Amphibians that are kept as pets require proper environmental conditions in order to remain healthy. The most important conditions are water and air temperature. Amphibians do not regulate their body temperature as mammals do, making them very sensitive to climate and temperature. As cold-blooded animals, amphibians regulate their body temperature by shuttling back and forth between different temperatures in their environment. The range of temperatures necessary to maintain health varies between species. Infections and malnutrition are common problems in tropical amphibians kept at less than ideal temperatures. A thermometer and a humidity gauge should be placed in the enclosure so that you can easily monitor the environment. Most amphibians do best at temperatures between 60 to 70°F (16 to 21°C), with humidity at 75 to 80%. However, tropical amphibians may require slightly higher temperatures (75 to 80°F [24 to 27°C]) and humidity (85 to 90%). Your veterinarian or the store where you purchased your amphibian should be able to tell you the appropriate range for your pet.
For most terrestrial amphibians, humidity is also very important. Amphibians require moisture to prevent their bodies from drying out. Aquatic amphibians may be kept in aquariums with appropriate areas for swimming. Even land-dwelling amphibians need a shallow container of water in the enclosure. Moisture may also be provided by incorporating small streams, waterfalls, or ultrasonic humidifiers into enclosures, or by misting frequently with a spray bottle.
An amphibian's skin is semipermeable, meaning the animal can readily absorb water in the environment through the skin. However, this means it can also readily absorb potentially harmful substances. Therefore water must be clean and free of toxins such as chlorine, ammonia, nitrite, pesticides, and heavy metals.
Chlorine can be removed from tap water by placing the water in a barrel and circulating it through a carbon filter for at least 24 hours prior to use. Some municipal water supplies may use chemicals called chloramines for disinfection. Such water must be treated with specific dechlorinating agents, after which the water can be filtered to remove the chlorine and ammonia. Bottled water may or may not be safe for use. Carefully read the label on bottled water. If in doubt, have the water tested for problem chemicals before using it for your amphibian. Basic water quality testing should be done once a week for aquatic amphibians. This includes monitoring the temperature, pH level, hardness, and testing for levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. Aquarium water test kits can be purchased in pet stores and may be used to periodically check basic water quality. Biological filtration provided by external canister filters or undergravel filters helps maintain water quality in aquatic habitats.
Substances that can be used to cover the floor of an enclosure include gravel, soil, sphagnum moss, and mulch. Gravel should be either too large for your pet to swallow or small enough to easily pass in the feces. Soils with chemical additives such as fungicides must not be used. Substances such as untreated hardwood mulches and leaf litter can be used, but cedar and pine mulches contain toxic oils and should be avoided. Some amphibians cannot tolerate low pH and may develop skin irritation if they come into contact with peat moss and sphagnum moss. Heating soils to 200°F (93°C) for 30 minutes is recommended to kill any mites or parasites. Freezing substances below 32°F (0°C) is also effective for removing many infectious organisms.
Amphibians need adequate ventilation (1 to 2 fresh air changes per hour) in order to prevent disease. Aquarium-type enclosures should be fitted with a secure top that contains multiple holes for ventilation. Live plants are recommended for terrestrial amphibians because they purify the air, remove organic wastes in the soil, filter light, generate humidity, and provide hiding and perching places. Aquatic plants replenish oxygen in the water, remove waste, provide hiding places, and are often a source of nutrition for larval amphibians.
Full-spectrum lighting (available at most pet stores) using bulbs that emit biologically active ultraviolet-B light is recommended in order to prevent metabolic bone disease. Bulbs must be changed every 6 to 8 months or according to the manufacturer's specification.
Keeping your amphibian's home clean is important to prevent disease. Food and water should be replaced daily. Uneaten food and waste material should be removed daily. In an established aquatic environment, at least 10% of the water should be changed weekly. Mosses and hardwood mulches provide an excellent home for microorganisms that help clean the environment. For this reason, changing small portions of the bedding or moss material every few weeks as needed is recommended. Bleach (30 milliliters per liter of water) can be used to disinfect tools and housing materials. A minimum of 30 minutes of contact time is recommended. Humidifiers and spray bottles must be disinfected weekly to remove potentially disease-causing bacteria. Disposable gloves should be worn when cleaning an amphibian enclosure to prevent the possible spread of disease.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Brent R. Whitaker, MS, DVM