Throughout the world frogs and toads are frequent garden visitors, and though few stay unless the environment is ideal, some gardeners would like them to, and may even want them as pets. This article is for those gardeners not lucky enough to have perfect environments already to keep a healthy amphibian in their gardens... and for those who might want to try them out indoors.
There are literally thousands and thousands of species of frogs and toads throughout the world but this article will only touch on a few, almost all which are going to be found easily in the USA (either as wild creatures or as common pet store items).The frogs of the world are currently going through a mass extinction, or at least a drastic reduction in numbers, which we still not are sure the causes of.This is a good time to learn how to care for the few amphibians friends we have and learn to provide ideal diets and environments for them so we can avoid being part of the problem.
Golden Toad from Costa Rica, abundant not that long ago but already extinct today (Photo Wikipedia)
Before you make a wild frog or toad a pet, you might check with the legality of having a native species a pet (some states frown on this, though it is weakly policed, particularly with common, non-threatened species like most frogs and toads).Also, it best to read up on your frog or toad- though their basic care may be the same for many frogs, it is not the same for all frogs and toads, and many require unique, or even complex care.Additionally, some species are very fragile and do not make good pets.And some species are very poisonous (most frogs and toads are at least somewhat poisonous, though only if the secretions get in a cut or in mucous membranes).For beginners in the frog and toad pet keeping, it is best to start with easy, relatively non-poisonous and sturdy species.
A common toad (left) can make a pretty good pet (photo Wikipedia); though poison arrow frogs generally do not unless you have some expertise in that area (right)
Indoor Pets:Many frogs can make interesting and fairly easy pets, but none are so easy that one can just ignore them for days on end.There is a commitment that needs to be made before deciding to keep anything as a pet.There are of course moral and ethical issues one may run into when owning any non-domestic species as pets, but those are far beyond the scope of this article.
Some articles on frog care recommend starting with interesting, active species, since most amphibian pets can quickly become boring sitting and occasional eating lumps of tissue.This is particularly true if you are getting a pet frog for someone young.As a veterinarian I cannot tell you how often I see people bringing in their children's pets, still referring to them as their children's pets despite their children having long ago lost complete interest in them, or having left for school etc.If you are getting a pet for your child, realistically, you will be the one most likely to end up taking care of it.Frogs and toads, if kept properly, can live many years, long after the novelty has worn off.The more active and interesting the species, the more likely it will be looked after well.The common Leopard Frog, for instance, not only needs a fairly large tank to do well in (about 50 gal), but quickly becomes a tank fixture and does nothing but eat and sit and hide.It is a durable, tolerant species, but sort of boring as a pet.That does not mean it will necessarily make a bad pet, but likely to eventually succumb to the disinterest of a ‘bad' owner.
Rana pipens, the common Leopard Frog (photo Wikipedia)
African Dwarf Frogs, African Clawed Frogs (unlawful to own in a few states including my own), White's Tree Frog, Green Tree Frog, Fire-bellied Toads, Common Toads, Cuban Tree Frogs and a few other species, are probably the best ones to start with.Unfortunately too many start out with Pixie or Pacman Frogs, which do nothing but sit and eat, or poison arrow frogs with are delicate and need specialized care (and therefore usually end up dying under many inexperienced frog caretakers).
Oriental Firebellied Toad (left)- one of the more interesting and active amphibian pets Photos Wikipedia; Cuban Tree Frog (right) is one of the easier species, too
Frogs and toads can be crudely divided up into three basic types- aquatic, semiaquatic and climbing (tree frogs).Toads are usually terrestrial, but a few species are aquatic (like the firebellied toads).
The only really popular aquatic frog are the African Clawed Frog (ACF) and African Dwarf Frogs (basically like miniature versions of ACFs).These frogs act a bit more like a fish than frogs and the tanks need only contain water, plants, a hiding place and possibly a filter.ACFs are common research frogs specifically because they are so durable and such good breeders... which is why they are unlawful to keep in California and Oregon, two states with a lot of history with non-native introduced species wreaking havoc on their native animal and plant populations.So a little paranoia might be warranted in those states.I think African Dwarf Frogs are not taboo (yet).
African Clawed Frogs (Xenopus laevis) (can get pretty large) Photo Wikipedia
Substrate should be large gravel (too large to ingest- frogs will eat anything they can, including rocks!). Never use wood chips, sand or small gravel. Water should not be too deep (one foot is enough).They need to get oxygen from the air (no gills) so deep tanks can wear them out.Yet they still need a lid as they can occasionally ‘shoot' themselves out of tank without one.
As with all amphibians, they need dechlorinated water (bottled water, treated tap water or tap water that has sat out for 24-48 hours).Filling a frog tank with tap water, with the frogs in it, can easily result in them all dying off.Frogs do not drink (any frogs)- they absorb all their water through their skin, but with the water comes all the other stuff, like impurities, chlorine etc.And so this also means the water needs to be cleaned regularly or their own wastes will make them toxic, too.Change water at least once a week, even if a filtration system is used (few filtration systems can keep up with frog pee and poo).Some filtration systems can stress frogs out (this is theory, not really fact) and some can literally suck them up (this is fact).
African Dwarf Frog (photo Wikipedia)
Water temperature should be mid 60Fs to mid 70Fs (same for most other non-tropical amphibians as well).In most houses this is room temperature so usually no extra heat will need to be provided.
There are many choices when it comes to feeding these- they are easier to feed than most frogs.They eat about anything.Best to pick balanced meals (small fish, earthworms, dog food, Clawed Frog food (yes, it is commercially available), slugs and snails... andthen there are less well balanced foods one can add, too, like brine shrimp, blood worms, wax worms etc.Some move their frogs to a feeding tank since the water can become filthy and disgusting in a short time, and often frogs will defecate soon after eating.And then they can be moved back.
Do not handle these or any frogs much if at all.The oils on your hands (and other things like soaps, chemicals etc.) can be toxic to amphibians.If you need to handle them, wash and rinse your hands well. And wash your hands AFTER handling all amphibians as well- remember most have toxic secretions you don't want in your body any more than they want yours in theirs.
Most frogs are semiaquatic, so a tank with dirt, a pond, some plants, moss and hiding places is a good idea.But not too complex or cleaning it out regularly will quickly get old. Toads are generally terrestrial, but will do well in such a tank, too. The smaller the frog or toad species, the smaller the tank needed.However, many frogs available that fit this description are somewhat larger (like Leopard Frogs and other Rana species, and Bull Frogs) and will need fairly large tanks.Firebellied toads are a bit different from most other toads, also would do well in this sort of tank.But a tank that is a bit more water than dry land is better for these super-active and noisy creatures.Water level should be shallow (several inches deep) for most non-aquatic frogs and toads.This makes things easier to clean, and you will be less apt to get a drowned frog or toad.
European Firebellied Toad photos from Wikipedia
Most of these frogs and toads will eat just about any insect that is not too venomous or poisonous.Some of the larger ones can even be fed small mice (preferably not adult mice unless they are already killed).A variety of food items is recommended, but do not overwhelm or stress out your pets by putting too many food items in at once.This is particularly true if your frog or toad is not feeling well, or simply full, as many insects, particularly crickets, will damage frogs and toads as they just sit there.Feed small amounts at a time and be observant, removing food items that do not seem to interesting to your pet and are potentially injurious (fruit flies and earth worms are usually fairly safe to leave in a while).Most amphibians do not need to be fed daily- two to three times a week will often be sufficient.All dead food and stools need to be cleaned up daily as they will quickly mold or start attracting parasites you do not want in your tank.Keep a lid on your tank at all times, too, just in case (you don't want anything to jump out, nor do you want anything to fly or crawl in).
Leopard Frogs are excellent jumpers and will readily escape an open tank (photo Wikipedia)
Water needs to be changed frequently, particularly for species that use it a lot (less for toads than for most frogs, except firebellied toads should obviously be changed daily).Just as with aquatic frogs, water needs to be non-chlorinated or it could kill your pet.
Frogs need more plants or humidity retaining items in the cage (large ponds, moss perhaps, wetted coconut coir etc.) than do most toads, but hot, dry environments are really not best for any of these, even for more desert species (most of those are nocturnal and come when the humidity rises at night).
I have kept Cricket Frogs in such a set up for years and fed them flightless fruit flies and insects from the yard. I found these fairly entertaining pets. Photo Wikipedia
Lighting for diurnal amphibians should include at least one good UV source.Research these lights well as some are too weak and some are too strong (though most of those quickly get moved off the market).UV lighting is not necessary for nocturnal species.
Poison Arrow frogs are tempting since they are so cute, small and brilliantly colored... but they can be a challenge. Right is a photo of some for sale at local reptile show. Left photo is from Wikipedia
Pixie (South American) and Pacman (South African) Frogs are common large pet store creatures, but slovenly, sluggish eating machines.Don't be fooled by cute little babies- they all grow up to be monsters.These are fascinating looking creatures but do very little other than burrow or sit in shallow water waiting for prey to come along (in other words, for you basically hand feed it, or provide it easy prey).Food consists of large insects, fish and mice even.And both these frogs have large lower teeth-like projections that feel just like teeth when the bite you (usually as you are attempting to hand feed them).These are not good ‘starter pets' as they a bit dangerous, often become obese, and owners tire of them doing nothing.They also poop a lot are require a lot of cleaning.They like it warmer than many other frog species, as do tropical tree frogs (high 70Fs to mid 80Fs).They also need UV light (these are diurnal creatures).
Pixie Frog or South African Bulfrog photo Wikipedia
Baby Pacman Frogs are cute and look easy (left), but they quickly grow into these monsters (right) (photos Wikipedia)
Tree Frogs can have very similar set-ups to terrestrial frogs and toads, and many even like it a bit on the drier side like some toads do.Most Tree Frogs spend most of their time on the walls of the tank and do not move around a whole lot.Tree frogs do not burrow, so one can often get away with Astroturf instead of dirt as a substrate- might make the tank a bit easier to clean up.Upright tanks are recommended over low, wide tanks.Putting in several high hiding places can make the frogs act a bit more ‘natural'.Some tree frogs need more humidity and moisture than others (eg Dumpy Tree frogs and Red-Eyed Tree Frogs like it moister and warmer than many other species).
Australian Tree Frog, aka White's Tree Frog, aka Dumpy Tree Frog- one of the easier species to keep. Photo Wikipedia
Feeding tree frogs is similar to feeding toads and terrestrial frogs, but some tree frogs (particularly Dumpy or White's Tree Frogs) are prone to obesity.So careful with the over-feeding.
Common Tree Frog (left) needs no extra heating and is easy, while the Red-eyed Tree Frog (right) may be beautiful and fascinating, but it needs more heat and humidity and is a bit harder to keep happy in captivity. Both photos Wikipedia
For more on how to take care of indoor frogs, see the link below.
Outdoor Care:this part is pretty much limited to the keeping of native frog and toad species as one would be remiss to try and keep exotic species outdoors where they could escape into the wild and tinker with the ecological balances in your area.
Bull Frog (left)- a common frog found in larger ponds (not a good tank pet, unless you have a really big tank). Spadefoot toad (right) is one I have had personal experience raising in a pond. Photos from Wikipedia
But if you have a pond and want to keep, and possibly breed your own frogs and toads, it is a great way to populate your garden with effective predatory creatures that may help keep your insect numbers down.Both frogs and toads, with some exceptions, lay their eggs in water (some in temporary puddles, some in permanent ponds and streams).If you come across some frog or toad eggs, that is the best life stage to transport to your pond as many frogs and toads are instinctively drawn back to where they were born.Transporting them as tadpoles does not always mean they will come back to your pond and may try to find their birth ponds instead (at least that has been my experience with Leopard Frogs and Spadefoot toads).
Frog eggs (left)- photo Wikipedia; right is shot of tadpoles seen in local Southern California slow stream that is dry most of the year- most likely toad tadpoles
Rana pipens tadpole (left, or above) and Tree frog tadpole (right, or below). Photos Wikipedia
Water needs to be clean but not chlorinated (no tap water).Rainwater, or fresh stream water is best, but clean, standing water is OK as long as it's not too hot (hot water will stress out the tadpoles) or muddy (though many toad tadpoles naturally develop in muddy little temporary ponds).Any kind of toxins or poisons (even from poisonous or resinous plants dropping leaves or needles from above) can wipe out an entire pond of tadpoles (they are ultra sensitive to chemicals at this age).
Great looking pond and ideal for frogs, but not predator proof. Most people do not have yards this large to put such nice ponds in- you can get away with a lot smaller pond and still have plenty of frogs and toads about. Photo Wikipedia
Tadpoles have gills and do not need to come out onto land, or even breathe air initially.This is important to know if you have a lot of natural non-flying predators in your area (raccoons, opossums, turtles, etc.).Putting these frogs in ponds that have steep edges (preferably over two feet deep) will thwart most predators except for water birds from getting to your tadpoles.A center island is great for the developing frogs or toads to start out their terrestrial lives, but eventually you will need to let them out of the pond area from the edges of the pond (use planks if your pond has steep edges).
left is a tadpole that has developed legs- now it will eat insects, too; right is a frog with still some tail. These will spend a lot of their time out of water looking for insect prey and probably no longer eat any vegetation. Photos by Wikipedia
Tadpoles are generally vegetarian, so do not expect them to gobble up your mosquito larvae, at least not until they start to form legs.Until then, they live mostly on algae and pond plants. I have tried to control mosquitoes in ponds with tadpoles and it never worked.It is best to get some ‘companion fish' that feed on mosquito larvae (like mosquito fish, or Blue-Eyes fish).Larger fish may eat your tadpoles, and Goldfish seem to have particularly toxic poop, so are not recommended, either. If your pond is too clean, you will have to grind up green leafy material and provide it too them (careful not to put too much in the pond or it will muck it up). Some tadpoles will eat fish food, but this is not a good sole diet as it is too high in protein for most tadpole species.As soon as they start developing limbs and coming up onto land, they will start to eat insects (and will stop using their gills, so they will absolutely need something to climb out onto or they will drown).Just about any small insects will do.If you have a permanent outdoor pond, it is likely you will already have sufficient insects about to take care of the job.But if not, you will have to provide some, like wingless fruit flies, aphids, small crickets and meal worms etc.
At this point, predators become a problem again, so places to hide are important (boards, leaf litter, plant pots cut in half etc.).
The good thing about raising native species is that they are already designed to deal with winter, hot summers etc.They just need a place to start (your pond) and live (your yard).So your yard has to be a haven for these creatures with lots of moist places (or drier ones for toads), food, hiding places and relatively free of predators (mainly cats, dogs and nocturnal visiting mammals like raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes and snakes).Some attrition is expected, but without the proper environment for them to live and hide in, soon all your ‘pets' will have been eaten or driven off.You will know you have some permanent pets if your frogs or toads lay their eggs in your pond.That is really the ultimate goal with outdoor frog ponds.
Two potential native species (depending on where you live in the US, if you do: Eastern Toad (left) and American Tree Frog (right). Photos from Wikipedia
About Geoff Stein
Veterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.