Caring for Salamanders
Ranging in length from little more than 1 inch (25mm) to approaching 5ft (1.5m) – and often erroneously thought to be a kind of lizard – salamanders are amphibians, related to frogs, newts and caecilians. While the giants amongst their kind hardly make ideal pets for the average household, the smaller kinds can make great exotic pets and with a little care to keep their quarters clean, they are fairly easy animals to manage. Since most species are between 4-8 inches (10-20cm) long, and they aren’t exactly fleet-footed, you don’t need too much space to accommodate them.
Housing SalamandersLike most species of amphibians, salamanders tend to favour damp, moist surroundings – and are fairly secretive in their largely nocturnal lives. Many spend most of their adult lives on the land, though some kinds are entirely aquatic, while others like to split their time between both. The type of home you need to provide obviously depends on the kind of salamander you’ve picked – so a bit of careful research is called for to make sure your new pets get the sort of housing they need.
Most of the types of salamander offered for sale – such as the various forms of American Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) and the European Fire Salamander ( Salamandra salamandra) – need a relatively cool, moist terrarium setting. Animals such as the Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), Mud Puppy (Necturus maculosus) or Amphiuma (Amphiuma means) – are fully aquatic and will require a suitable aquarium.
Sphagnum moss, bark chippings or potting compost will be a good floor covering for the damp terrarium and remember to provide a few hiding places. Whatever kind you keep, do make sure the lid fits tightly; most species seem remarkably good escape artists.
Heating and HumidityFew of the salamanders sold as exotic pets enjoy temperatures much above 20 degrees C (68F) – and there are kinds, such as the Pyrenean Brook Salamander (Euproctus asper) which demand to be kept at 18 degrees C (65F) or lower.
It’s important not to underestimate the problems with keeping a tank cool – it’s much easier to warm one up, not least because there’s lots of equipment readily available from pet shops designed to do just that. Cold water species should be considered very carefully before purchase – and only bought if you’re sure you can give them the specialist conditions they require. Given the wonderful array of less demanding salamanders, you’ll hardly be spoilt for choice!
Salamanders need to be moist, so you must provide a dish of water for the land-living varieties and mist the tank regularly – but don’t overdo it and make everything too marshy. If mould begins to appear, or the tank starts to smell sour, be prepared to clean it out; salamanders are susceptible to infections by both fungus and bacteria, so cleanliness is essential.
Food and FeedingSalamanders are carnivorous – and since they are generally attracted to their prey by movement, keeping these amphibians means feeding live food. The good news is that most species are very open-minded when it comes to their diet. Depending on their size, between shop-bought foods like small crickets or meal worms and wild-caught items such as earthworms, woodlice and slugs, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty encouraging yours to eat.
However, since most of the world’s salamanders are nocturnal, it’s probably best to feed them at night – and ensure that wherever they live gets a period of proper darkness to make sure that they get the chance to reset their biological clocks each day.
HandlingSalamanders aren’t really candidates for the petting zoo; the heat of human hands is not good for their moist bodies and in addition, since many of them produce toxic defensive skin secretions, their bodies aren’t always too safe for us either!
Many of the species commonly offered for sale have the most amazing patterns which act as camouflage or a warning in the wild, but which make them surprisingly showy and attractive inhabitants in a tank. Beyond their basic needs, salamanders are very undemanding creatures and make an ideal introduction to the world of exotic pets.