National Wildlife Health Center

...advancing wildlife and ecosystem health

Restraint and Handling of Live Amphibians

ARMI SOP No. 100
Revised, 16 February 2001

  1. PURPOSE: Provide guidelines for humane handling of amphibians so that injury and distress to the amphibian are minimized.

  2. SCOPE: These guidelines apply to larvae and tadpoles, as well as adult frogs, toads, salamanders and neotenes. Because of their anatomically different and very delicate skin, tadpoles and larvae must be handled differently than post-metamorphic amphibians.

    1. Standard capture equipment (seine nets, dip nets, minnow traps)
    2. Clear plastic bags (half liter or full liter size)

  4. BACKGROUND: There are three main hazards associated with handling live amphibians: two to the amphibian and one to the handler. To amphibians, the main dangers of being handled are skin damage that could result in secondary skin infections, and bone and muscle injuries caused by struggling when being held. For the handler, the main danger comes from toxic skin secretions produced by some amphibians (in the USA, this is mostly newts and the introduced giant/marine toad).
    Tadpoles and larvae have thin delicate skin that is very easily damaged by the slightest handling. The skin of larvae lacks keratin and has fewer cell layers than adult amphibian skin. Therefore, direct contact handling of tadpoles and larvae is to be avoided; instead, these amphibian stages are examined through clear flexible plastic bags containing water. Although the skin of adult (post-metamorphic) amphibians has keratin and is less delicate than larval skin, their skin is still much more delicate than the skin of reptiles, birds and mammals. Rough handling of adult amphibians can easily result in skin abrasions, small tears, punctures, erosions and ulcers; normally, minor skin wounds heal quickly, but if contaminants, sewage or high levels of microorganisms are present in the pond or other environment, then wound infections are possible.
    Frogs and Toads. All amphibians can be expected to struggle following capture. For anurans, there is a danger that vigorous kicking with the hindlimbs can cause joint dislocations or a broken (fractured) back; broken backs are a well-documented and major problem in another species that moves by hopping---rabbits. Therefore, proper restraint of anurans, first and foremost involves inhibiting their ability to kick.
    Salamanders. For salamanders, there are three major dangers associated with handling: 1) loss (automizing) of the tail, 2) damage to the very delicate external gills (in neotenes), and 3) back injury during whip-like thrashing movements.

    1. Anurans. Medium and large size frogs and toads (those about 5 grams and larger) should be grasped around the waist with the hindlimbs fully extended. The animal should not be allowed to bend (flex) its hip and knee joints, since this would allow it to kick.

    2. Caudates. Medium and large size salamanders (those about 5 grams and larger) should be grasped in the middle of the body between the forelimbs and hindlimbs. Larval and neotenic salamanders should never be grasped around the head or neck, because the gills can be easily damaged. Under no circumstances should salamanders be grasped by the tail or picked up by the tail.

    3. Larvae. All larvae (including tadpoles) should be handled with nets or scoops. For examinations, the larvae should be placed in a clear plastic bag with a mild amount of water. Alternatively, larvae may be sedated with an anesthetic and examined in a dish or bowl of water. As much as possible, larvae should be examined only while they are in water. Larvae should not be grasped with bare hands.

    1. Skin wounds: If an amphibian suffers a skin wound during handling, it is recommended that the wound be sprayed with the over-the-counter product, BactineŽ (See the SOP on Toe Clipping of Frogs and Toads, NWHC ACUC Protocol 2001-004). All other topical antiseptics and disinfectants (sprays and ointments) are CONTRAINDICATED in amphibians. If possible, the animal should then be released on land rather than into water, since the antiseptic spray would be quickly washed off in water.

    2. Broken back: If a frog or toads suffers a broken back during capture or handling, it should be promptly euthanized. It would be inhumane to release such a crippled animal. An animal with a broken back will have serious damage to the spinal cord and should show almost immediate paralysis of the hindlimbs and tail. Recommended methods of humane euthanasia include (see NWHC ACUC Protocol 1999-009, Methods of Euthanasia):
      1. Pithing
      2. Overdosing in anesthetic solutions of MS222 or benzocaine
      3. Application of a benzocaine-based topical ointment (as used by humans to relieve tooth-aches) to the top or the head and dorsum of the body.

    3. Broken leg: If a major bone of a limb is broken during capture or handling, the animal should be euthanized or taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center or veterinarian for treatment. A broken leg bone typically is recognized as an abnormal bend in the leg where there is no joint; other signs of a broken leg bone are protrusion of a bone fragment through the skin, inability of the animal to move a limb or position a leg in its normal resting posture. After treatment, amphibians with broken bones might be given to a zoo or placed in a captive breeding program. Only if the injured amphibian is kept isolated from all other fish, amphibians and reptiles (eg, in a separate cage) during treatment, can it later be considered for release at the point of capture. Injuries to digits (toes and fingers) generally are not life-threatening; if the skin of the injured toe also is wounded, then treatment with BactineŽ prior to immediate release is acceptable. If a toe bone is broken and protruding through the skin, the affected toe may be amputated just proximal to the site of the fracture, the stump should be sprayed with BactineŽ, and the animal may be released.

    4. Automized tail: If a salamander automizes (detaches) its tail during capture or handling, the stump should be treated (sprayed) with BactineŽ; the salamander can then be promptly released.

    5. Crushing injuries to head and body. Amphibians that have serious injuries to skin, muscles and bones should be promptly euthanized. Crushing injuries that are limited to a limb or tail will require treatment at a wildlife rehabilitation center or a veterinary clinic; alternatively, the animal may be euthanized, but it would be inhumane to release a seriously injured amphibian.

    6. Snout abrasions. Amphibians that are held in glass or clear plastic containers may jump head-first into the glass, or may rub their snout against the container in attempts to burrow out. If amphibians are held for more than an hour in a clear container (bottle, aquarium, etc), they should be examined for evidence of skin injury at the tip of the snout and elsewhere around the head prior to release. If abrasions are detected, they should be sprayed with BactineŽ prior to release.

    7. Toxic skin secretions. All amphibians have glands in their skin that secrete a vast number of chemicals; some of which are merely noxious and repellant-like, while others may cause skin or eye irritation, and some may actually kill. The poison-dart frogs of Central America are an example of a frog with toxic secretions that can kill a human. Among the native amphibians of the United States, the two amphibians of greatest concern are giant toads (also called cane toads, marine toads, aga toads; Bufo marinus) and western newts of the genus, Taricha.
      Giant toads secrete a potent white mucoid substance from their parotid glands (large warts just behind the eyes) that affects the heart, but it is not absorbed through the intact human skin; however, the toxin is readily absorbed through the eyes and mouth. Hence, the best way to prevent poisoning is to carefully avoid rubbing the eyes or putting fingers in the mouth after handling a giant toad. If skin secretions of giant toads contact the eye or mouth, then flush promptly with generous amounts of clean fresh water or contact lens wetting solution, and then seek emergency care at a clinic or hospital if stinging or numbness of the eye or mouth develops.
      Newts of the genus, Taricha, also secrete toxins from their skin; it is presumed that the entire body of these newts secretes toxins (newts and other salamanders do not have parotid glands). Their skin secretions are very irritating to the eyes and mouth. Temporary blindness (lasting about 24 hrs) has been reported by field biologists that handled newts and then rubbed their eyes. If sensations of blurred vision,or burning or stinging of the eyes occur after handling any genus or species of newt, wash the eyes with copious amounts of fresh clean water (or contact lens wetting solutions) and promptly seek medical care. Persons with newt skin secretions in their eyes are advised not to drive a vehicle or operate other dangerous or heavy equipment.
      Finally, it is possible that other amphibian species in the USA besides giant toads and newts, could produce skin secretions that are irritants to the eyes. Furthermore, amphibians may carry some bacteria in their intestines and feces that are human pathogens, such as the bacteria, Salmonella and Leptospira. Hence, it is always best to practice good personal hygiene after handling any amphibian (namely, thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water).

    1. MARTIN, D., and H. HONG. 1991. The use of BactineŽ in the treatment of open wounds and other lesions in captive anurans. Herpetol Rev 22: 21.

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