Tiger Salamanders

Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum, USA
Tiger Salamander. James

Tiger salamanders are strikingly beautiful salamanders that are quite popular as pets. They can be fairly long lived (some estimate as much as 25 years), are large, and usually become quite tame (although they have sensitive skin so they should not be handled).


There are several closely related species of tiger salamanders: Eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), Mexican tiger salamander (Ambystoma velasci).

Subspecies also exist.

Tiger Salamanders in the Wild

Tiger Salamanders have quite a wide range across North America and although they are still quite common, they are protected in some areas due to shrinking habitats. It may be illegal to take them from the wild where you live so I don't recommend going out and catching one. This is a dilemma in the pet community because captive bred tiger salamanders are not widely available since breeding has proven difficult.

Appearance of Tiger Salamanders

Colors of tiger salamanders vary depending on what species or subspecies they are. The basic coloration of tiger salamanders is yellow blotches, spots, or bars against a black background, although patterns and intensity of color vary between the subspecies. Some of these subspecies have a tendency to exhibit neoteny, breeding in the larval form and never undergoing metamorphosis into the adult terrestrial form.

The larval tiger salamanders closely resemble the axolotl (a related salamander that typically reproduces only in the larval form), and are sometimes sold as "water dogs." Another potential source for water dogs is at bait shops where the larvae are sold to fishermen. Tiger salamanders are some of the largest land based salamanders alive.

Housing Tiger Salamanders

The larval stage is entirely aquatic so they can live in an aquarium with six inches of water and some rocks to hide in. They should be kept at 65-70 degree F (18-21 degrees C) but do not exceed 72 degrees. A good water filter is required and aeration with an air stone is recommended. Particular attention must be paid to the water quality, especially ammonia buildup and the pH of the water.

Eventually (this may take months to years) the larva will lose its gills and emerge from the water to take on the adult form. As this occurs, the amount of water in the tank should be gradually reduced and a land area should be provided. Once metamorphosis is complete the salamander can be kept in a terrestrial tank set up. A substrate suitable for burrowing must be provided. Many owners use potting soil (no vermiculite), peat, and bark chips, or sphagnum moss. Anything that can be kept moist and allow burrowing is fine, so gravel is not appropriate. However, keep in mind that due to their size and healthy appetites, tiger salamanders do produce quite a bit of waste so their cages will need frequent cleaning. Do not expect to have a permanent or elaborate set up. Plants, bark pieces, rocks or other hiding places should also be provided (have multiple hiding spots per cage).

A large but shallow dish of water should also be provided to adult salamanders (no more than 1-2 inches deep). Your salamanders might enjoy soaking in the dish and the water will need regular cleaning too. Never use distilled water.

Heating is typically not required as tiger salamanders should be kept at room temperature or slightly below. The enclosure should not be wet but the substrate should be slightly damp. When cleaning the tank, use only very hot water and no detergents. Salamanders have extremely sensitive skin and also absorb chemicals readily through their skin. UV lighting is not required, but a regular light-dark cycle mimicking that of the area they are native to should be maintained with incandescent lighting, preferably on a timer.

Feeding Tiger Salamanders

Tiger salamanders have a healthy appetite and should not be overfed as they will become obese.

 Larva will take aquatic invertebrates such as brine shrimp, insects, small fish, and worms. Adults can be fed a selection of feeder insects such as crickets, earthworms, and wax worms, a selection of wild caught insects (be sure the area they are collected from is not sprayed with pesticides) and they can also be fed the occasional pinkie mouse.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT