Bearded dragons hiss for a few main reasons:
- They feel threatened or scared when you try to pick them up
- They are stressed by handling
- They are communicating discomfort or fear
- They are being territorial and see your hand as an intrusion
Hissing is a defensive behavior that signals the bearded dragon feels unsafe or insecure when you go to pick them up. With patience and care, you can generally train most bearded dragons to become accustomed to handling.
Why Bearded Dragons Hiss
There are a few main reasons a bearded dragon might hiss at you when you attempt to pick it up:
The most common reason a bearded dragon hisses is because it feels threatened or scared by your hand coming towards it. Reptiles rely heavily on body language cues, and a large hand reaching down from above can seem very intimidating. The bearded dragon doesn’t understand your intentions are friendly, so it will instinctively hiss as a way to say “back off!” Hissing is meant to make the dragon look and sound more menacing to ward off a perceived predator.
Stress from Handling
Some bearded dragons simply get stressed out by being handled. Reptiles are generally not social animals, so the sensation of being picked up can cause anxiety. Additionally, handling means the loss of control for a bearded dragon, which can be frightening. A stressed dragon may hiss as a reflexive response, even if you are moving slowly and cautiously.
A hiss can also be the bearded dragon’s way of communicating it is uncomfortable or afraid in that moment. This discomfort may stem from something other than you – like hunger or too hot/cold temperatures. But when you reach to pick it up, the dragon will associate that discomfort with your presence and hiss. Think of the hiss as the lizard saying “I’m not happy right now, please don’t touch me!”
Some dragons, especially adults, can be quite territorial over their habitat space. When you reach inside their tank, they may view your hand as an unwanted intruder. Hisses are meant to act as a warning to make you withdraw and communicate that you are invading their personal space. This territorial behavior is more common in older, male dragons.
Tips to Stop a Bearded Dragon from Hissing
If your bearded dragon has a habit of hissing when you pick it up, there are some things you can try to get it more comfortable with handling:
- Approach slowly and avoid reaching down from over top of the dragon.
- Offer a treat to associate your hand with something positive.
- Let the dragon walk onto your hand vs. grabbing at it.
- Pet the dragon gently before attempting to pick it up.
- Hold the dragon closer to the ground at first until it relaxes.
- Try different hand positions, like under the belly or chest vs under legs.
- Handle the dragon daily in short sessions to get it used to you.
- Make sure the habitat has plenty of hides and coverage to feel secure.
- Give the dragon ample time to adjust after bringing it home before handling.
With regular, positive interactions most bearded dragons will come to tolerate or even enjoy being handled! Just go slowly and be patient.
Understanding Bearded Dragon Hissing and Body Language
It’s important to understand what a bearded dragon’s hiss means, but also pay attention to its overall body language. Here are some common signs a bearded dragon is feeling threatened or fearful:
- Inflating beard
- Opening mouth wide in a gape
- Arched back
- Raised arms or crest
- Flattening body against surface
- Slow head movements
- Closing or squinting eyes
- Dark beard/skin coloring
- Whipping tail
When you see these signals, it’s best to pause and give the bearded dragon some space. Don’t force interactions when it is obviously feeling uncomfortable or defensive.
On the other hand, here is body language that indicates a bearded dragon is relaxed and comfortable:
- Normal colored beard/skin
- Eyes open and alert
- Sitting calmly
- Resting flat on belly
- Bearded puffed down
- Slow, sniffing tongue movements
- Plodding walk
- Normal rate of head bobbing
When your bearded dragon is displaying relaxed posture and behavior, that’s the ideal time to pick it up without provoking a defensive hiss.
Is Hissing a Sign of Aggression in Bearded Dragons?
A bearded dragon’s hiss may sound aggressive, but it is not necessarily a sign of true aggression in most cases. Instead, think of hissing more as a reflexive response to fear. It is meant to ward off a perceived threat, not indicate the dragon is ready to attack or bite.
True aggression in bearded dragons is not common. Signs of actual aggression can include:
- Lunging or chasing after hand/object
- Biting and holding on
- Repeated whipping motions of the tail
- Puffing beard back and forth
- Head bobbing rapidly
- Black beard/skin coloring
- Open mouth with exposed teeth
These behaviors are true offensive actions meant to intimidate or cause harm. A hiss on its own does not indicate aggression in most cases – just a nervous or fearful dragon. If you do see multiple signals of aggression, that bearded dragon may not be suitable for handling and require an experienced owner.
When to Be Concerned About Hissing
Most of the time, occasional hissing is normal and nothing to be concerned about. But in some cases, frequent hissing can be a sign of an underlying issue that needs addressed:
- Consistent, excessive hissing whenever you approach can indicate chronic stress or fear. The bearded dragon may require more time to adjust or a very gradual handling approach.
- Hissing accompanied by puffing beard, dark colors, gape, etc. may mean the dragon is overly territorial over its habitat space.
- Frequent hissing plus signs of lethargy or illness can signal pain that causes discomfort when handled.
- Sudden increase in hissing a previously calm dragon can indicate developing aggression or anxiety issues.
- Baby or juvenile dragons who hiss constantly may have issues with proper socialization.
If you notice any of these situations, schedule a check-up with an exotic vet. Unusual behavior changes can signify an underlying health issue or environmental factors stressing the bearded dragon.
Other Reasons a Bearded Dragon May Hiss
Some other reasons a bearded dragon may hiss include:
- Respiratory infections – hissing can be a sign of labored breathing
- Undiagnosed health problems causing pain
- Poor husbandry conditions
- Introducing new dragons together
- Breeding/mating aggression
- Handling by strangers or children
- Swallowing substrate material
- Shedding skin irritation
Always evaluate your husbandry and the dragon’s health if you notice increased hissing. Consult an exotic vet to identify and address potential causes if the hissing persists.
How to Pick Up a Bearded Dragon That Hisses
If your bearded dragon is in the habit of hissing when you go to pick it up, use these tips to help make handling less stressful:
- Move slowly and speak softly as you approach.
- Avoid reaching over top the dragon which can seem threatening.
- Offer a treat from your hand first before lifting the dragon.
- Gently pet the dragon’s back or head before scooping it up.
- Confidently but delicately support the dragon’s underside and legs as you lift.
- If possible, allow the dragon to walk out of its habitat onto your hand first.
- Lift the dragon close to the ground, not high overhead.
- Try to prevent grasping claws/limbs which can provoke hisses.
- Hold the dragon securely but don’t restrain it tightly.
With time and positive reinforcement, you can teach your bearded dragon to feel comfortable being handled using these techniques.
Desensitizing a Hissy Bearded Dragon to Handling
If your bearded dragon hisses every time you try to pick it up, some desensitization training can help it learn to tolerate handling better:
Step 1: Begin by placing your hand in the habitat for 5-10 minutes at a time, a couple times a day. Don’t attempt to touch the dragon yet – just let it adjust to your hand’s presence.
Step 2: Next, try hand feeding treats so your hand becomes associated with good things.
Step 3: Once the dragon is taking treats reliably, offer them from your palm. As it licks the treat, gently pet its head or back with one finger while it eats.
Step 4: Build up to petting sessions before handling. Give the dragon a treat then stroke its back slowly for a minute or two before withdrawing your hand.
Step 5: From that point, you can attempt to scoop up the bearded dragon using the calm handling techniques described above. Reinforce with another treat once you pick it up.
Going extremely gradually, you can desensitize even a habitual hisser to tolerate handling using this method. Just proceed based on the dragon’s reactions and don’t rush the process.
Preventing Hissing When Handling
To prevent hissing when you go to handle your bearded dragon, keep these tips in mind:
- Allow the dragon a calm adjustment period after bringing it home before frequent handling.
- Handle the dragon daily in short sessions to get it used to you.
- Always support the full body – don’t dangle the dragon or pick up by the tail.
- Avoid restraining or squeezing the dragon when holding it.
- Prevent falls by not handling up high or over hard surfaces.
- Pick up the dragon smoothly and confidently without hesitation.
- Approach from the front/side, not over the head which seems threatening.
- Read the dragon’s signals – don’t force handling if it seems agitated or scared.
- Make handling a positive experience with treats and gentle stroking.
If you handle a bearded dragon regularly from a young age, you can prevent skittishness and hissing in the long run.
In summary, bearded dragons hiss as a defensive behavior when they feel threatened or stressed by handling. It is a common response but not a sign of true aggression in most cases. With time, patience and gentle care a bearded dragon can become comfortable with its owner and handling. Pay close attention to body language, go slowly in sessions, use positive reinforcement and try alternative handling techniques to decrease hissing over time. If hissing persists or increases, have the dragon checked for any underlying health issues. With the right approach, even habitual hissers can learn to tolerate regular handling.