We amphibian enthusiasts are a lucky bunch. The world is populated by 6,389 frog and toad species, and new ones are discovered regularly. Among them we find frogs that have sheathed claws, lack lungs and defend their young from lions, along with toads that breed in salt marshes and bear live young. Some tadpoles feed upon their fathers’ skins, while others munch bark from tree branches…and that’s the mere tip of the iceberg! Frogs may be hardy survivors that can reach age 20, 30 or even 50, or be nearly impossible to keep alive in captivity. The following points, drawn from a lifetime of working with frogs and toads in the Bronx Zoo and at home, are useful to consider before embarking on your amphibian-keeping venture.
Note: The terms “frog” and “toad” do not always correspond with taxonomic relationships. All toads may be correctly called “frogs”. I’ll use “frogs” when referring to both.
Please post below if you have specific questions, or would like a link to an article on a certain species.
Pet Frogs are “Hands-Off”
Cane Toads, White’s Treefrogs and many others are often very responsive to their owners, and will readily feed from the hand (or, for the “tooth” bearing African Bullfrog and Horned Frogs, from tongs!). However, they should be picked-up only when necessary, and then with wet hands. All amphibians have extremely delicate skin, and even microscopic tears will allow harmful bacteria to enter and cause havoc. Also, the skin’s mucus covering, which has anti-microbial properties, is easily removed even during gentle handling.
Well-cared-for frogs will reward you by exhibiting fascinating behaviors…but not if you disturb or injure them with unnecessary handling!
Frogs Need Clean Terrariums and Excellent Water Quality
An African Bullfrog can eat baby cobras, survive 9 months without food and live for over 50 years. Yet 2-3 days of soaking in a fouled water bowl can end its live.
Frogs absorb water through the skin, and along with that water comes any associated pollutants. The most common of these is ammonia, which is excreted with the waste products. Most frogs are as or even more delicate than tropical fishes, since they absorb water over a greater surface area; ammonia test kits, partial water changes and strong filtration are critical to success in keeping them. Substrate needs the same attention as does water, since Horned Frogs and other land-dwellers can be poisoned by ammonia-soaked moss or soil.
Frogs Need a Highly-Varied Diet
No frog will thrive long-term on a diet comprised solely of crickets and mealworms, even if these foods are powdered with supplements. I’ve done well by relying heavily upon wild-caught invertebrates during the warmer months. Moths, beetles, grasshoppers, tree crickets, harvestmen, earwigs, “smooth” caterpillars and a variety of others are accepted – usually far more enthusiastically than are crickets!. Please see these articles for tips on collecting insects.
Useful invertebrates that you can buy include earthworms, roaches, butterworms, calciworms, silkworms, hornworms and sow bugs. Feeders should be provided a healthful diet before use. Canned grasshoppers, snails, and silkworms may be offered via feeding tongs. Please see the article linked below for further information on dietary variety.
Frogs are Easily Stressed…but it’s Hard to Tell
Stress is one of the most important and misunderstood concepts in herp husbandry. While some frogs will leap away when threatened, many instinctively freeze. Inexperienced owners often misinterpret the lack of vigorous protest as an “acceptance” of handling. However, be assured that your pet’s stress hormones are surging, and that this will have a deleterious effect on its immune system.
Being relatively inactive, many frogs may seem blissfully unaware of terrarium size, or of what is going on outside their enclosures. However, most are quite alert, and miss nothing. It may be difficult for us to detect a problem merely by observing our pets’ behaviors.
Certain species, such as White’s Treefrogs, American or Southern Toads, and African Clawed Frogs, are better-suited to busy households than are most.
The “It Doesn’t Do Anything” Factor
Ideally, the new frog owner will be interested in her or his pet for its own sake. But most of us also wish to see how it lives, what it does, and so on. Many frogs are about as active as the infamous “pet rock”…and are nocturnal to boot!
If you favor an active pet, consider a small diurnal species that forages for rather than ambushes its food, and keep it in a large, naturalistic terrarium. Five Blue Dart Poison Frogs (active hunters) in a well-planted 30 gallon tank will provide you with infinitely more to observe than will an Argentine Horned Frog (ambush predator) kept in the same-sized enclosure. African Clawed and Dwarf African Clawed Frogs also tend to be quite active, especially if housed in planted aquariums and not over-fed. Allowing sow bugs, springtails and other food species to become established in the terrarium will encourage activity.
Some species that tend to be active at night may adjust to daytime schedules once they settle into to their new homes. American Toads and their relatives are especially accommodating in this regards. Others, such as Green and Gold Bell Frogs, American Bullfrogs and Leopard Frogs, are ready and willing to feed round-the-clock. Red night-viewing bulbs will greatly increase your ability to observe Red-Eyed Treefrogs, Spadefoot Toads and other strictly nocturnal species.
Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.
Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook. Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.
Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. Thanks, until next time, Frank.