Tomato Frog Care Guide
Table of Contents
What Are Tomato Frogs?
Round and red, this species is found exclusively in Madagascar along the eastern rainforest belt of the island. Tomato frogs primarily inhabit rainforests and swamp forests, where they prefer slow moving, almost stagnant waterways and ponds. The frogs sold in the pet trade are one of 3 subspecies of Dyscophus. They are sometimes called false tomato frogs or Sambava tomato frogs. These frogs have unique vocalizations that can be heard in the evening and throughout the night when they are most active.
Are Tomato Frogs Good Pets?
As pets they are appealing for their color but are not the easiest of amphibian pets for a beginner because of their environmental needs.
Tomato Frog Size
These frogs are generally sold as juveniles and are generally 1 to 1.5 inches in length. They may not be a bright red yet, but with a proper diet will turn that color as adults. They grow quickly and can reach adult size within a year if fed well.
If you want a really large frog, choose a female. Adult males can reach 2.5 inches, while females can grow as large as 4 inches from snout to vent. Sexual maturity is reached at 2- 2 ½ years of age. Some captive tomato frogs have been reported to live as long as 10 years, but 6 years is the average.
Self Defense - Toxins
When threatened, the Tomato Frog puffs up its body and extends its legs to make itself appear larger than it really is. When further agitated, this frog will secrete a thick white substance that contains toxins and irritants to keep potential predators at bay. This substance is not considered terribly dangerous to humans, but it can cause swelling when skin contact is made. This defense mechanism indicates stress, so try to avoid actions that elicit this response in your frog. If you get this secretion on your hands, wash it off immediately and be sure to not touch your eyes or mouth until your hands have been thoroughly cleaned.
Not Fond of Being Fondled
Tomato frogs do not enjoy being handled. These frogs are secretive creatures, and while adult tomato frogs can become somewhat tame, at best they will only tolerate handling.
So avoid handling your tomato frogs unless it is necessary, such as when you need to remove them in order to clean their terrarium. In fact, the oils and soap residues on human skin can be harmful to tomato frogs.
Wash your hands after handling
If you must handle your frogs, be sure to thoroughly wash and rinse your hands before and after handling the frogs. For those keepers who are concerned about skin inflammation or the effects of human skin oils on a frog, non-powdered vinyl gloves are recommended. Avoid latex gloves, as latex has toxic properties on amphibians and can even kill very young juveniles.
Only keep tomato frogs with other tomato frogs. This will prevent undue predator-prey stress, and possible transmission of diseases or parasites. Keep in mind, too, that the secretions of some frogs are deadly to others, and lastly, that young tomato frogs would make a nice meal for adult tomato frogs. Therefore, keep only tomato frogs of similar ages and sizes together.
Buy from Reputable Tomato Frog Dealers
This species is CITES (Convention for the Importation of Threatened and Endangered Species) Appendix II listed. This designation is more of a tracking system than regulation of exportation. It merely requires that more paperwork be done by the importer, so the odds are still good that your local franchise pet store is offering an infected wild-caught animal for sale.
To prevent further decimation of a species already feeling pressure from agricultural practices and the pet trade, be sure that your tomato came from a reputable domestic breeder. Also, while Madagascar has been mercifully free of the deadly Chytrid fungus historically, recent surveys indicate that there is a detectable presence of this pathogen now. Just another reason to buy from a local source.
Also, be certain of species. Dyscophus antongilli is endangered as a result of deforestation and over-collecting for the pet trade. These types of Tomato frogs are protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix I and are illegal in the pet trade! The two other species of tomato frogs indigenous to Madagascar are D. guineti and D. insularis, neither of which are presently endangered and therefore legal for the pet trade.
If you do acquire a quineti, you will find that they do not get at bright red as the prohibited antongilli. If that is important to you, you may want to find a breeder outside of Madagascar that can sell you that variety legally. There is a hearty online debate as to whether the false tomato frog can be brightened to a true red, rather than orange. Dietary measures that may work will be discussed below.
Tomato Frog Habitat Design
A 10-gallon aquarium can house two adult tomato frogs, but a larger terrarium is advisable to allow the frogs room to explore and distance themselves from each other if desired. These frogs are good burrowers, so the substrate needs to be minimum of 2 inches deep.
Half cut log or cork tunnels will provide a good hide. Sturdy plants such as Pothos can be included, but since tomato frogs burrow, they will probably uproot them at some point. If you choose live plants for their appearance it is best to keep them in a terracotta pot, with the pot buried as well as possible to keep it from being unearthed.
Silk plants may be a better alternative. They will need to be sanitized every so often, but that is not terribly difficult. All it takes is 1 gallon of hot water into a plastic container. Add 1 teaspoon of bleach per gallon. Submerge the plants in the mild bleach water and allow them to soak in it for about an hour. Stir them around in the container occasionally to get the solution into any cracks and crevices. Remove them from the solution and rinse them thoroughly under hot, running water. Then spritz them with dechlorinated water for one final rinse. Let them dry thoroughly before replacing them. This can be done every 3-4 months.
A shallow water dish containing dechlorinated water, of course, may standup to burrowing better than a round bowl placed in the center of the habitat.
This is a somewhat controversial subject among keepers. Lighting is not strictly essential for tomato frogs, but if you wish to grow live plants in your terrarium, you will need a daylight spectrum bulb, such as the fluorescent tubes sold for freshwater aquariums, or a garden seedlings grow-light, and an appropriate lighting fixture.
Many keepers have noticed that a small amount of UVB light brightens the colors of the frog. And since most of the fun of have a tomato frog is that tomato color, then this would be my choice. This frog can not tolerate a great deal of heat, so placing the habitat near a window for direct sunlight to brighten the frog could end up being a fatal mistake. Better to provide low wattage artificial light.
Tomato frogs do best within a very limited temperature range. Many keepers try to keep the ambient temperature at exactly 75 degrees. Some are not so fussy and still report good results at temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. But these high and low end temperatures are absolute. Temperatures exceeding these for more than a few minutes may be the death of your pet. If the ambient temperature in the home tends to fall below 65 degrees during the winter, a thermostatically controlled heat pad, such as the Zoo Med ReptiTherm Under Tank Heater, should be used beneath a section of your tomato frog terrarium. Constant monitoring may be required if the ambient temperature of the home tends to fluctuate wildly.
A good digital thermometer with a temperature probe is crucial for managing the heating regime. Better still; acquire a digital laser thermometer. It is a worthwhile investment and for less than $20, a keeper can take readings from all over the habitat with the push of a button. Be sure to take readings from more than one spot in the habitat, so as not to overlook hot spots (it is more important to identify these than cool spots). Readings should therefore be taken at bottom of the habitat, in the center, at the top and in any areas your frog seems to hang out in quite frequently. Keepers need to remember that the ambient temperature of the room can affect that of the enclosure, so frequent readings are strongly recommended.
Humidity is also a bit controversial among keepers. Some insist that the humidity never falls below 65%, some have reported that 50% is an acceptable low range for a little while. Seventy percent for the majority of the day seems to be a sensible rule of thumb. Higher than 75% invites disease.
A good hygrometer is a valuable tool in effectively managing humidity levels. Humidity should be maintained by misting daily with a mister such as the Exo Terra Mister Portable Pressure Sprayer. A glass lid with some ventilation will help keep humidity up; just be sure there is sufficient ventilation to prevent respiratory disorders from occurring.
And remember, a frog’s skin is permeable to all sorts of environmental insults, such a chlorine, that wouldn’t bother a reptile. Whether misting with warm water from a hand sprayer, or using a machine, the water must be dechlorinated, either by chemical aging or physical aging (allowing the water to sit uncovered for 24 hours before use). Do NOT used distilled water for the mister or the water bowl. Distilled water has no salts or minerals in it and as such messes with the frog’s ability to regulate the water in its cells. This osmotic dysregulation can actually be lethal.
Tomato Frog Diet and Feeding
Tomato frogs will only consume live food. Staples include captive-cultured crickets and night crawlers. Depending on their size, you may have to cut night crawlers in half before offering them to your tomato frogs. For variety they can be offered waxworms, mealworms, Phoenix worms, Reptiworms and fly maggots. These are not nutritionally balanced foods, however, so offer them only occasionally.
How many Crickets per Day?
Young tomato frogs smaller than 2 inches in length should be fed daily (nightly, because is when they will be hunting) whatever they can consume in 24 hours, generally 3-4 crickets or the equivalent. Adult frogs can be fed 6-10 crickets every other day.
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 as Repashy Superfoods Calcium Plus is most important for young, fast growing frogs - older animals that are closer to adult size need supplements less frequently.
A vitamin supplement such as Exo Terra Multi Vitamin Supplement, should also be incorporated into the feeding rotation. Once weekly is adequate. Pinkies can be fed to adult frogs once per week as well. They are a good source of calcium but are fattening, so be careful not to overdo it.
How to Gut Loading Insects
Instead of dusting, many keepers gut load 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 Tomato frog. 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 roaches 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)
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 tomato frog’s habitat.
As mentioned above, there is some controversy as to whether your pet’s colors can be brightened through the addition of carotenoids to its diet. Some keepers say no way, others claim they have done it. Research on this topic shows that most amphibians use carotenoids to good effect for pigmentation when they are juveniles. Other studies conducted on tree frogs and poison dart frogs indicate a correlation between body score and dietary composition and color. In plain English, a healthy well-nourished frog is likely to be brighter in coloration than a malnourished one with a limited diet. Diets high in carotenoids seem to have a variety of beneficial results for most frogs, so you have nothing to lose here. Add ingredients such as red peppers, carrots, and pumpkin to your feeder insect gut load formula and you may find that you do indeed get a brighter appearing frog after several weeks.
How to Clean their Habitat
Frequent cleaning of the tank is necessary because of the prodigious amount of feces tomato frogs can pass. Daily removal of poop on the substrate is highly recommended.
When the time comes to perform this maintenance and the substrate is out, before replacing it with fresh, be sure to remove any gravel or pebble base, if there is one, and sanitize that as well. Unless using a bioactive set-up, a one-inch gravel base provides many useful functions, from preventing the frog from burrowing right down onto the glass adjacent to a heating pad, to providing an air space against compaction of the bedding.
If there are any moisture issues due to over-misting, then this air space can help prevent rot. It will, however, need to be removed entirely on a monthly basis and soaked in a 10% bleach solution for ½ hour, then rinsed thoroughly in dechlorinated water and allowed to air dry for 2 hours. Allow the drying to take place outside of the habitat. Aged tap water should be used in that water bowl when it has been sterilized, rinsed and placed back into the habitat.
Straight cleaning strength vinegar on any glass sides is fine as long as used in moderation, wiped off thoroughly and then the glass allowed to dry and off-gas. 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, no vinegar must be allowed to remain in the habitat. Ammonia is a bad call for the same reasons.
Fish and reptiles do not share this epidermal sensitivity with amphibians, so do not make assumptions in this regard. When you clean the aquarium side of a duo habitat, bear this in mind. 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 frog.
Common Tomato Frog Illnesses
Red Leg Syndrome
“Red-leg” syndrome is a widespread infection seen in frogs, toads, and salamanders. It is recognized by the redness on the underside of the amphibian's legs and abdomen, and is generally due to Aeromonas hydrophila, an opportunistic bacterial pathogen found in contaminated food or water, but it may also be airborne. Underfed, newly acquired amphibians that are kept in poor-quality water or other less-than-ideal environmental conditions are particularly susceptible to “red-leg” syndrome.
The reddening of the amphibian's legs and abdomen is due to the dilatation (or stretching) of the capillaries under its skin. The amphibian may even begin bleeding from the skeletal muscles, tongue or “third eyelid,” a protective skin fold under an amphibian's eyes. Other symptoms that may be observed include:
- Anorexia and inappetence
- Extreme weight loss
- Open sores on the skin, nose, and toes that do not heal
- Ascites (collection of fluid in the abdominal cavity)
The tomato frog’s natural rotundity and naturally red coloration can make detection of this ailment more challenging than with frogs such as the White’s tree frog. Accumulation of fluid in the abdomen in this species is really hard to spot. The red legs may therefore be the first sign an observant owner will detect. Lethargy and weight loss are the next easiest symptoms to detect.
To add to the difficulty in diagnosis, there are a multitude of diseases and conditions that can look like septicemia, which is disease category red leg is classified under, so it is important that you take any ill amphibian to your veterinarian quickly. Call first because oftentimes your veterinarian will ask you to provide water and substrate samples for analysis.
If a physical veterinary exam suggests septicemia, blood or fluid from the stomach for evaluation and culture from an outside laboratory, may be required. Although Aeromonas is the most likely culprit, these symptoms can be caused by viral and fungal agents as well, and effective treatment will depend upon proper identification of the pathogen.
If septicemia resulting in noticeable signs of red leg is confirmed, and the frog lives (for this disease is often fatal) complete tank sanitation will need to be increased to biweekly, for about 6 months. Disposable gloves will be needed during these cleanings. Even after gloves are disposed of, hands should be thoroughly sanitized with soap and water. Hand sanitizer is also a good call, but be advised, it will not be effective if the cause of the septicemia was viral in nature.
The bright orange-red coloration of these adorable critters in contrast with bright green foliage makes for a lovely display, as long one is willing to put in the work to keep this pet comfortable within its narrow environmental parameters and make the effort to keep its habitat quite clean.