Keeping Fire Belly Newts as Pets

Japanese Fire Bellied Newt Underwater
Fire belly newt underwater. Chris Mattison/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Fire belly newts are among the most commonly available amphibians in pet shops. Hardy and relatively easy to care for, they are not only a popular choice but also a good choice for the beginning amphibian keeper. 

Fire Belly Newt Appearances

For the purposes of this article, the term fire belly newt will be used to generically refer to newts belonging to the genus Cynops. The Chinese fire belly newt, Cynops orientalis, is the one most commonly found in pet shops (it is also sometimes called the oriental fire belly newt and the dwarf fire belly newt). The other member of this family of newts that have commonly been found in the pet trade is Cynops pyrrhogaster, or the Japanese fire belly newt. Many pet stores incorrectly refer to Japanese fire belly newts as Chinese fire belly newts.

Both the C. orientalis and C. pyrrhogaster newts are dark brown to black over most of their body, except for the brightly contrasting fiery orange-red markings on their belly. In the wild, these markings serve a warning to predators since fire belly newts produce some potent skin toxins and have fairly prominent parotid (poison) glands on the sides of their head.

There are some differences in the size and appearance of the two newts though. C. Pyrrhogaster averages about 3.5 to 5 inches in length, although there have been reports of them reaching 6 inches. This newt has a rough or bumpy appearance to their skin and generally the pattern of the red/orange colored area on the belly is speckled. C. orientalis is a bit smaller at 3-4 inches long and their skin appears smoother. The orange pattern on the belly tends to be more blotchy with orange sometimes being the predominant color on their belly. The only real impact of these differences is that the larger Japanese fire belly newt (C. Pyrrhogaster) needs a little more room and can handle a bit larger prey.

Housing Fire Belly Newts

Housing for fire belly newts is not difficult to provide but a few things should be kept in mind. In the wild, fire belly newts are largely aquatic but they should be provided with a dry land area which they can climb out on to rest and bask (the occasional odd fire belly newt will spend a fair amount of time on land). And while they don't need a huge tank, keep in mind that the larger the volume of water they live in, the less chance there is of toxic waste products building up to a harmful level.

For up to four fire belly newts, a 20-gallon tank should be sufficient. The land area can be provided by sloping gravel up to one end of the tank or sectioning off a land area with Plexiglas set in place with aquarium grade silicone. Rocks, moss, and pieces of bark can be used to make a land area with hiding places if desired. However, for the majority of fire belly newts, a floating island of wood or rocks (which should be fairly smooth to prevent damaging the delicate skin on newt bellies) is sufficient for a land area.​

The bottom of the tank can be lined with smooth gravel, which should be large enough that the newts can not swallow it. Provide lots of plants (the live ones are nicer than plastic and easy to care for, although a fluorescent light fixture with a plant bulb should be provided).

Water for Fire Belly Newts

Filtration should be provided, although strong currents are best avoided. Inside corner filters (the kind powered by air) work well, as they create little current. Internal power filters are also a good choice, as long as they are not too powerful and positioned so as to minimize the current produced. Under-gravel filters are also a good option.

Approximately 1/3 of the volume of water in the tank should be removed and replaced with fresh, de-chlorinated water every 1-2 weeks (depending on the size of the tank and the number of newts it houses, it should be done more often for smaller tanks and larger numbers of newts). A gravel washer is an inexpensive tool available at pet stores that allow the gravel to be gently agitated and cleaned while siphoning off water.

Heat and Lighting for Fire Belly Newts

Fire belly newts do best at cooler temperatures than most people would think. They tolerate room temperature but will be happier at slightly lower temperatures or a bit lower are more ideal. At temperatures around 75 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, fire belly newts will be stressed and susceptible to infections, particularly fungal infections. Keeping your newt's tank in the basement is a good way to maintain lower temperatures. Unless you have air conditioning, keeping the tank cool enough may be more of a concern than providing heat. In hot weather, placing a fan over the tank, or letting ice (made with de-chlorinated water, of course) drip into the tank may be an option if your house temperature is too high for the newts.

Newts should be kept on a regular light/dark cycle - 12 hours of light with 12 hours of dark is probably sufficient if you are providing artificial light or you can simply allow them normal daylight in a well-lit room, as long as their tank isn't in direct sunlight. Newts do not have any special UV requirements but a low watt fluorescent fixture can be used if you have live plants in the tank. Just make sure the newts have a shaded or sheltered area available in the tank.

Feeding Fire Belly Newts

Depending on your newt, you may have to try a variety of food sources before finding that perfect food. Bloodworms (frozen or live) seem to a favorite among newt keepers. These (especially the frozen bloodworms) are quite readily available at pet stores. Fire belly newts may also eat earthworms (chopped), brine shrimp, glass shrimp, daphnia, and freeze-dried tubifex cubes. Floating reptile/amphibian sticks can also be fed, although many newts refuse them. Larger newts, particularly the larger Japanese fire belly newt, may also eat feeder guppies if offered.

Fire belly newts do not have to be fed every day but rather every other day or every three days is often enough. It may take a little experimentation to figure out how much and how often your newt should be fed but you can try to judge this by their growth and body condition (fat or skinny) and whether excess food is being left in the tank (which will cause toxins to build up in the tank).

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT