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Caring For Your Amphibian

By: Frank Indiviglio

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To a captive amphibian, health and home are synonymous. Captive amphibians don't adjust well to adverse conditions; instead, they often get sick.

This diverse group presents unique challenges, as each species generally uses several habitats. There are nearly 400 types of salamanders, 4,000 frogs and 160 caecilians, all with varying needs, so be sure to research your individual species carefully.

Enclosure

Your pet's enclosure must closely match its natural habitat, as most amphibians adapt poorly to an environmental change. Green tree frogs, for example, languish without climbing opportunities, and still water species such as the dwarf clawed frog cannot take vigorous filtration. Even those that do well in "bare bones" setups, such as the axolotl, have very specific requirements for temperature and water quality.

Community exhibits are difficult, as most amphibians will swallow cage mates of nearly their own size, and some, such as the horned frog, are specifically adapted to do this. Many have toxic skin secretions, which means that both dinner and diner may perish.

Even terrestrial species, such as the American toad, require moist surroundings so substrates which hold water are the rule. Sphagnum moss, carpet moss, dead leaves and potting soil/peat moss mix will suffice, although some types, such as the tomato frog, may swallow these and become impacted. Aquarium filter pads make a good, non-edible artificial substrate. Gravel, if used, must be above swallowing size.

Temperature

Most amphibians favor temperatures in the 55 to 68 degree Fahrenheit range (some much cooler), and even tropical species, such as the palm salamander, dwell in cool microhabitats. Nearly all require a basement or air-conditioned room during warm weather. Few, if any, require an ultra-violet light source.

Cycles

A day/night cycle patterned on your pet's natural habitat is important and a cool or dry period may be required for successful breeding. Various species may also need a "rainy season" (red-eyed tree frog), large groups (spotted salamander) or extensive pools (American bullfrog) if reproduction is to be achieved. Improperly cycled females often retain eggs and perish. Properly cycled male frogs call incessantly and you may need to reverse their day/night cycle if you are to get any sleep.

Feeding and Water

Tiny active species like poison frogs require daily feedings, "average" types like White's tree frog will eat 3 to 4 times per week and vertebrate feeders like African bullfrogs need but one meal per week. The vast majority consume only live food, such as wild caught insects, crickets, wax worms, earthworms, roaches, fish and pink nix. Many aquatic salamanders like the fire-bellied newt and African-clawed frogs do well on commercial pellets and trout chow. Feeder insects should be fed tropical fish flakes, limestone and vegetables, and should be coated with a vitamin powder (once per week for adult pets, three times per week for juveniles).

Waste products are often colorless and odorless, and are quickly absorbed back through the porous skin. Therefore, water must be changed daily and careful attention must be given to the filtration for aquatic species, such as the mud puppy. Water should be de-chlorinated (drops are sold at pet stores) and delicate species (such as spring salamanders) do best in bottled water or with a reverse osmosis system.

Medical Care

The medical needs of our amphibians receive scant attention, so a competent veterinarian will be hard to find. Fecal tests should be run to check for internal parasites. Commonly encountered problems include heat stress (pacing, then lethargy) egg retention (swollen abdomen), cloacal prolapse (tissue protruding from cloaca) and septicemia (red patches on lower legs and abdomen).

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