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Poison Dart Frog Care Guide - The Critter Depot

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Table of Contents

Poison Dart Frog Care Guide

 poison dart frog care guide

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

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Poison Dart Frog Basics

Are they Really Poisonous?

“You are what you eat” is the common aphorism. Nothing could be more true about the poison dart frog. Weird biological science has demonstrated over and over that there is nothing inherently poisonous about any member of various dart frog species. In fact, in captivity, you can’t even get them to be poisonous! Further, if you were to capture a fairly lethal frog in the wild, bring it home with you and feed it crickets and wingless fruit flies for a few months, this animal will no longer be poisonous either.

Diet Matters

Poison dart frogs exude compounds onto their skin which are derived solely from their diets. This compound works to instantly interfere with the electrical impulses traveling between ganglia (the ends of nerve cells). The result is instant paralysis for any predator smaller than an jaguar.

Columbian Golden Poison Dart Frog - The Deadliest

Strangely enough, some species are not considered particularly useful by the indigenous peoples, despite common names such as Anthony’s poison dart frog. This isn't the case with the Colombian golden poison frog, which is the most deadly of all dart frog species. This brilliantly colored creature stores poison in glands under its skin ready to be ejected to the surface when danger threatens. Batrachotoxin, an alkaloid so fast that within moments of skin to skin (or mouth) exposure the predator has died of a heart-attack.  This frog is of great interest to indigenous people. One frog carries enough poison to kill 10 men.

The brilliance of the animal’s coloration is directly proportional to its poisonous properties. It is therefore no coincidence that the day-glow lemon yellow of the Golden Poison Dart Frog (Phyllobates terribilis ) signals from a distance that you mess with them at risk of certain doom.

There are many species and subspecies of dart frogs that are kept as pets. The deadliest of the dart frogs mentioned above is also one of the largest and one of the most popular as a pet. Both sexes can reach about 2 inches from the tip of the snout to the vent with males being slightly smaller than females. Sexing them can be a bit difficult when they are young, but at maturity females tend to have a wider belly and a more robust body shape. Large dart frogs like P. terribilis can live for 10 years or more. 

Illegal Trafficking - Find Domestic Breeders

A word of caution on acquiring a dart frog. These animals are high on the list of illegal wildlife traffickers as a lucrative trade item. They are often shipped by the dozens with no food or water and most die in transit, but enough live to be sold to unwary (or unscrupulous) buyers for several million in profits to the traffickers each year.

Do not be a party to this practice, which is threatening the survival of many of the showier frogs in the wild such as the Golden and the Lehman’s. It may be less convenient to find a domestic breeder but it is safer for you and the frogs and definitely more ethical.

Designing a Habitat fit for a Poison Dart Frog

golden poison dart frog habitat

Because there are so many flavors to choose from, each with slightly different requirements from each other, this article will concern the husbandry of the P. terribilis only (Golden Poison Dart Frog).

Tank Size

The size and active nature of these diurnal frogs is part of their appeal, but also necessitates an appropriately large terrarium.  A pair of adults could be maintained in a 20 gallon terrarium, but bigger is always better.  Since this species is one of the most terrestrial, a horizontal tank is a better choice than a vertical arrangement.  This species can cohabitate with other Golden Poison Dart Frogs.  But if housing a group of 4-5 adults, then enough living space should be provided.  A good size would be 36 inch long by 18 inch wide, and 24 inch high.

Natural Vivarium

Most experienced keepers and breeders recommend housing your P. terribilis in a naturalistic vivarium. A naturalistic vivarium is an aquarium that has been designed to create a miniature, virtually self-contained and complete ecosystem. In this ecosystem, there are plants, soil, and a drainage layer to keep the soil from becoming completely saturated.

A naturalistic vivarium creates a balance in which the animal’s waste is used by the plants after being processed by tiny insects known as detrivores (creatures that eat garbage). Once established, the only inputs needed are adding food items for the frogs and the only maintenance is cutting plants back as they grow. No removal of waste and/or tank cleaning is necessary, making both the frogs and the keeper cheerier.

One Frog per 5 to 10 Gallons of Tank Space

It is wise to determine how many frogs you wish to maintain before you purchase the habitat. A good rule of thumb is one frog per five to ten gallons of tank space. Go as big as your budget will allow. Giving your frogs as much space as possible leads to healthier frogs, bolder frogs (you’ll see them more in a bigger tank), and allows you more options when designing the terrarium. That is why deciding on how many goldens in advance is advantageous. Be advised not to mix species, it will not go well. This species can be kept singly, in pairs or in groups. When young frogs reach sexual maturity, at around a year old, they are best kept in a pair, however, if the enclosure is large enough a group may peacefully co-exist with each other.


Bioactive terrariums (naturalistic vivariums) are the preferred approach to maintaining dart frogs by many, if not most, keepers.  These animals need a lot of humidity. Bearing that in mind, a new keeper should design the habitat with 2-3 inches of drainage material at the bottom of the tank. 

A new keeper can purchase a product such as the Exo Terra Bio Drain Terrarium Draining Reptile Substrate or they can purchase pea gravel, hydroton (an artificial clay pellet used in hydroponics), or Featherlite, a pumice like artificial rock specifically intended for use as a base layer in damp terrariums.  

Water will drain through the upper, organic layer of substrate and collect in the bottom layer.  Cover the drainage layer with a piece of fine mesh screening that will not rust, such as fiberglass screen.  On top of this place 6-8 inches of organic substrate.  Orchid mix mixed with sphagnum moss can be used, provided it is free of artificial additives and perlite.  Top this with a layer of terrarium appropriate leaf litter. Live oak leaves are the most popular, but magnolia leaves and sea grape leaves are popular as well.

Furniture and Plants

golden poison dart frog substrate

Most tropical plants can be planted right on top of the screening for the drainage level of the substrate. The roots will go through the screen eventually, lending additional support to the plant. If you decide to remove the plant for some reason, bear this in mind in order to avoid ripping out more of the substrate than you intended. 

Popular plant choices include:

  • Begonias
  • Philodendron sp.
  • Pothos
  • Ficus sp.
  • Pepperomia sp.
  • Hoya sp.

and a number of attractive tropical mosses. Small Bromeliads for decorative purposes are sometimes used, but many keepers avoid them because they are prone to rot if kept constantly wet. If they are used, the keeper needs to be prepared to replace them frequently.

Floating Crystalwort (Riccia fluitans), is a favorite of P. terribilis keepers as a carpet forming plant. As long as it is kept moist it will grow like a weed and the frogs love it.


Dart frogs require a high level of humidity (at least 70%).  Unlike many amphibians, they do not easily suffer from respiratory problems, so restricting the airflow will not harm them if that is what is needed to keep the humidity up. Misting at least twice a day with dechlorinated water is critical.  So for many keepers using an automatic misters or reptile foggers is the most convenient way to go.


Despite being a deeply tropical creature, terribilis does well at relatively low temperatures (for a dart frog).  A daytime range of 65-75 °F is appropriate, followed by a slight drop at night to as low as 60 °F. 

This species does not tolerate temperatures in excess of 80 °F. Therefore, as long as your household ambient temperature is within the comfort zone for humans, no further heating is necessary. If the house gets hot in the summer, a fan blowing on the glass sides of a terrarium can help to whisk away a couple of degrees of excess heat, acting like a swamp cooler.

However, until a keeper knows that this system is working well, a laser thermometer to take the temperature in at least 3 spots within the habitat is highly recommended.


Lighting is needed primarily for the plants in the habitat, not the frogs.  Frogs fulfill their Vitamin-D3 requirements from their diet rather than sunlight.  Be sure that the lighting chosen, such as a ‘growlight’ with both fluorescent and incandescent bulbs, is suspended at the proper height to benefit the plants but not raise the temperature of the enclosure.

Be advised that new bulbs can be hotter than the old ones, so use that digital laser thermometer several times a day after bulb replacement or do what many keepers do, elevate the ballast/hood at least 6 inches higher than it was, and slowly lower it to the desired position over the course of the next 30 days. A day/night period of 12 hours on and 12 hours off is recommended for tropical frogs which can be managed by herp lighting timers, or by the keeper if one has a very standardized schedule.

Golden Poison Dart Frog Food

Unlike some of their cousins, these frogs prefer larger foods than springtails (Collembola) and small fruit flies.  Young frogs may need to be supplied with Drosophila hydei until maturity. This is one of the larger species of commonly cultured flightless fruit flies and makes an ideal staple food for juveniles. 

You needn’t be afraid of a fruit fly infestation in your home if you choose to raise this food source yourself. Hydei is one of the most commonly cultured fruit flies for Dart Frogs for a several reasons. Because they are a little larger than some other species they provide more protein per feeding. They cannot mate with the common fruit fly, and do not possess the ability of flight during the summer months.

They do possess wings, but inadequate flight muscles to power those wings (and you gotta wonder how these things survived natural selection). They take about 3 weeks to achieve feeding size. They are a little more susceptible to population crashes due to crowding and summer heat, so keeping them at a temperature comfortable for your terribilis may be the best approach.

Flies can be fed to adults every other day, while juveniles will need to be fed daily. The flies should be dusted with an amphibian vitamin and mineral supplements at least twice a week in order to meet the nutritional requirements of these frogs. 

For variety, you can treat your adult terribilis by offering:

Crickets should be no more than 5mm in size. Some frogs may not like them because of their tough exoskeleton, but some don’t seem to mind.  Do not feed crickets that are too large for your terribilis to easily consume. Smaller than the width of the frog’s head is a good standard. Also, don’t feed too many at a time, as they may be able to elude the frogs and eventually grow to full size. It is recommended to remove crickets if you notice them surviving and growing larger in the vivarium. Experienced frog and lizard keepers often raise crickets at home, but if this not your thing you can purchase them online. As with any insect fodder, it is recommended that you gut load’ your crickets prior to presenting them to your frog.

Gut loading means placing the feeder insects on an enriched diet for at least 24 hours prior to being offered to your frogs. This enhances the nutritional value of the insects substantially. A purchased supplement such as those offered by reptile hobby stores is easily available and affordable. The convenience of a dry gut load diet, purchased from a pet supply house, is undeniable. However, many experienced breeders and keepers have found these products inadequate, so for the really persnickety keeper (and you know you should be) the following formula for gut loading your feeder crickets or waxworms is suggested.

  • 24 pbw whole wheat flour (not self rising)
  • 8 pbw calcium carbonate with vitamin D3
  • 4 pbw brewer's yeast (Not baker's yeast).
  • 3 pbw soy powder
  • 1 pbw paprika (this is to provide beta carotene)
  • ½ small raw potato for moisture

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 and then release a couple into your herp’s habitat. Replace the potato half every week or so. When greens or shredded carrots are on hand, you can offer those to the crickets, but do not leave this items in with your gut load base longer and 2-3 days, or the decomposing vegetable matter (particularly greens) can contaminate the entire gut load base, causing you to have to throw it out for your pet’s safety.

In addition to gut loading insect offerings before feeding your frog/frogs, most keepers also dust them with a commercial supplement such as Repashy Calcium Plus, Rep-Cal Calcium with D3, and Rep-Cal Herptivite. Dusting every other feeding seems to be adequate to keep frogs in perfect health.

The most effective way to feed this species is to place a small amount of the food item in the habitat and check the next day for any remaining food items. If there are still some food items left in the enclosure for the frogs, then do not feed them. If there are none left in the vivarium, then it is best to feed the frogs again.

If the owner’s aim is breeding, then a sort of false brumation needs to be instigated prior to breeding season. Reducing feedings by half will slow or stop your dart frogs from initiating breeding behaviors, while still allowing females to stock up on fat soluble vitamins and other nutrients soon to be depleted by egg laying. After several weeks, resume normal feeding. Larger clutches and healthier offspring can be achieved by cycling breeder in this fashion.

Health and Disease Prevention

Do Not Handle

It is important to note that these frogs should not be picked up and handled.  When you need to move them, use a clean tub with a lid and gently coax them into it.  You can easily crush these delicate frogs with your fingers.  If there is a valid reason that you need to touch them, wear nitrile gloves.  This will protect the frog from anything you may have on your skin.

Common Disorders

Spindly leg

This is a musculoskeletal disease similar to metabolic bone disease. Although poorly understood by scientists for years, an international team has discovered likely culprits that effect captive bred tadpoles. In 2018, they published a paper indicating that poor water quality combined with over-feeding of tadpoles increased the likelihood of the expression of this illness in adult frogs by 80%. The solution seemed to be daily rinsing of the tadpole ‘pond’ (and for a species of this size a petri dish is the usual pond) at least every 3 days.

Using tap water increased the likelihood of expression of the disease as well, so the researchers concluded that successfully preventing this disorder means careful husbandry in the tadpole stage with managed feeding and flushing the ‘pond’ with reverse osmosis treated water frequently, and avoiding tap water altogether.

If the pet keeper purchased adults or juveniles, then a standardized healthy diet such as that described above should be sufficient to prevent this disease. The keeper/breeder, however, needs to be aware of the measures needed to prevent the adults from eventually collapsing on their front legs.

Short tongue

Also known as Hypovitaminosis A (science speak for too little vitamin A in the animal’s diet). This disease of nutritional deficiency doesn’t actually shorten the tongue, but it can affect the tongue’s sticky surface. Insufficient vitamin A levels create a condition called squamous metaplasia, which results in the animal’s inability to produce proper sticky mucus on the tongue. The reduced mucus can make it more difficult for the frog to snag prey items, which eventually results in overall malnutrition and even starvation.

In addition to the effects on the tongue, hypovitaminosis A can cause conjunctivitis (swelling) around the eyes. Kidneys and bladder may also be affected. Treatment involves immediate supplementation with vitamin A. Dosage needs to be administered with a veterinarian’s guidance, as too much Vitamin A too quickly can be toxic.

Chytrid fungus

This pathogen infests the skin of amphibians the world over. The fungal spores were widely spread by the pet trade at the beginning of the 20th century and are now found globally, in many cases decimating, frogs, toads, and salamanders on all continents and Australia. When the spores infiltrate the frogs skin surface, a number of physiological functions are impacted.

Amphibians use their skin to drink water, take in respiratory gases, and to balance electrolytes. Fungus-afflicted frogs eventually die of cardiac arrest. This disease has no known cure at this time, although some species are naturally resistant. Poison dart frogs are not one of them. This is yet another very important reason not to acquire wild caught adult frogs, as the chances of them being infected with this horrific and highly contagious disease are excellent.

If you are a collector and have amphibians other than dart frogs, you place their health at risk as well.

Common sense and ethical practices in acquiring, raising, and breeding these lovely creatures can provide a keeper with years of colorful enjoyment.


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