s also important that point out that they’re closely connected and can sometimes reinforce each other. In other words, emotions can come after instinct. So while leopard geckos may be motivated by instinct to eat, emotion can still follow.
Once again, it’s much easier to see when it comes to negative emotions, and observing stress or fear in a leopard gecko is pretty straightforward. Instinct is absolutely a part of a fear response but chemical signals suggest that something similar to emotion is going on too!
There’s a lot of debate on both sides of the leopard gecko and emotions debate. Of course, it’s impossible to really know what’s going on inside those little leo heads, but based on expert opinion and thousands of studies, it seems likely that feelings and emotions related to stress are possible in leopard geckos.
What’s not so clear-cut are positive emotions like happiness and pleasure. Even though there aren’t as many studies available, especially those specific to leopard geckos, it does appear that these feelings are possible for leopard geckos too.
What do you think? Do you think your leopard gecko is experiencing emotion or feelings? Which ones?