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Amphibians include salamanders, newts, frogs and toads. They need special care and a big investment in equipment if you keep non-native species. Even if you do invest a lot, many exotic amphibians kept by enthusiasts don't survive long, which is sad when amphibians all over the world are threatened by disease, pollution and loss of habitat. Yet you could do amphibians a favour by setting up a pond for our native species to colonise. It's much less effort, and far more beneficial for amphibians worldwide than keeping an exotic in a tank.  .

Amphibian behaviour

Most of us are familar with croaking frogs during the mating season, when males sing to attract females. This is the time when you're most likely to see adult amphibians in a group, though some aquatic species, like clawed frogs and axolotls do live together in the wild. Generally, amphibians don't do much parenting, leaving the eggs after spawning, though some salamander species stay to guard the egs, in some species the female, and sometimes the male.There's also the well-known midwife toad, which swims around with eggs attached. 

Tadpoles generally don't eat one another, though this can happen in some species. Keeping tadpoles well fed, and in groups sorted by size helps to reduce the risk of cannibalism if you have a species known for eating its companions.

So, how do frogs and toads find their ponds to breed? They seem to do this using their sense of smell. They also have a keen sense of hearing. If you walk past a croaking pond at night, you'll hear the frogs plopping into the water. Amphibians that come onto land can be very stressed by loud noises, so they need a quiet environment. Fully aquatic amphibians are less stressed by noise.

Amphibians orient themselves especially through smell and vision, and they tend to find transparent glass walls confusing and stressful. They may be so stressed by four sides of cear glass that they don't eat. You can paint three sides of the tank dark green, grey or black, with some texture, so the amphibians feel safer. You can also line three sides of tanks for arboreal amphibians, (tree frogs), with bark, or some other attractive material. Lining three sides means that you can still see the amphibians, and they feel more protected. 

Food, for an adult amphibian, is something that's alive and moves, and the easiest way to feed non-native species is to buy live mealworms. You can dig up worms from the garden, though there's more risk of introducing an infection into the tank. Worms are quite acceptable for native species in ponds. 

Skin is a sense organ in humans, and far more so in amphibians, which can 'smell' through their skins. They're also more sensitive than we are to the temperature of whatever their skin is in contact with, and more at risk from dehydration if they  don't have access to water or humid conditions. Amphibians 'drink' through their skins rather than through their mouths.

It's difficult to imagine what it's like to be an amphibian, with such very sensitive skin, the ability to find locations through smell alone, and an immediate alert response to footsteps. Amphibians are both predators, and prey animals, so need to stay alert. Some people use leaves, branches, bark and stones for environmental enrichment for amphibians that spend time on land. Maybe this helps to prevent boredom, but the first priority is for the amphibian to feel safe. If it's very stressed out by noise or the wrong temperature, it's unlikely to eat, let alone breed. Simple measures to reduce stress, such as using quiet shoes and mats in an amphibian room may help more than items to make the cage interesting.  Likewise, native species benefit from a quiet location for a pond, with plenty of shady places nearby.

Providing a haven for native species of amphibians

Many of us have early experiences of taking home frog spawn as children, and watching the frogs develop. Some survived, others didn't, and they hopped off into the garden to be forgotten. Our early efforts as amphibian keepers perhaps tended to be a bit haphazard. Sheltering amphibians can, however, help our native European species of frogs, toads and newts, which are under threat from pollutants, traffic, and loss of habitat. People with garden ponds can help their survival enormously, and do themselves a favour, because amphibians consume the gardener's enemy, slugs.

Amphibians need a fish-free pond, because fish may eat small tadpoles, while frogs can grasp fish tightly in the mating season, so you need two ponds if you like fish, keeping the fish and frogs separate. If you don't have a pond, or don't have a second pond for amphibians, it's quite easy to set one up.

The best type of pond is one with curves and different water depths, though if you improvise, using an old bath, for example, you can create different depths using rocks. Rain water is preferable to tap water, even though chlorine does evaporate over time. You can use rocks to secure native plant species, both for shelter, and to oxygenate the water. Froglets and newts are also helped if they have an improvised 'ramp' to get out of the pond - you can heap stones in one end of the pond, for example. Using plants to provide shelter round the pond gives it a more natural look than having it bordered with slabs, and gives newly emerged amphibians more of a chance of survival.

Amphibians need damp when they're on land, so they'll be encouraged if you have plenty of shady spots in your garden. They like compost heaps, because food (slugs and worms) lives there, and small log piles, which can also give shelter and attract food. Amphibians sometimes hibernate in heaps of stone, and you can set up a heap covered with soil, and planted with grass, that they can burrow into.

Amphibians benefit from 'eco-friendly' gardening practices, because they're so sensitive to pollutants. Pestcides and herbicides can kill them, and fertilisers, including manure, can upset the balance in the pool. If you use fertilisers, it's best used away from the pool, with no chance for run-off into the water. Amphibians also do best in traffic-free and quiet areas, because frogs and toads especially regularly get run over in their quest to return to where they grew up, during the breeding season.

Ponds need attention in the autumn, especially if they're near trees, and leaves fall onto the pond. You can remove the leaves regularly with a net, so they don't rot in the pond. Change the water gradually, because sudden changes in the temperature or composition of the water can affect any amphibians living in the pond. In winter, when ponds can freeze over, and snow can fall on the ice, it's important to allow sunlight to get through, or any amphibians in the pond could be killed. You can place something warm on the ice to melt it, or keep something floating which is easy to remove, and create a hole.

Taking frog spawn from the wild is not a good conservation measure! There are also risks of introducing infections if you transfer spawn from somewhere else, even a friend with an overabundance of spawn. If you can time your pond construction to let your pond stand for at least a couple of months before the spawning season, it's likely that amphibians will find it of their own accord. Timing the pond construction well allows the pond to be colonised by small creatures like water fleas, which will be ready as food when your amphibians arrive.

Choosing non-native species of amphibians

Outdoor ponds are best reserved for native species, because of the risk of non-native species escaping into the wild. It's illegal to release exotic species into the UK, because of the risk of introducing diseases, or potential predators, which might harm native species. 

It's safest to start off with the relatively easy species, which tend to come from temperate zones, so you don't have to worry so much about temperature. Make sure your specimen is healthy, which means having clear eyes, being neither skinny nor bloated, with no injuries or other visible problems on the skin. It's safer not to mix species in the same vivarium or aquarium, since they don't always get on. Check to see whether the species you are thinking about is best kept in small groups, in pairs or singly.

Read up on what you can about different species' natural environments before you make a choice, so you know which are easier in terms of recreating their habitats, and what to aim for when you set up your tank or vivarium. The temperature of the room where you keep amphibians will affect any species which leaves the water, so it's safer to stick to amphibians with temperature requirements that are the same or very similar.

Environment and housing

Amphibians that spend time on land are particularly affected by what's happening in the room where their tank is kept. The air quality of the room where you house your amphibians will affect the air quality in tanks, so many people reserve a room solely for their amphibians.  The room needs to be well-ventilated, with special attention to air purity. This means avoiding pollution from, say, smoking or using spray cleaning products. Vibration and noises that reach the room will also affect the amphibians. You can wear 'quiet' shoes, like trainers, in the amphibian room, and use mats, so that footsteps make less noise. It's also worth wearing quiet footwear in the whole of your house or flat, if sound carries a lot to your amphibian room

Amphibians need special attention paid to their housing, because of their sensitivity to pollutants, and to poor water quality generally, and this applies to amphibians on land, as well as in water, since amphibians can absorb pollutants through their skin. Their habitat can deteriorate very fast if it's too small. The first rule is to get as big a tank as you can afford, at least 10 gallons for tree frogs, for example. Ensure that the tank is big enough if you have a group. Though some amphibians can tolerate quite crowded conditions, water quality can deteriorate fast if they are too crowded, and land areas are likely to become foul much faster.

You can divide amphibians up into those that live in trees (arboreal), those that live mainly on land (semi-terrestrial, which tend to come from warmer climates), the semi-aquatic, which spend time in both land and water, and are the most common, and the aquatic, which live in water. Amphibians that come onto land don't drink, but absorb water through their skin, so humidity levels are important. 

Arboreal amphibians, like tree frogs, like to climb, so they need tall tanks, and of course the lid should be secure. You can put sterilized potting compost, bark, and potted plants, and branches in a terrestrial amphibian's tank. Flower pots on their sides can also make good hiding places. Make sure the humidity level is kept high by spraying with tepid water, and give your amphibians a dish of water as well. Leave water you use for spraying or drinking in a dish to stand overnight, to let the chlorine evaporate. You can also buy dechlorinating products. Wash anything you put in the tank, and dry it thoroughly, and be careful about introducing anything that could be contaminated with solvents or detergents.

Semi-aquatic amphibians need access to both water and land. You can divide a tank with plexiglas to create a land and a water area, or ensure that there are enough rocks and small stones for the amphibians to be able to come out of the water onto a land area. Aquarium gravel is easily cleaned, so is suitable for the water area, and water plants can be planted in the gravel. The amphibian has to be able to leave the water area easily using a 'ramp', which you can make from rocks. Either clean the whole tank thoroughly, or keep the land side dry and ensure the water side is kept clean. You can plant your land area as with a terrestrial tank, if you keep this separate from the water area. This type of tank also needs a lid. Semi-terrestrial species need more land area than semi-aquatic amphibians, following the same basic principles.

The last type of amphibians are members of the aquatic species, which need a large aquarium which is wide rather than tall. You can use washed aquarium gravel sloping upwards towards the back, so you see them better. The inhabitants will benefit from aquatic plants, which can be bought bought from aquatic specialists and may need to be replaced regularly.

Amphibians also vary according to how much heat they need. Those that come from temperate climates may not need special heating, if temperatures in your home are similar to those found in their native habitats. Amphibians from tropical and semi-tropical habitats do need additional heating, especially if it gets very cold at night where you live. You can use a submersible aquarium water heater to warm the water. This also raises humidity levels due to evaporation. Lighting can be used to heat land areas, or you can use undertank heating pads, or try heat lamps, but with care, because otherwise heat lamps can roast your amphibians and kill the plants. 

You need both warmer and cooler areas in the tank, so that your amphibians can find the right temperature by moving into the warmer part if they're a bit chilly, and into the cooler part if they feel too hot. Keep your tank out of direct sunlight to prevent overheating, and turn lights off at night, both for cooling, and to mimic natural light patterns. It's usually cooler at night in the wild than it is in the daytime, and you can mimic this in the tank - keeping the light off at night means the temperature drops, and you can keep a check on this with the thermometer to make sure it doesn't drop too far. Reading up on the area where your amphibian comes from will help you judge temperature ranges, both summer and winter, and night-day differences. Amphibians from cold parts of the world hibernate, and those from hot, dry parts of the world may estivate, to escape the sun. Estivation is similar to hiberation, except it happens in summer. Temperature control affects whether or not they do this in captivity.

Lighting is important for many reasons, not just to allow you to see your amphibians. It's important for their body clocks, and nocturnal amphibians can be upset by light at night. The floor of a vivarium should be dark, never lit from below, and shade, rather than shelter is important. Seasonal variations help encourage amphibians to breed. You need to work out the lighting times in the region they came from, remembering that there's less difference in the tropics than in temperate zones, and then set an automatic timer. Use a broad-spectrum light, and make sure your amphibians can't get too near the bulb, using a mesh barrier.

Your amphibians also need some ventilation to prevent the air inside the tank from getting stinky, and help control the proliferation of organisms in the water and land areas. You can use mesh to ensure that climbing amphibians don't escape, or drill holes. Use an aquarium aerator in the water - you just need a simple one with airstone bubling into the water. This helps to keep the water sweet, and helps make the tank more humid. Aquatic and semi-aquatic species also need a water filter, to keep the water clean. Ask at your aquatic store for the correct size and type for the amount of water you need to filter. Tadpoles can be trapped by filters, so you need fine mesh to prevent this happening.

Keeping a vivarium clean is very important to prevent disease, otherwise rotting food and droppings will build up and pose a health risk. Some people use a tray for the dry part of the vivarium, so this can be emptied and refilled.


Generally, amphibians are carnivorous and like to eat live prey. They tend to ignore 'dead food', which can just end up making the water foul. Give as wide a variety of food as possible, and be careful about overfeeding, because of risks from rotting food. Amphibians don't need to be fed every day, being fed as much as they can eat three times a week is enough. Always remove uneaten food. Make sure the food isn't dangerous - carnivores such as dragon fly larvae can kill smaller amphibians, for instance. Some amphibian keepers like to use vitamin and calcium supplements, but these are less necessary if you provide a wide range of food.

You can find food in your garden, and in ponds, so long as you match the size of food to the diner. Water fleas can provide a tasty bite for tiny amphibian larvae, while larger amphibians may be partial to mealworms, earthworms, millipedes and beetles. Tree frogs eat a variety of insects, while salamanders like mealworms, earthworms, aphids, small moths and other insects. Terrestrial amphibians of course will tend to favour insects found out of water such as crickets, while aquatic species tend to catch prey that swims, such as insect larvae and crustaceans, but generally they are quite flexible - if it moves and they can catch it, they eat it!

Toads are especially partial to mealworms and wormy creatures in general. You can offer mealworms to toads and some other amphibians so they associate your hand with food, and are less stressed when you put your hand in the tank.

Tadpoles are usually herbivorous, and can be fed fish food until the start to change, when they can be given small prey, like mosquito larvae. Remove uneaten fish food so it doesn't sink and pollute the water. 


The main ways to prevent health problems are to start out with healthy specimens, provide the right habitat and food, keep the tank clean, be careful about pollutants such as detergents, and ensure that you have the right temperature for the species you keep. Amphibians are prone to fungal infections, and removing uneaten food before it rots helps reduce risks. They can also harbour nematodes, which can make humans ill as well as amphibians, another reason for good hygiene.

Give new specimens peace and quiet at first, since they're likely to be stressed and more likely to injure themselves when you first acquire them. It helps to quarantine new animals for at least a fortnight, and to.have a 'hospital tank' to isolate sick specimens, such as those showing signs of lethargy, bloat, or inflammation. Vets often have little or no experience of treating amphibians, so you may need to phone around to find a good vet, and read up on amphibian ailments yourself, especially if you start to accumulate a lot of specimens.

Amphibians from species that hibernate seem to benefit from this in terms of general health. They will bury themselves out of sight, re-emerging later. Ensure that amphibians have a good weight before letting them hibernate. Check the temperature range you need to provide to encourage different species to hibernate - here again, reading up on the natural environment your amphibian comes from will help you.

Not eating can be a sign of stress or ill health, but most amphibians tend to eat more in summer and autumn, especially if they hibernate, cutting down and then hibernating once the temperature has dropped enough.


Basically, try to handle amphibians as little as possible. You can use a fish net to catch them and transport them short distances. Be very careful they don't fall or jump out of your hands if you do pick them up, or they could be injured. It's safer, where possible, to coax them into a small container, and close the container before taking it out of the tank.

You need to wash your hands if you have to pick them up, both before and after. By washing before, you reduce the chances of anything on your hands damaging the amphibian. By washing after, you help protect yourself against irritants and infections. Check whether the species you handle has a propensity to secrete toxins, and think about wearing surgical gloves. You can transport terrestrial and semi-aquatic amphibians in a box with something damp inside, like moss, while aquatic species can be transported in the same way as fish.


Habitat is an important factor in breeding - you need to recreate a sense of seasons passing to encourage your amphibians to breed. This is done by varying the hours of light you provide to match the light periods in the amphibian's natural environment. Amphibians from hibernating species also breed more freely if they are allowed to hibernate, so it's worth letting them do this just to have the chance to see your specimens through their full life cycle.

Most amphibians don't provide parental care, so the adults should be removed once the eggs have been laid - exceptions include some salamanders, and the Midwife Toad. Tadpoles can stand quite crowded conditions, but they tend to grow less at high densities. Changing the water three or four times a week helps growth, and helps keep the water clean.

Further reading:

  • Arnold, E.N., Burton, J.A. and D.W.Ovenden (1999) Collins Field Guide: Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe, Collins.
  • Bartlett, Richard, and Patricia Bartlett (illustrator) (1996) Frogs, Toads and Treefrogs (A Complete Pet Owner's Manual) Barron's
  • Bartlett, R.D. (1999) Terrarium and Cage Construction and Care, Barron's.
  • Beebee, Trevor and Richard Griffiths (2000) New Naturalist: Reptiles and Amphibians (The New Naturalist) Collins.
  • Davies, Robert and Valerie Davies (1997) The Reptile and Amphibian Problem Solver: Practical and Expert Advice on Keeping Snakes, Lizards, Frogs and Other Reptiles and Amphibians, Tetra Press
  • Gampper, Terry (1998) An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet: Frogs and Toads, Hungry Minds.
  • Griffiths, Richard (1996) The Newts and Salamanders of Europe, A & C Black.
  • Halliday, Tim (Editor), and Kraig Adler (Editor) (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians, Oxford University Press.
  • Hofrichter, Robert (Editor) (2000) Amphibians: The World of Frogs, Toads, Salamanders and Newts, Firefly Books
  • Indiviglio, Frank (1997) Newts & Salamanders (A Complete Pet Owner's Manual) Barron's Educational Series.
  • Kevin M., DVM Wright, Brent R., and DVM Whitaker (2001) Amphibian Medicine and Captive Husbandry, Krieger Publishing Company.
  • Mader, Douglas (1996) Reptile Medicine and Surgery, Saunders.
  • Mattison, Chris (1992) Frogs and Toads of the World, Cassell
  • Mattison, Chris (1993) Keeping and Breeding Amphibians: Caecilians, Newts, Salamanders, Frogs and Toads, Orion.
  • Zug, George, Vitt, Laurie J, and Janalee P. Caldwell (2001) Herpetology: An Introductory Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles, Academic Press.