Can a snake be used as a therapy pet?

When most people think of therapy pets, they think of cute dogs and cats. But board certified veterinarian Dr. Laurie Hess says alternative pets like snakes and rats, can help with conditions like high blood pressure and


When it comes to therapy pets, dogs, cats and other cuddly creatures seem like naturals, but snakes and rats are options, too.

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“Exotic pets serve different purposes; certainly they can be incredible companions – [they’re] very non-judgmental,” board-certified veterinarian Dr. Laurie Hess, told

There are exotic pets that have unique characteristics and abilities that can prove to be beneficial to people with special needs, Hess, who is based in Bedford Hills, New York, said. They can offer assistance and companionship to people with conditions ranging from autism to high blood pressure.

For individuals with autism, Hess, the author of “Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Doctor,” recommended a reptile like a snake or chameleon because the hyperactivity of a dog or darting behavior of a cat can be overwhelming for patients.

“Having a reptile that is slow moving and calm, really interesting to look at, that you learn about, learn to take care of are great for kids on the autistic spectrum,” she said.

She warned that parents should research the reptile first to make sure it is safe and suitable for a child.

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) typically lean on dogs or cats for camaraderie, but parrots can be a great alternative. Hess noted that studies have shown that parrots can be very human-like and that they can talk and sense their owner’s emotions. Cockatoos are an especially good choice because they are a social bird that likes to be physically touched, which can be comforting and soothing to someone with PTSD.

“Having an animal that speak languages…that will understand you, is sometimes an incredible relationship for someone who has been through trauma,” she added.

For individuals with high blood pressure, a pet fish can be beneficial.

“Just simply watching a fish tank…not having to do [anything] but actively sitting there and just watching it lowers your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure,” Hess said.

As for therapy pets that visit hospitals and nursing homes, Hess said there are exotic animal options for these individuals, as well. Caged animals are suitable for the elderly and those with limited mobility because they don’t have to be walked and owners don’t have to constantly change their litter. Rabbits and even rats can be great options because they are low maintenance and relatively friendly.

Therapy pets can come in all shapes and sizes but Hess recommended thoroughly researching your options before making a choice for you and your family.