The Gateway Herp

Amphibians are remarkably fascinating creatures that are a joy to own and care for. Selling them can be equally rewarding.


Many customers have preconceived notions about herptiles, which make these animals an inherently difficult sell for retailers. While many of these fears or doubts about herps are generally unfounded, convincing uninitiated consumers that reptiles and amphibians can be a great addition to the family can nonetheless be a trying feat.

The list of the great qualities that reptiles possess as family pets is pretty long, but apprehensive customers may be more open to the underdogs of the herptile world: amphibians. Their comparatively diminutive size, simple husbandry requirements and outstanding display potential make amphibians a perfect “gateway” herp.

What Are Amphibians?
Generally speaking, amphibians include frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and a handful of other oddball creatures. More technically they are ectothermic (cold-blooded) vertebrates that have two distinct life stages, that of the larval aquatic stage and the more terrestrially inclined adult stage.

While some amphibian species are notably tricky to keep successfully in captivity, there is no shortage of readily available “pet shop” species that make easy and rewarding charges.

The store’s assortment of species should depend upon the knowledge and experience level of the retailer, as well as that of its customers. If you already have an established customer base of experienced herp keepers, it would behoove you to explore more exotic and sensitive species. Conversely, if you are catering to mainly first-time herp owners, more resilient species, such as fire belly toads, are good options.

Fire belly toads are inexpensive, attractive and personable little frogs. They are hardy and adaptable to a number of setup types. White’s tree frogs, tiger salamanders, and aquatic newts are others that prove equally rewarding both as pets and as inventory. Poison dart frogs, clawed frogs and red-eyed tree frogs are also excellent choices for the seller who wishes to offer just a bit more variety. These species are not, in my opinion, difficult to keep–just slightly less forgiving when it comes to keeper error.

The best way to sell an animal is to display it effectively. Eye-catching displays speak to your customers when you cannot. Properly displaying live animals can, however, be a tricky proposition. Animals hide, poop, and foul their water, all within the course of a day. To compensate, special attention should be paid to how and where amphibians (or any herp, for that matter) are presented in a store.

Put enough cage furnishings in the display to exemplify an appropriate habitat, but not so much that things become crowded. There is a balance to be achieved here, which, unfortunately, only comes with time and experience.

That said, some general rules apply. For example, use products in your display tanks that you also sell. Illuminating enclosures properly is equally important. It can be difficult enough to sell a green frog in a tank filled with green plants. A cage in a poorly illuminated area might as well be empty.

As far as husbandry goes, amphibians differ from more terrestrially inclined herps in a variety of ways. Some differences are quite specific. Others are more general. Compared to most lizards and snakes, amphibians prefer cooler, more moist environments. There are, of course, exceptions, as these animals have adapted to survive in some of the planet’s harshest climates. Most, however, hail from temperate, tropical and sub-tropical climates, and almost always near bodies of water. In captivity, this translates into a lesser need for supplemental heating and the necessity of a large water bowl or even a semi-aquatic habitat. The needs of individual species vary greatly, so research the natural history of captive requirements of the animals you intend to sell.

Most amphibian species commonly kept as pets will accept a wide range of prey, including crickets, mealworms, fruit flies, roaches and even un-weaned mice. They are not very picky about what goes into their mouths, as long as it moves and is small enough to catch. Provide food multiple times a week–how much will depend on the age, size and number of animals in the habitat. Insectivorous herps also require variety and an appropriate calcium/multivitamin supplement.

Amphibians, like fish, are quite sensitive to solutes in water. Some species are hardier than others, but as a rule, all water used for soaking, drinking or enclosure misting should be treated with a product designed specifically to prepare it for herp use. At the very least, water should sit uncovered for 24 hours to allow chlorine concentrations to dissipate before use.

If water quality in your area is a special concern, consider using and recommending bottled spring water for amphibian habitats and water bowls. Never use distilled water, since it can can throw off the osmotic balance between the amphibian and its’ environment, leading to potentially fatal complications.

Make sure to offer a variety of plastic or glass terrariums, as well as substrates, ranging from compressed coconut husk chips to gravel–be sure, however,  to understand their applications.

Many variables will dictate whether  a herp display requires supplemental heat. Stock a few sizes of undertank heating pads, as well as low-wattage heat bulbs and fixtures. Accurate thermometers are a must, and retailers should encourage their use for any amphibian setup.

Cage furnishings run the gamut from simple and utilitarian to extravagant and naturalistic. Offer a variety of product options for hiding, climbing and decorations-the only limitations are shelf space and demand.

Jonathan Rheins is an avid herpeteculturist whose interest in all things reptilian began at an early age. He is a manager at LLLReptile & Supply Co. in Escondido, Calif.

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