A Prince of a Pet

While not all bullfrogs make for perfectly dreamy pets, some species are positively charming and easy to keep.



One of the absolute scourges of the exotic pet marketplace is the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus). They come into our shop from a number of sources. They are caught in the wild by families who mistakenly think they would be a neat pet. They are purchased from other shops or mail order houses as tadpoles so that kids can have the experience of seeing the transformation process. They are saved from Asian food markets. They come in from people trying to eradicate them from their backyard ponds. One thing is certain: we don’t buy them for resale.

For one thing, bullfrogs make terrible pets. They are nervous things, and in combination with their amazing distance-jumping, it is nearly impossible to provide them a large enough enclosure. They end up bashing their faces against the glass, achieving a perpetual raw and bleeding snout. Bullfrogs are in no way handle-able, and they will eat nearly every cage cohabitant you introduce.

With clocklike regularity, people give up on them. They either kill them, rehome them with the next unsuspecting kind person or, worse, release them into the wild. All exotics released into non-native habitats either suffer a slow and cruel death, or flourish and displace the native animal that should be there. Like the red eared slider or the marine toad, the bullfrog will not only displace its native equivalent, it will also devastate the local populations of anything it can eat, creating something of an ecological disaster.

There is a fascination with big frogs, and there are several captive-bred species on the market that are charming, easy to keep, and worthy of being considered pets. My favorite is the African burrowing bullfrog (Pyxicephalus adspersus). Other common names include groove-crowned bullfrog, pyxie frog, and Jabba the Hut. (Beware; there are other members of the genus being bred and available in the trade. They are perfectly nice frogs and fine as pets, but they do not achieve the massive proportions of the adspersus.)

The pyxie is a native of the desert regions of Southern Africa, notably the Namib Desert. This of course begs the first question: how the heck does a frog survive the desert? When it is hot and dry, the pyxie burrows several feet into the ground, where it exudes enough slime out of its skin that the slime hardens and forms a sort of shell around the frog. Encapsulated in this shell, the frog estivates—the summertime equivalent of hibernation—for most of the year.

During the desert’s eight-week rainy season, when the entire terrain transforms into a lush, flowered plain, the frogs emerge for what I like to imagine as an eight-week party. They eat, breed and fulfill a year’s worth of life functions in that brief window of opportunity. Eggs are laid, tadpoles hatch and transform into froglets, which eat and grow as much as they can, and then everybody descends into the earth once more to wait another 10 months.

Unlike most other frog species, the pyxies take parenting seriously. Those duties are handled by the males, who not only defend their egg clusters, but also the tadpoles that emerge from them. The tadpoles recognize their fathers by scent and swarm around him for the duration of their time as tadpoles. He in turn protects them from potential predators of any size or stripe, including perfectly innocent waterhole drinkers such as lions. Without hesitation, the father frogs will charge and bite them, and indeed, the lions will move on.

You may be asking yourself at this point: It’s a big frog, sure. But it can intimidate a lion? Exactly how does it manage that? I asked myself that very question, and got my answer once I started working with pyxie frogs. One day, I reached into a bullfrog’s tank to clean it. He had a different idea; thinking I was bringing him a mouse, he lunged and bit me on the thumb. It turns out that, while these frogs do not possess teeth per se, they are equipped with two razor sharp, hook-like projections in the roofs of their mouths. They are large enough, and sharp enough, that one of them went through my thumbnail and nearly through my thumb. Now, that would scare off a lion.

That said, in my experience, pyxies are not typically biters and don’t pose much of a threat as pets. They are relatively easy to set up and maintain. Even a large one will do well in nothing more than a 15-gallon tank, and babies can start out in a goldfish bowl. They want moderate temperatures (about 75 to 85 degrees), damp bedding (I prefer using the New Zealand sphagnum moss), and food. And that’s it.

As for food, I like using a combination of vitamin/calcium-dusted crickets, goldfish and, for older specimens, mice. Many frogs will respond to tease-feeding on the mice, so the problems associated with leaving live mice in with the frogs become moot. A word of caution: because they are movement-inspired feeders, it is tempting both to overfeed them, and to give them diets too rich for the frogs to handle. I like feeding the youngsters some crickets twice a week and a goldfish once a week. Feed in moderation.

If you set up a pyxie like this, and maintain these conditions, you will be keeping them in what I like to call “eternal Spring.” You are sparing them the harsh environmental conditions that they have to deal with in the wild, and giving them a sort of lap of luxury. I have not found this to be problematic to the frogs in any way.

The best part of this is when it comes time for you to go on vacation. Simply fill a tank with loose soil, put the frog inside, put it in your closet, and go on your merry way. The frog will go into estivation. When you get home, remove the frog and return it to its regular home, hydrate the frog, and voila, instant frog.  

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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