Dwarf Clawed Frog: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Purple dwarf clawed frog swimming in tank

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Dwarf clawed frogs are brown or dull green in color with darker spots. They have three clawed toes on their back feet that they use to tear at decaying food. These frogs are plentiful in ponds and rivers within the south-eastern portion of Sub-Saharan Africa (Nigeria and Sudan to South Africa). Populations have also been introduced into isolated places in North America, South America, and Europe. The requirements of these totally aquatic frogs are much like keeping a communal, tropical freshwater fish tank. They are easy to care for and good for a "look only" beginner frog keeper but their aquatic tank will require maintenance, and handling them is not a good idea.

Species Overview

Common Names: Dwarf clawed frog, Zaire clawed frog

Scientific Names: Hymenochirus, Hymenochirus boettgeri

Adult Size: Dwarf clawed frogs reach an adult size of about 1 to 1 1/2 inches long.

Life Expectancy: 5 years

Purple dwarf clawed frog swimming through aquatic foliage

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Dwarf clawed frogs swimming in aquatic tank with underwater foliage

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Red worms in bowl to feed dwarf clawed frogs

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Dwarf Clawed Frog Behavior and Temperament

These pet frogs require little interaction from their owners. Feeding and changing the water are the main duties of the owner, so they are relatively easy to care for. However, these are not like other pet frogs in that they should not be handled much if at all. Being full water dwellers like fish, they are accustomed to a weightless environment; their skeletal systems do not hold themselves up well when exposed to normal gravity. In fact, any frogs that leap out of the tank will die.

They can be kept in groups as well as within a community of tropical fish. The fish should be of a similar size to the frogs. If the fish are smaller, the frogs may try to eat them; if the fish are larger, they may try to eat the frogs. They can be kept in groups or with peaceful community fish that are approximately the same size but be sure to increase the size of the tank accordingly. Don't overcrowd your frog's tank, however, because such conditions stress them and can lead to health issues. 

Adulthood is reached at about nine months. Males develop glands that look like small pink or white bumps behind the front legs. The males will also sing or hum when trying to attract a mate. The females tend to be slightly larger than the males and have a more prominent bump between the hind legs, where the cloaca is located.

Dwarf clawed frogs use their hands to shove food in their mouths. The frogs are vulture-like scavengers that will prey on almost anything living, dying, or dead and any type of organic waste; they use their sensitive fingers and sense of smell to find food.

Housing the Dwarf Clawed Frog

These frogs are easier to care for than a typical fish tank as they require less life support equipment, however, they do require a heavy aquarium setup. Your dwarf clawed frog tank will need to be on a sturdy floor that can support the weight of water, the tank, and the tank stand. Water filtration systems can be used but are not mandatory; unlike with fish, frequent water changes can be sufficient to keep the water clean enough for air-breathing frogs.

Living primarily at the bottom of their tanks, these frogs do need to be able to surface for air occasionally. Dwarf clawed frogs do not need a huge tank; allow about a gallon per frog. Avoid tall, deep tanks as the frogs need to easily get to the surface to breathe. Leave a pocket of air between the top of the water and the tank lid. Also, a tight-fitting lid is a necessity as these frogs will try to escape. Dwarf clawed frogs should be kept at temperatures in the range of 75 to 80 F (24 to 27 C).

These frogs like to have hiding spots, so use live plants or silk ones in the tank. Also, you can provide hiding places using aquarium decorations, driftwood, or small terra cotta plant pots placed on their sides. Any decorations, including artificial plants, must be smooth so as not to damage the frogs' delicate skin. Providing a landing area or a source of drinking water is not required as dwarf frogs are completely aquatic.

Make sure never to use any kind of soap or cleaning chemicals to clean the tank or any buckets or other implements used in tank maintenance. Amphibians have very porous skin and can be easily poisoned by chemicals and detergents. Dwarf clawed frogs should also not be handled because the oils and salts from human hands are also a hazard. If you must catch frogs to move them, use a plastic pitcher to scoop them up along with some water or put on powder-free, non-reactive nitrile surgical gloves.

Use only dechlorinated water in the tank and conditioner drops from the pet store. Filtration is not strictly necessary if you keep only frogs in the tank; frequent partial water changes will suffice. If you add fish to the tank, a filter will be necessary. Use one that disturbs the water as little as possible as frogs prefer still water, and assure the frogs cannot get stuck inside or behind the intake/filter or they could easily be drowned.


The main reason for using a gravel ground covering (substrate) in the tank is to provide your frogs a more natural-looking habitat; gravel also helps to secure the base of plants and other tank furnishings. Use sand or smooth gravel on the bottom of the tank. Do not use very large gravel or stone as your frogs may get their legs trapped between the gravel pieces.

Also, be sure that the frogs are not ingesting the sand or gravel when feeding. If this occurs, you can try a different size of gravel, or employ a small saucer on top of the gravel. This smart solution involves using forceps or a dropper to place the food items directly onto the smooth surface of the underwater saucer.

Food and Water

Dwarf clawed frogs are bottom feeders so they should be fed sinking foods. Live or frozen foods or freeze-dried foods can be used, and rotating through a variety works best. Bloodworms, tubifex worms, daphnia, brine shrimp, blackworms, or chopped (bite-sized) earthworms will be accepted. Dwarf clawed frogs gulp the food and swallow it whole. These frogs rarely accept flaked food; some will accept pelleted food (frog-specific pellets), but these dissolving items can quickly foul the water. Your pet dwarf clawed frogs should be fed once or twice a day.

Brine shrimp
_548901005677 / Getty Images

Common Health and Behavioral Problems

Healthy frogs are active swimmers that hide frequently and have clear eyes and smooth skin. However, these amphibians are prone to two types of infections: bacterial and fungal. The signs of the more serious type, the fungal infection, includes a white growth that resembles cotton on the skin, as well as discolored eyes. 

Systemically, captive frogs often get a disease called dropsy or bloat; medically, the condition is known as edema, hydropsy, bloat, or ascites. Amphibian experts don't yet understand this disease, but it is thought to be related to some imbalance of the lymphatic system causing and inability to drain body fluids which then build up. Frogs with the bloat look like overfilled balloons. Water quality and dissolved mineral levels might be related.

If a pet frog has a bacterial infection, it may be due to poor water quality in the tank. A bacterial infection is marked by cloudy eyes and redness or sores on the skin. Both conditions require immediate attention from an aquatic veterinarian and, if not treated, will eventually be fatal. 

Choosing Your Dwarf Clawed Frog

Frogs can make lovely pets, but frogs in the wild are facing population declines and extinction largely as a result of human activities. Unfortunately, the pet trade is likely contributing to the worldwide amphibian extinction crisis along with the spread of a devastating infection by Chytrid fungus.

For this reason, you should only buy frogs that you are sure are captive-bred locally and tested to show that they are free of disease. It may be impossible to find frogs that meet these conditions, but otherwise, wild-caught pet frogs may be contributing to the decline of wild frog populations.

Similar Species to Dwarf Clawed Frogs

Dwarf clawed frogs are often confused with African dwarf frogs. Dwarf frogs have four webbed feet; clawed frogs have webbed back feet but non-webbed digits on their front feet. While they are sometimes light in color, the albino variation is limited to only the larger African clawed frogs, not the dwarf clawed frogs. Juvenile African clawed frogs are similar can sometimes be mistaken for dwarf frogs.

The differences aren't just in the claws. The clawed frog has eyes on the top of its head, while the dwarf frog's eyes are on the side of its head. Clawed frogs have flat snouts while dwarf frogs have pointed snouts.

Swimming African Dwarf Frog
African dwarf frog Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

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