Tiger Salamander Care Guide
Table of Contents
Introduction to Tiger Salamanders
These friendly and interesting amphibians come in a variety of colors, from bright creamy yellow stripes on a dark brown or black background, to pure blue-gray, and even black with orange spots. Even within races, the variety of colors and markings can be surprising from individual to individual. Some races are made up of populations of aquatic adults that look very similar to their close relative, the axolotlmbystoma mexicanum, but the most popular varieties resemble the more terrestrial Ambystoma tigrinum, which usually sports bright yellow stripes and blotches on a dark background.
Age & Size
They are surprisingly long-lived with proper care and can provide you with an interesting pet for 15-16 years. Although they tend to stay fairly small, some individuals have achieved lengths of 11 inches or more.
Over time, these animals can become surprisingly friendly and tame, including jumping at fingers for food and even following their keeper’s movements in the room from within the terrarium! Although this species does not actually need company, they are not terribly aggressive and can tolerate the presence of another salamander, if you wish to keep two in the same tank.
Larval Tiger salamanders (sold as "water dogs") have external gills and greatly resemble the fully aquatic axolotl. If acquired at this stage of development, a keeper needs to be prepared to provide 2 very different habitats over the course of the animal’s lifetime.
Tiger Salamander Habitat
Since the larval stage is entirely aquatic, very young Tiger salamanders will need an aquarium with about six inches of water in it. And a horizontal, 10 gallon tank will be an ideal size throughout a tiger salamander's lifetime. Blended into the water should be a pile of rocks to act as shelter. 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. As with any aquarium, attention must be paid to the water quality, especially levels and ammonia and the pH.
Eventually (and this process may take months or years) the larva will lose its gills and take on the adult form. As this transformation occurs, the amount of water in the tank should be slowly reduced and a land area should be provided.
Once metamorphosis is fully complete, the salamander can be kept in a terrestrial tank setup. This transformation is an interesting process to observe and well worth the wait.
Salamanders are fossorial animals. This means that they regularly burrow underground. Therefore, a substrate suitable for that behavior must be provided. Many owners use potting soil (no vermiculite), peat, and bark chips, or sphagnum moss. Anything that can be kept moist and allow burrowing is fine, so no sand or gravel.
Many keepers use a high humus content topsoil. If keepers dig us top soil from the outdoors, then it must be baked in the oven at 350 degrees F for ½ hour. This will sterilize the soil, which will help keep your Tiger Salamander happy and healthy. If this is your course of action, consider cooking 2 batches at once for efficiency. Because the soil should be changed every 30 days.
If you don’t want your dwelling smelling like toasted compost, then a commercial product such as Exo Terra plantation soil or Zoo Med Eco Earth may be the ticket. If thoroughly spot cleaned every other day, a deep bedding of 4-5 inches should last a month at least.
Substrate Hydration Requirements
Regardless of the choice of substrate selected, it needs to be moistened at all times with dechlorinated water. Tap water that has been dechlorinated chemically or “aged” is usually fine. To age water, allow chlorinated water to sit in an open container for 24-48 hours so chlorine can dissipate (the exception to the rule is a municipal water source treated with chloramine).
Alternatively you can use bottled spring water. Misting is required only if you do not provide a bathing area. Experienced keepers avoid distilled water, as it is too sterile and deprives this pet of exposure to much needed minerals 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 your pet.
Keep in mind that due to their size and healthy appetites, adult Tiger salamanders produce quite a bit of waste. And nothing can live in its own waste, so the Tiger salamander's habitat will need frequent cleaning. Do not expect to have a permanent or elaborate setup that is not easily sanitized.
Salamanders love hiding, and enjoy various places in their habitat to do just that. Plants, bark pieces, rocks or other hiding places will provide the multiple hiding spots that they will use routinely.
A nice ½ round hide will give your Tiger a place to disappear into the dark for a while. The hide should be a half round of cork or a reptile log. While your Tiger is growing, cork is a nice choice. Although these cannot be sanitized more than about 8 times without falling apart. If you like the look, then just replace it yearly. If you're looking for a more durable hide, then a wood hide made from plastic can be tossed into the dishwasher many times. But you still may need to purchase 2-3 plastic hides throughout the Tiger salamder's lifetime, as they mature and grow larger.
For potted plants, a pothos or two are practical and will help with humidity, while looking nice as well.
Even though these creatures are indigenous to the arid and often hot desert southwestern portion of the US, they have adapted to a specific set of environmental conditions that (against all odds) are aimed at maintaining a body temperature of 65 to 70 degrees F. Therefore they thrive best at cool room temperatures. This more closely resembles the conditions underneath logs, or in my case, horse troughs.
It is unlikely your amphibious friend will need supplemental heating. Also, this species does not need to bask, and direct sunlight is actually harmful. So it is important that the owner does not place your Tiger’s habitat near a window where the sun can turn its enclosure into a solar oven. And it's just as important that the Tiger salamander doesn't get placed in direct sunlight.
Tigers need plenty of humidity, with levels between 70 – 75%. If there is no partial immersion area within the habitat, then monitoring the humidity levels daily is essential. The best way to monitor humidity in the habitat is with a hygrometer. Digital hygrometers work best and are most convenient.
Instead of a shallow water bowl, the required humidity can be achieved by misting the Tiger’s enclosure thoroughly twice daily; once in the morning and once again in the afternoon (for this species once a day is not enough). If the hygrometer shows that levels are still not being reached, just mist a few more times throughout the day. You can use a manual mister if you need to be gone throughout the day. An automatic mister can be purchased for around $70. With a water bowl provided, once a day is enough.
Consistency in misting and frequent monitoring is everything for your Tiger salamander. The humidity, especially during the day for this species, must be within the comfort range mentioned above without creating standing water at the bottom of the habitat (in other word anywhere there is substrate outside of the soaking dish). So, while keeping the relative humidity high, you must also be very careful not to over saturate the substrate with water. This will cause the substrate to rot with the resultant bad effects on your Tiger’s skin and overall health.
Tiger Salamander Diet and Feeding Schedule
This species has excellent eye sight. They will ambush and consume anything that fits in their mouths. Tigers will consume earth worms, crickets, hornworms, silkworms, super worms, waxworms, roaches, night crawlers, and pinkies.
When supplying prey items, it is best to leave worms wriggling in a small, very flat dish or to dangle with forceps. Crickets will provide their own motion and eventually wander into harm’s way. Three to four crickets every other day are not too many for a growing sub-adult and leaving them in the enclosure for a few hours is alright. Just don’t leave uneaten crickets in there for over 6 hours. Also, because this species of amphibian only consumes moving prey, food pellets are not a good source of food. Food pellets are likely to be wasted and make a mess in the habitat.
Dusting & Gut Loading Insects
As with feeding any reptile or amphibian a mostly insect based diet, thought must be given to nutritional supplements. Calcium supplementation should be added to the food weekly and a multivitamin supplement every 2 weeks.
Regular dusting of prey items with a supplement such a ReptiCal is most important for young, fast growing salamanders. Older animals that are closer to adult size need supplements less frequently.
An alternative to dusting gut loading their prey items. “Gut loading” means placing the feeder insects on an enriched diet for at least 24 hours prior to being offered to your Tiger. This enhances the nutritional value of the insects substantially. A purchased supplement such as those offered by reptile hobby stores is easily available, affordable, and convenient. However, many experienced breeders and keepers have found these products inadequate for excellent gut loading. So for the really persnickety keeper (and you should be one) we suggest the following formula for gut loading your feeder crickets or roaches:
- 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)
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 amount into your Tiger’s habitat.
The size of the prey you choose will depend on whether or not the salamander can both swallow and digest it. When in doubt, consider the width of the diner. That is, prey should be no wider than the widest part of the salamander's body. Choosing prey that is too large, if it is actually swallowed, can result in regurgitation at the very least (if you’re lucky). But more severe injuries may include seizures, partial paralysis, gut impactions, and death being unpleasant possibilities as well.
Should I feed Them Pinky Mice?
It is recommended to feed pinkies to adult Tigers only once every 2 or 3 weeks. The reason for feeding pinkies sparingly is that they can contribute to obesity in your salamander. But aside from the pessimism, they are definitely a nutritious food high in calcium.
Should you feed only pinkies and crickets? Not really. Everyone enjoys a change of pace and an older salamander can be offered night crawlers and other worms occasionally. It’s very entertaining to watch a Tiger eat a night crawler, as they slurp them down like a spaghetti noodle while the loose end of the worm thrashes about. The final act is generally a large amount of blinking and gasping as the salamander eases the rest of the prey into its gullet. This is normal, and nothing to be alarmed at, providing that the prey was the correct size in relation to the salamander. Earthworms fresh from the garden can be used even though they harbor nematodes. These worm parasites are harmless for salamanders, who seem to have evolved a resistance to them.
Adult Tiger salamanders 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.
A general guideline is to offer the salamander as much as it will eat in several hours if using a food dish for worms or if allowing prey such as crickets to roam free in the Tiger's enclosure. Remember to remove all uneaten crickets after a few hours, as hungry crickets can bite and potentially harm the salamander if left in the habitat too long.
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. Just feed them what they will consume in a couple of hours right in their habitat, remove the resultant poop, and repeat a couple of days later.
Cleaning & Habitat Sanitation
Frequent spot cleaning of the tank is necessary because of the amount of feces a healthy and well fed adult Tiger salamander can pass. It is highly recommended to remove the pool every other day. When needed, use of forceps may prevent a shy salamander from either being startled and stressed into retreat for a period of time. A gloved hand is fine for a friendlier animal.
- Weekly: Remove and dispose of the top 1 inch of bedding and replace with fresh.
- Bi-weekly: Place dishwasher safe furniture (such as hide and water dish) in the dishwasher every two weeks.
- Monthly: Remove everything, and spritz the habitat interior with 10% bleach solution. If the terrarium is glass, spray sides with vinegar after the bleach has been applied and removed and wipe down for better visibility. Do not use bleach stronger than a 10% solution and do not place your salamander back inside without wiping down all damp areas after it has soaked in bleach for ½ hour. After wiping down, wait another ½ hour, install fresh substrate and reposition the sanitized furniture. Only then should you place your salamander back in. This is one time where a separate container for you salamander is handy. Handle with care with bare hands.
Use Clean Hands
Before grasping your Tiger with bare hands, it is recommended that you thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water. This will eliminate salts and oils that would be harmful to the animal’s skin.
Then, after your initial skin preparation, perform a final rinse with aged tap water or spring water. This will guarantee that no chlorine comes into contact with your Tiger salamander's skin. For this and other applications of water, such as misting, it is important to know about how your domestic water is treated (for well-water, this is not a concern).
Tap water treated with only chlorine ages fine. Any traces of this harmful element off-gas after 24 hours. However, tap water treated with chloramine does not off gas. An additive must be provided to remove the harmful substance. Examples of products that may be used to remove chlorine and chloramine include:
Or, the simplest way is to just keep a gallon jug of store-bought spring water on hand for all purposes. Either way, after you have sanitized your hands and then rinsed again with spring water, rinse one more time with spring water and do not dry your hands. Just shake them off and leave a bit of water on them. Only then should you pick up your Tiger salamander.
A Tupperware box with tight fitting lid with holes poked in it, and a couple of small, thick rumpled terry cloth towels in the bottom will be sufficient temporary home. One method that has proven well is to place one towel snugly flat on the bottom and to tear the other one into ½ strips for a topping. Tiger salamanders will wriggle underneath the strips and on top of the bottom (dampened) towel. This acts as a nice, moist hide for the temporary house.
Replacing aged substrate
As the substrate grows old, soil gnats may populate the moist environment. They are harmless to tiger salamanders. But they may be a nuisance to keepers. So it is recommended to replace substrate once a month to discourage them. One good tip is to let the soil surface of any real potted plants dry out every so often. This helps a great deal with gnat control.
Use Caution When Cleaning with Chemicals
It is important to clean the interior glass, so that the owner may view their Tiger salamander. Cleaning strength vinegar on the glass sides is fine as long as used in moderation. And if used, it will need to be wiped off thoroughly, rinsed with spring water, and wiped down again. And before you can introduce your pet, it's critical to allow the glass sufficient time to dry.
The second rinse is necessary to prevent acidic condensation from dripping down the sides and coming into contact with your Tiger salamander's skin. 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 not be allowed to remain in the habitat. Ammonia is a bad call for similar reasons, as it may make the habitat too basic.
Fish and reptiles do not share this epidermal sensitivity with amphibians, so do not make assumptions in this regard. Any objects removed from the habitat and sterilized with bleach or vinegar must, must, must be thoroughly rinsed in aged water and then 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 salamander.
Salamanders continually exposed to chemicals and acidic conditions may develop fungal infections, lesions, and skin irritation. This can result in listlessness, and loss of appetite at best, death at worst. If this is observed, immediately place your distressed and miserable pet in a shallow dish of room temperature spring water. Leave them in there for at least an hour and put them back in if they crawl out. Then give the habitat a monthly-style cleaning and extra rinsing with spring water, but only wipe down the glass with a sponge (no vinegar at all). But even with these proactive carekeeping tips, it's never a bad idea to find a local veterinarian for further analysis.
Using common sense and good management of your salamander’s diet and surroundings will ensure that your pet stays with you for many years and gets to be a great, big, gorgeously striped, and very friendly beastie.