Poison Dart Frogs

Description and Background

Poison Dart Frogs (Dendrobatidae family) are vibrant but highly toxic, and they range from less than an inch to two and a half inches in body length. The typical lifespan of a poison dart frog is about 4 - 8 years. There are more than one hundred species of poison dart frogs, varying in color and pattern. Color shades vary among frogs within a species. These bright and beautiful colors are warnings to potential predators that the frogs are poisonous. It is the skin that contains the frog’s poison. Scientists believe that the frogs gain their poison from a specific arthropod and other insects that they eat in the wild. Captive poison dart frogs are not poisonous since they do not have the same diet as they do in the wild. Several species of non-poisonous frogs evolved with similar coloring to avoid being eaten. Scientists believe that the reticulated pattern of the frogs allows them to camouflage in the woods. Poison dart frogs live in the rainforests of Central and South America, and they can also be found on a few Hawaiian Islands. Some poison dart frogs are endangered due to habitat loss, which is causing numbers to decline among many species. Poison dart frogs, also called poison arrow frogs, are so named because some American tribes have used their secretion to poison their darts. Not all arrow frogs are deadly, and there are only three species that are extremely dangerous to humans. The most deadly species to humans is the golden poison arrow frog.


When housing your poison dart frogs, it is best to provide as much space as possible because they tend to be territorial. It can be as simple as a small 10 gallon terrarium with some soil, water dish and plant clippings. You may also make it as elaborate as a 100 gallon terrarium with automatic misters, timed lighting, and multiple kinds of exotic plants. You can happily house 5 to 6 juvenile frogs (6 months and under) in a 10 gallon terrarium. If housing groups of adult frogs together, you must provide a very spacious terrarium with multiple hides and breeding spots because they will fight if not given good enough space.

Temperature, Heating, Lighting

Most poison dart frogs do well in temperatures ranging from 74 - 82 ºF (23 - 28 ºC) during the day, with a drop of around 70 ºF (21 ºC) at night. Heating the tanks should not be a problem. Testing the wattage of bulbs should be done before placing the frogs in the cage if using a small cage. During the cooler months, a heat pad may be stuck to the sides or back of the terrarium to provide enough heat for the frogs. Special lighting is not needed for the frogs but will be beneficial to any live plants that may be growing in the terrarium. This will be easy to incorporate in since most reptile lightbulbs now have UVB in them as well, such as the Exo Terro Repti-Glo 2.0, which would be perfect for the tank.


Humidity is extremely important in poison dart frogs. For almost all species, a humidity of at least 70% is required. It should never really drop below 50% and the humidity should reach 90 - 100% a few times a day. To accomplish this, you must restrict ventilation and mist the tank daily. These frogs do not need ventilation. Opening the lid to the enclosure every few days or so will be enough for the frogs. With this being said, screen tops are just not an option. Glass lids always have to be used in order to keep the humidity levels stable. Automatic misting systems work very well to reach the proper humidity levels and should be used if possible. If the humidity is kept at too low of a level, the frogs will often hide from view and stay in the dampest parts of the terrarium. 


Many different mixes and soils have been used over the years, but they have had problems with them holding too much moisture, having unwanted ingredients or they do not last a while. On the top of the base layer a substrate divider should be used. The use of this is to prevent the substrate from settling and sifting down into and clogging the base layer. Hydroton is the best substrate used for creating a false bottom. This is the bottom layer of a poison dart frog vivarium, and it provides a place for excess water, while soaking most of it up as well. ABG (Atlanta Botanical Gardens) Mix is one of the best main substrates for a poison dart frog vivarium. This mix will last for years and grow plants in a humid vivarium. Sphagnum Moss is placed on top of the ABG mix, in order to hold in humidity, and prevent the mix from sticking to the frogs. Leaf litter and Live moss can be used as a final layer in your vivarium.

Diet and Feeding

Poison Dart Frogs are small amphibians so that means they must eat small foods. This also means that they must eat a lot of these small foods. The most common food that these frogs eat are flightless fruit flies. Another staple of the frogs diet are small pinhead crickets. Both can be found in any retail pet store. Other food items that can be used include springtails, termites, rice flower beetles, aphids and small fly larvae. Never catch any of these from the wild because they may have pesticides or disease that would ultimately kill your dart frogs.


Your terrarium can have a pool of running water, automatic misters, or just be manually misted with a hand mister to keep it humid. A full and clean water dish should always be present in the terrarium. This will let the frogs drink if they need to, as well as increase the humidity. Remember to always use either distilled water or use a de-chlorinator to remove any harmful chemicals in your water.


Shedding should never be a problem with these frogs considering the humidity will always be about 70%. They regularly shed their skin every few weeks or so when they are juveniles. As they grow older, shedding happens less frequently but still every 5 - 6 weeks or so. As the frogs shed their skin, they will typically eat it. There is no harm from eating their skin and in fact it contains extra nutrients that may actually be beneficial to them. 

Handling Poison Dart Frogs

Poison Dart Frogs are animals that should be appreciated for their bright colors and patterns, not handled. Their skin is extremely delicate and requires a high moisture level. Without this, they can be easily injured. If handling becomes necessary, perhaps to move it to a new cage or to cleaning, then you must do it with clean hands or with a small delicate net.


Depending on the style you choose for your frogs enclosure, you may not have to clean it at all. If you choose to do a vivarium, which is live plants and soil, then you will never really have to clean anything. The frogs feces becomes the plants food and as long as you keep the frogs and plants healthy, then the vivarium will theoretically self-cleanse. If you choose to use fake plants, which in most cases is not recommended for poison dart frogs, then cleaning will have to be every month. The reason this is not recommended is because handling poison dart frogs should not happen often. Cleaning the cage would require you to handle and move the frogs, which would easily stress them and could potentially harm their delicate skin. But if cleaning is necessary, carefully remove everything from the tank, clean it with a reptile safe cleaner, and then replace everything once a month.


Poison Dart Frogs typically live a long and disease-free life, but there have been some known issues that you may encounter in the future, these are:

Calcium Deficiency: This is the most common problem for frogs and it is mainly caused from lack of supplementation on their foods. The insects that they eat do not have proper calcium levels and the frogs bodies use up calcium to digest the insects so a calcium supplement is absolutely necessary to ensure a happy and healthy life for the frogs. Signs that your frog may have a calcium deficiency would be hind leg paralysis, or frequent leg spasms. Curing this is extremely hard but a great way of doing this is to try and make a thick paste of calcium from a reptile supplement like Repti-Cal, and try and put it in the frogs mouth. 

Dropsy: This is most likely caused from a metabolism disorder, due to improper diet and/or bad climatic maintenance. Dropsy appears as bloating around the abdominal area of your frogs or tadpoles. The treatments are extremely risky, since they involve puncturing the wounds if they aren't near the eye. Best advice that can be given for this health issue is to just consult a specialist and see what they recommend. 

Fungal Infections: This is mainly seen on froglets or tadpoles because of the large amount of water they are kept in. It is noticeable because you will see blotches of red on soft white skin tissue. The best method to fix this problem is to immerse the animal in a 2% solution of malachite green or mercurochrome for 5 minutes every 24 hours for 3 days. If the symptoms do not get better, please seek a vets advice.

Redleg: This disease is widely known but also widely confused with poison dart frogs due to the variety of colorations the frogs have on their body. There are many species of frogs that have red coloration on their legs and belly which causes confusion and panic in their owner. Basically, if your frog has never had red in their legs or underbelly, or any part of their body for that matter, and you notice red there now, it may be redleg. This is a lethal disease and the first thing to do should be to isolate this frog and consult a vet immediately! Treatment is possible if caught early enough. After dealing with the frog, you must clean your entire tank to ensure it has not spread to any other frogs.

Skin abrasions or cuts: This happens more often than someone would think because the frogs tend to be jumpy sometimes from lack of being handled. Most cuts are small but they can be pretty lethal if not treated for bacterial infection due to the high humidity. There aren't many ways of fixing the cuts without consulting a vet. That would be your best bet in this situation.

Spring Disease: Caused by Bacterium ranicida, this lethal disease occurs in certain temperate species during breeding season. Symptoms include continuous yawning, lethargy and skin discoloration. Apparently, there isn't any reliable treatment for this disease, though experimentation with antibiotics may be worthwhile. Consult your vet.

Breeding Poison Dart Frogs

Breeding poison dart frogs is very rewarding and at the same time made very simple. The first step to breeding these frogs is to make sure you have a sexed pair. This can be done right around 10 months to a year old. If you are buying your frogs when they are young, it would be wise to buy 5 or 6 of them, to make sure you have at least one of each sex. The next step is to make sure you have a setup that will induce breeding between your frogs. A few things you want to include in the tank is to have it heavily planted, very high humidity, and multiple breeding spots. Having a lot of plants will make the frogs feel safe and at rest. The high humidity is required for normal keeping but is a must if you are planning to breed properly. Finally, having multiple breeding spots is also required because having a single breeding spot may reduce the chances you have of ever making your frogs want to breed. If the only spot you give them is out in the open and not suitable to their liking, then they simply will not breed. A petri dish under a cocohut is a perfect breeding spot for larger frogs and a film canister is a great spot for smaller frogs. After giving them all the requirements, you must then trick them into thinking it is the wet season so they can naturally go into breeding mode. This can easily be done by misting lightly once every other day for 2 weeks and then following that by misting heavily twice a day for the next 2 weeks. Also, you should feed lightly for the first 2 weeks and then feed heavier for the last 2 weeks. The best indicator of a healthy and successful breeding season is the health of your froglets. If you get healthy and fat froglets from the beginning, there should be no complications down the road when you go to breed your adult frogs.

Sex Determination

It is complicated to properly determine the sex of the poison dart frogs. However, there are a couple of ways that you may be able to tell, such as the size. When your poison dart frogs are fully grown, the males are significantly smaller than the females. Female and male frogs have a different body shape as well. Male frogs tend to have a more flattened body, particularly when they are walking. Females have a much deeper and wider body shape, but this aspect of their appearance is emphasized when they are sitting still in an upright position. There is a difference in size and shape of the toes on the front feet of males and females. In the male frog, the pad at the end of the toe is widened and more flat, where as the tip of the toe on a female is more narrow. Female frogs will fight with other female frogs whereas males will court with females. Courting is the mating dance of poison dart frogs. Also, male frogs will sometimes attack other males in adequate space is not given.

Tadpole and Froglet Care

Care for poison dart frog tadpoles and froglets is actually quite complicated but can be made very easy once the entire process is understood. It requires a large number of containers and products that can be bought at most pet and health food stores. Tadpoles require much more attention than froglets because tadpoles live completely in water for about the first 6 weeks of their lives. This requires constant water changing and stabilizing water quality and temperature. Using small sandwich containers filled with distilled water will be a great home for up to 2 tadpoles. After about 6 weeks, the tadpoles will begin to sprout legs, so you must transfer the "frogpoles" from a water filled container to a similar sized sandwich container tilted approximately 30 degrees with it filled 1/4 of the way with distilled water. The other part of the sandwich container should have moistened peat moss in it if the froglets want to get out of the water. After about 4 - 6 more weeks, the froglets tail will almost be nonexistent and this will be the time to transfer them to their mini frog enclosure. Normally a small shoebox should be used to house them because it is small and dark enough to make the froglets feel safe. Small food, usually flightless fruit flies and pinhead crickets, dusted with 1 part Repti-Cal and Herptivite, are used and fed 1 - 2 dozen are fed twice a day. Young frogs can and will eat a large quantity of the insects but can go a few days without food if they are well fed. 

Recommended Item Checklist

Small sweater box (up to 2 juvenile froglets per box)

10 - 20 gallon aquarium (for older frogs)

Glass lid to fit the glass aquarium

Hardwood bark mulch/Paper towels (for sweater box)

Gravel (for aquarium setup)

Non-toxic plants (Pothos, Philodendron, Ficus, Dracaena, etc...)

Bark hides

Lighting fixture

Lights (25 - 50 watt bulbs)

Food source (Flightless fruit flies, pinhead crickets)

Small water dish



Spray bottle


Digital Thermometer

Digital Hydrometer

Backgrounds (even on sides to keep darkness in)

Ledges (can be built with styrofoam and work well)

Water features (ponds, waterfalls, etc...)