How to Care For Fire Bellied Newts - The Critter Depot

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Oriental Fire-Bellied Newts


fire belly newts

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Fire-bellied newts are beautiful because of their colors and patterns.  However, they are a very exotic and unique pet, which means access to good information can be difficult.  Post your questions, and one of our experienced amphibian owners can help you.

A Brief Introduction to fire belly newts

These interesting and attractive salamanders are indigenous to China and Japan. In the wild they are quite numerous, found in large numbers in still ponds and rice paddies with silty bottoms. They thrive best in waters populated by a large number of aquatic plants, and a variety of species.

Fire-Bellied Newts Size and Age

tiny fire belly newt

Chinese newts grow to a size of 3-4 inches, while Japanese newts can be as large as 6 inches, with the females more likely to achieve that size than males. Both varieties can live up to 15 years in captivity with the proper care.

Fire-Bellied Newts are Poisonous

These creatures are mildly poisonous and excrete toxins through their skin. This toxin is the same kind found in puffer fish, that which continues to hospitalize dozens of unwise gourmets every year after consuming ‘fugu’ or globefish.

They are therefore not a good pet to handle and are not advised as a pet if there are small children in the house. The toxin is irritating to the unbroken skin of adults, but could be life threatening to a small child who puts it in their mouth. Even adults may experience numbness and dizziness and shortness of breath if they handle this animal with open scratches, cuts or sores on their hands. This is therefore a pet to be enjoyed visually only.

Japanese and Chinese Fire Bellied newts are some of the most popular amphibians sold in pet stores. In the US these animals are now bred in captivity only for the pet trade. Foreign importation is now illegal, to prevent the spread of Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), a disease decimating salamander populations in other parts of the world. It is a wise law, since one-third of the 655 known species of salamander are found in North America.  So introducing this virulent disease would be an ecological disaster. Fortunately, these newts are fairly easy to breed, and therefore easy to come by without foreign importation. Some breeders will only ship within their own state.  While others will ship outside to destinations not too distant for the animals’ welfare during shipping.

Fire-Bellied Newts Temperament - Not so fired up

These animals are not particularly territorial or aggressive, so if you want a newt herd, you can easily house two breeding pairs in a 20 gallon tank. This makes for better viewing and likelihood of little newts over time. Do not mix species, however, as the differing skin toxins that different species emit may be hazardous to the other specie’s health.

Habitat Design – Water and Land

fire belly newt habitat

Since the larval stage is entirely aquatic, very young Fire Belly newts will need an aquarium with about six inches of water in it and some rocks piled in a way that they can hide in. They should be kept between 65 and 70 degrees. Never allow the water to exceed 72 degrees. A good water filter is required and aeration with an air stone is recommended.

However, this species dislikes currents and prefers still waters, so do not over aerate the water to the point that it is bubbly. As with any aquarium, attention must be paid to the water quality, especially levels of ammonia and the pH. A small corner filter or an under gravel filter are good options.

Reduce Habitat Water at This Age

Newt larva will eventually begin to change. In a process may take 3-4 months, the larva will lose its gills and begin to take on the adult form. During this transitional period when the gills are shrinking and lungs are forming, the newt is referred to an ‘eft’.

In the wild this would be a time when the animal would seek dry land to complete its transition from teenager to adult. As this transformation occurs for your pet, the amount of water in the tank should be reduced or eliminated and a land area should be provided. This area does need to be kept moist, but not sopping.

Create a Terrestrial/Aquatic Tank Set Up at This Age

Once metamorphosis is fully complete, the newt can be kept in a terrestrial/aquatic tank setup.  As an adult it will now spend most of its time in the water, while hauling out onto ‘land’ every so often. This whole transformation is an interesting process to observe and well worth the wait. Adulthood takes 2 years to achieve, so please be patient.

Be Mindful of Water Quality 

Be Cautious With Copper Pipes

A word about water quality. If the keeper resides in an older home with aging copper plumbing, excessive levels of copper may build up in your newt’s aquatic environment. This is particularly dangerous for egg development, breeding these animals, or for efts metamorphing. It’s not great for the adults either, but they are slightly more tolerant.

If the keeper is going to use aged water for replacing old, soiled water in your pet’s tank, it is best to collect that water in the middle of the day instead of first thing in the morning, because copper can leach from pipes into water in unsafe amounts after sitting overnight. Once the pipes have been flushed by ordinary household use, the levels will be lower.

Treat Chlorinated Water

If you are certain that your tap water is reasonably free of heavy metals, then you may either choose to dechlorinate with tablets from your local pet store or to “age” the water. To do this, allow chlorinated water to sit in an open container for 24-48 hours so chlorine can dissipate. If you know that your municipal water source is sanitized with chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, passive aging alone will not be sufficient. Chemical neutralizing additives must be used or the water can be boiled for 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can use bottled spring water.

Experienced keepers advise against distilled water, as it is too sterile and deprives your pet of exposure to much needed minerals it would absorb through its semi-permeable skin. More importantly, the distillation process causes the end product to be less than perfectly neutral in pH. It is slightly acidic in a way that can be very harmful to newts and other amphibians.

Fire-Bellied Newt Substrate

These aquatic newts are almost entirely waterbound, although not 100%. The aquatic substrate for this species may therefore be anything from bare glass to aquarium gravel hiding a filtering system, to Java moss. They aren't going to be picky with the water substrate. 

But they are picky for the chosen substrate for their damp areas.  If gravel is used anywhere it needs to be large, for newts will swallow sand and small gravel bits and become impacted.

Furniture and Plants

Newts love hiding, and enjoy various places in their habitat to do just that. Plants, rocks, drift wood or other hiding places will provide the multiple hiding spots that they will use routinely. It is best to put as many objects into the tank as possible without cluttering the tank.   One or two mostly submerged artificial rocks and a couple of plants that emerge from the water will provide nice land zones.

When choosing plants, it is important to know whether you have a Chinese or a Japanese fire belly, as the Japanese newts can get considerably larger than the other variety, and hence require sturdier plants in their habitat. Hornwort, Anacharis, Java Fern, and Java Moss are all highly recommended by experienced keepers. These plants seem to do well even in cool water, but do require about 3 watts of lighting per tank gallon in order to thrive long term. Special lighting for the newts themselves is not required.

Feeding and Diet

Larval Newts

Because of the various life cycle stages, their diets will vary over the course of their lifetime. For instance, young salamanders will often eat small daphnia or cyclopsen (small microorganisms in pond water). After a few weeks, they will eat larger daphnia, such as Daphnia magna (Russian Red).  An easy and affordable snack for your larval newts, and less gross than store bought mosquito larva.  Daphnia magna can be purchased online for about $20.00 for 10,000. That should hold your tiny little fellas for a while. By the time they are four months old they’ll eat the same food as an adult salamander.

Adult Fire-Bellied Newts Diet

  • brine shrimp
  • bloodworms
  • black worms
  • tubifex worms
  • guppies
  • crayfish
  • ghost shrimp

Adults will enjoy brine shrimp, bloodworms, and black worms on a regular basis. Cut up large worms for juvenile salamanders, as it is difficult for them to eat the full sized treat until they are fully mature. When they get bigger, give whole prey items, be they tubifex worms, earthworms, guppies, ghost shrimp, crayfish, blood worms, black worms etc.

Don’t worry about vegetation for their diets, these are fully carnivorous creatures. They do not eat vegetation in the wild and if you try to force them, and they do eat it, they lack the enzymes for digestion and the food will rot inside them, causing illness.

Frozen Food vs Live Food

Some keepers swear that live food only is the way to go, some have had good luck with freeze-dried, and some prefer frozen treats. The individual newts will definitely have their own preferences, with some willing to eat only live food, and others turning their tiny and adorable little snouts up at this, while scarfing down frozen or freeze-dried offerings like mad. Virtually all keepers agree that live and frozen items retain more nutrition than freeze dried cubes or flakes. Still, freezing can impair retention of certain nutrients that are preserved with freeze-drying, and visa versa. Rotating between live, frozen and freeze dried foods can be the best way to insure maximum nutrition over time.

Not all live foods are as nutritious as formulated foods. Guppies are one of those. For large adult newts that are mad about guppies, some form of supplementation is needed. This can be accomplished by gut loading the guppies, and then the feeding them to the newt. This works quite well for keepers supplying their newts with guppies, ghost shrimp, or even crickets or mealworms.

Gut Load Their Food

To gut load, place the newly purchased feeders in a separate aquarium. This can be as simple as a glass fish bowl, because they aren’t going to be in there long. The beauty of this is that it maintains the cleanliness of your newt’s habitat, while concentrating the nutritious foods you are using for the gut load to a small space where the feeders are sure to find it. Then, let the feeders feed while you monitor how much they are eating.

Really hungry fish or shrimp can eat enough in 15 minutes to serve the purpose, while more finicky feeders may need up to an hour. Don’t let them eat longer than that, or the gut load ingredients will become poo in the feeder’s digestive system, instead of in your newts, causing nutrients to be lost. This is one really handy way to get newts to eat a formulated supplement such as Tetra Reptomin. This is a well-balanced ‘stick’ or linear pellet type of food. Although turtles will lunge at these floating pellets like candy, newts don’t seem to recognize them as food as readily as fish and turtles do. At over $10/lb. wasted food can get expensive, so gut loading feeder fish with just the right amount of this pelleted food is more efficient and economical over time.

Should we Feed them Crickets?

To feed or not to feed crickets…and the answer is, it depends. Most keepers find that trying to get aquatic newts to climb out onto land and chase crickets is a fool’s errand. Worse, if the newt decides to hang out on dry land for a bit and there is no food for the crickets to eat, they will quickly begin chewing on the newts.

Some beginning keepers have lost some very nice animals this way, which is why long time keepers say that crickets are for kids, or in this case, efts. Even then, only small crickets should be offered and if any are left un-eaten, say because they are too-fast or too large, they will need to be removed quickly. If the eft keeper does decide on small pinhead crickets, they will definitely need to be gut loaded first.

The formula below is easy to construct and way cheaper in the long run than a store bought gut load formulation. I really like this formulation because of its dry storage potential. Make it once a year, keep it in a cool dry place and voile! When gutloading a batch of crickets, you can add a couple of fresh sweet potato slices for moisture. One half a cup per 30 crickets should be more than enough. If adding vegetables to the gut load, discard this batch once the feeding is completed and do not add it back into your master batch.

  • 24 pbw whole wheat flour (not self rising)
  • 8 pbw calcium carbonate with vitamin D3 or Reptical
  • 4 pbw brewer's yeast (Not baker's yeast).
  • 3 pbw soy powder
  • 1 pbw paprika (this is to provide beta carotene)

The ‘pbw’ stands for parts by weight, whatever that weight may be. Think of this formula as a table of ratios. For instance, if you begin with 24 tablespoons of whole wheat, you would add 8 tablespoons of calcium carbonate and so forth. So for every unit of whole wheat flour, you would add 1/3 as much of the same unit of calcium powder and so forth. Place your feeder insects onto this feed for 24 hours at least and then release the needed number into your eft’s habitat.

Feeding Frequency

Adult Fire Belly newts will need to be fed two to three times a week. However, the lower the temperature, the less often your pet will need to be fed; if the enclosure is maintained at 60°F (16°C) or less, feeding once a week may be plenty. In the winter months, with shortened day length, these animals often have a decreased appetite anyway, even when the enclosure is maintained at room temperature. Juveniles and efts will need to be fed daily all seasons of the year.

It is not advised to place this animal in a separate feeding area. Handling these guys at all is problematic, due to the nature of their semi-porous skin. Handling them bare handed can be bad for you and them, and latex gloves have their own hazards. Just feed them what they will consume in a couple of hours right in their tank water. Some experimentation with frequency may be needed as they mature. So if a growing newt that was eating daily refuses food one day, don’t panic. Rotate food items, observe the feeding behavior and if every other day or so the newt doesn’t eat but does go after food eagerly on alternate days, then there should be no worries about illnesses or injuries.

Cleaning the Habitat

Cleaning Frequency

Frequent cleaning of the tank is necessary because of the nature of newt poo. Depending on the animal’s diet, the excrement can be ‘turd’ like, or it can be very soft and dissolve easily into the water. The presence of little black flakes means that the animal is eliminating correctly, but in a manner that easily fouls the water. For this reason, never let your pet’s habitat go unsanitized for longer than 2 weeks, even with a decent filter.

Remember, this is a creature that prefers still waters, so your filter must be small, meaning that it will not be high powered with a large capacity. So the tank, furniture, filter, and water must be maintained on a bi-weekly basis at least. Many keepers with fully mature adults in greater numbers than a solitary newt, clean the habitat weekly.

How to Clean

When the time comes to perform this maintenance, be sure to remove any gravel substrate. Soak this base material in a 10% bleach solution for ½ hour, then rinsed thoroughly in dechlorinated water and allowed to air dry for 2 hours. While this takes place, the sides and bottom of the tank can be attended to. For this purpose straight cleaning strength vinegar is fine as long as used in moderation, wiped off thoroughly, rinsed in dechlorinated water, and wiped down again.

Remember, unlike fish and reptiles, an amphibian’s skin is extremely porous and sensitive. They do not drink water, but rather absorb water and sodium directly through the skin. Therefore, you do not want your friend to have to hydrate himself/herself in an acid bath, or the equivalent of lye either. So vinegar must be thoroughly rinsed, and not be allowed to remain in the habitat. Ammonia is a bad call for the same reasons. And don’t forget that sanitized furniture removed from the habitat and sterilized with bleach or vinegar must, must, must be thoroughly rinsed in aged water and also allowed to dry for 2 hours before it re-enters the habitat. It is important that new keepers understand the importance of this additional step in maintaining a sterile, yet pH neutral environment for their newts. After these actions have been performed, the tank can be refilled with aged, spring, or chemically dechlorinated tap water.

Rare Injuries to be Aware of

In captivity, with the right husbandry, newts tend to be rather trouble free. Injuries can result in infections such as mouth rot, but this is rare and easily remedied with antibiotics. Something that is a bit trickier is not poisoning your pets yourself. As mentioned above, an amphibian’s permeable skin makes it vulnerable to all sorts of environmental insults. Most disinfectants are toxic to amphibians, including iodine, chlorhexidine, quaternary ammonium, chlorine and ammonia. Many of these compounds can be absorbed into the material of plastic containers and subsequently leach out, even if no obvious disinfectant is visible, so it is best to use glass or stainless steel to contain them.

When cleaning a habitat, it is important to place your newts in a sterile glass container with a little spring water in it. Should a toxicity response occur in your pet at some point, it may look like reddening or blood spots on the skin, increased mucus production from the skin, hyperactivity or lethargy, difficulty breathing, tremors and convulsions, paralysis, vomiting, and diarrhea. Death may occur in some cases. Further, pesticides and cigarette smoke have both been shown to be toxic to amphibians. It is best to keep your amphibians in smoke free areas.

Mindful care and common sense is all you need to keep your newts entertaining you with their water ballet antics for many years.

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