Fire-bellied newts are common pets, but they do possess skin toxins and care is required when handling them. But just how toxic are they?
Please Note: this article is intended for informational purposes only. If you are concerned about exposure you have had to newt toxins, please contact your poison control center or doctor.
In a nutshell, fire-bellied newts (Cynops orientalis and Cynops pyrrhogaster) aren't nearly as toxic as some other newts (such as the rough skinned newt), but they do produce a toxin that is very irritating and can be toxic at sufficient levels.
Many newt species have been found to produce this tetrodotoxin, at varying levels. Despite the presence of this skin toxin, however, fire-bellied newts are quite safe and unlikely to cause you problems as long as you take a few simple precautions.
Newts Should Be Handled with Care
The fire-bellied newt's skin toxin is extremely irritating and can cause an intense burning sensation or numbness. The toxin is not absorbed through your skin, but can be absorbed through open sores or cuts on the skin, the eyes, mucous membranes (lining of the nose, mouth, etc.), and from the digestive tract. Therefore, you should not handle a newt if you have any sores or cuts on your hands, and avoid touching your eyes or mouth after handling a newt. If you did get exposed to newt skin toxins by this route, an intense burning sensation or numbness could result. Within their tanks, the water would dilute the skin toxins so contact with their water is less likely to be a problem, but you should still be careful.
Since the toxin isn't absorbed through skin, washing your hands immediately and thoroughly after doing anything with the newt or its tank (which you should be doing anyway to prevent bacterial contamination) should keep you out of harm's way. Obviously, if you have children you must supervise them around newts to make sure they are careful about these precautions, too (I don't advise letting children handle newts at all).
Of course, newts should never be placed in your mouth or swallowed. This is obvious, but it has happened (there has been at least one case report where a child bit a newt's tail, and a couple of cases where adults swallowed newts after excessive alcohol consumption). Because the toxin is so irritating, swallowing a newt would at least make you violently ill. There has been at least one case of a human death following ingestion of the more toxic rough skinned newt.
Summary of Simple Precautions
- Always wash your hands immediately after handling your newts or putting your hands in their tank.
- Do not touch newts (or their water) if you have open cuts or sores on your hands.
- Be very careful not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth while handling newts or their equipment or water until you have thoroughly washed your hands.
- Keep newts away from your mouth and eyes and don't eat them!
- Carefully supervise children around newts.
While sober people usually don't try to eat newts, the same might not be true for other pets such as cats and dogs, who could become very ill or die if they were to try. Keep other pets safely away from your newts. Also, the skin toxins of newts are a good reason to not mix them with other species in a terrarium.
More About Handling Newts
Newts shouldn't be handled any more than absolutely necessary, as much for their own protection as yours. Oils or other substances such as soap or chemicals on your skin can injure the newt's skin or be absorbed through their skin, and the simple act of handling can damage the delicate skin of a newt. All around, the less handling the better when it comes to newts.
For more technical data on the toxicity of newts, here are a couple of articles: