Fire-bellied newts are sometimes sold as low-maintenance pets by less-than-scrupulous suppliers. While they are not the most high-maintenance amphibian around, they can’t really be described as super easy. They need a specialized environment and can live for a long time, as much as 30 years in some cases. People with a genuine interest in and commitment to unusual amphibians, however, should not have too many problems.
Two species of fire-bellied newts regularly appear in the pet trade: the Japanese fire-bellied newt (Cynops pyrrhogaster) and the Chinese fire-bellied newt (Cynops orientalis). They are closely related and look very similar. The main differences are that Japanese fire-bellied newts tend to be a little larger and have rougher skin. The care needs of the two species don’t differ much, either. They are both social species and should be kept in pairs or small groups – one newt would become lonely.
Both species need a medium to large aquarium, 20 gallons or larger, with a land area, which you can create by stacking rocks at one end. Aquatic plants improve water quality and provide the newts with places to hide. Also required is a filter and a light. You only need a heater if the tank is in a particularly cold room – these animals like quite cool water. Chinese fire-bellied newts do best at a temperature of about 58 to 68 degrees F, while Japanese fire-bellied newts can tolerate slightly warmer water, but neither does well if temperatures rise above 75 degrees.
Some individuals may accept newt pellets or chunks of shrimp, especially if you jiggle the item around with aquarium tongs. However, many newts only recognize food as being edible if it is alive and moving -- they are not scavengers. Live invertebrate prey also mimics their natural diet more closely. Suitable foods include brine shrimp, bloodworms, maggots, mosquito larvae and slugs. Each food item should be small enough for the newt to swallow easily. Judge how much to feed by how readily the newt grabs his prey. If he’s obviously hungry, feed more or more frequently; if he leaves food, feed less or less often. As a rough guide, three items per newt, three times a week is about right.
Aside from feeding, newt care consists primarily of keeping the tank clean. Use a gravel cleaner and bucket – i.e. the apparatus for cleaning fish tanks – to remove some of the water and any debris two or three times a week. Top off with fresh dechlorinated water. Transfer the newts to a holding container and clean out the entire tank. Empty or remove all the water, scrub the accessories, rinse the gravel and refill with fresh dechlorinated or spring water. Replace the filter media. Allow the water to reach room temperature before returning the newts. A full clean is required one to four times a month, depending on the size of the tank and the number of newts.
Because, like all amphibians, fire-bellied newts should not be handled unless absolutely essential, they don’t make a good pet for small children. Unnecessary handling stresses the newts, exposes them to dangerous skin oils from your hands and exposes you to the possibility of salmonella and skin irritation. If you must touch them, do so with freshly rinsed hands and wash your hands afterward with an antibacterial soap. Preferably, don’t touch them at all; instead coax them into a plastic tub with the aid of a small aquarium net to move them from one place to another.
Fire-bellied newts, like all amphibians, have permeable skin, making them very sensitive to toxins in their environment. Only use dechlorinated water in the tank and never use household cleaning products when preparing the tank or any accessories. If you need to sterilize something, such as a rock, boil it for at least 20 minutes to kill bacteria and other pathogens. You can use an amphibian-safe disinfectant for cleaning, but remember to rinse very thoroughly afterward. Note that these newts are themselves toxic, exuding a poison from their skin, and it is not a good idea for them to share a tank with other species.
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Judith Willson has been writing since 2009, specializing in environmental and scientific topics. She has written content for school websites and worked for a Glasgow newspaper. Willson has a Master of Arts in English from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.