Are Spotted Salamanders Poisonous?

Spotted Salamanders, also called yellow-spotted salamanders, are secretive amphibians found throughout much of the eastern United States and Canada. These salamanders are occasionally sold as pets but are somewhat rare because they are protected in large portions of their natural range.

Like most amphibians, Spotted salamanders produce poisonous skin secretions that make them taste bad to predators. These secretions are merely irritating and won’t kill a human, even if ingested. However, they can kill a mouse and make other small animals sick.

Spotted salamanders are normally very harmless creatures, provided they are handled carefully. The only real threat they have is that they and other amphibians can carry Salmonella which is harmful to humans, so it’s best not to touch them.

If you do handle one, practicing sufficient levels of hygiene and washing your hands after, will keep you out of harm’s way.

Spotted Salamanders Only Secrete a Mild Toxin

Spotted salamanders only produce a mildly toxic secretion that does not affect most predators apart from leaving a terrible taste in the mouth. People unfortunate enough to ingest this secretion may experience some irritation or discomfort, but it is not lethally toxic, so you probably won’t have to rush to the local emergency room.

The secretion may also have the added benefit of making the salamander slightly slimy, making it harder for predators to get a firm grip. While the predator is still trying to get a grip, the salamander can dash to safety.

Bright Yellow Spots Warn Predators of the Spotted Salamanders’ Toxic Defense

If you see a brightly colored amphibian, those colors usually mean “stay away from me, I’m toxic!” (think poison dart frogs).

Such coloration is called aposematism or ‘warning coloration. Many animals use it to advertise that they are toxic and would make a horrible meal for any would-be predator.

Bright colors tell predator's that spotted salamanders are poisonous
Bright Yellow Spots against dark skin warn of toxicity. Photo by: Peter Paplanus/Wikimedia Commons

In the case of spotted salamanders; the distinctive vivid yellow to orange spots speckled along their black backs, tell predators that these salamanders have a toxin and would make a horrible meal.

An animal that eats a brightly colored spotted salamander will get a mouthful of toxin and remember the experience. The next time that animal sees another similarly colored salamander, it will associate those colors with danger and learn to avoid it.

Poisonous but Not Venomous

People often use the words “poisonous” and “venomous” interchangeably, but you should know that these two terms mean very different things.

Sure, they both refer to toxins that can be harmful to us, but the difference lies in how the toxins are delivered.

Generally;

  • Venomous animals will bite, sting, or stab you to deliver their toxin.
  • On the other hand, you have to eat or touch poisonous animals to be affected by their toxin.

This means venomous animals need a way to inject their toxins, such as fangs or stings. Poisonous animals on the other hand are more passive, often lining their skin with toxins to deter predators.

Spotted salamanders are toxic, but are not venomousIn this way, bees are venomous, along with plenty of snakes, spiders, and scorpions while many frogs, newts, and Salamanders, including spotted salamanders, are poisonous.

Spotted Salamanders Typically Aren’t Dangerous to Humans

Although poisonous, spotted salamanders typically aren’t dangerous to humans. The toxin they secrete isn’t potent enough to be of any serious harm to humans. Granted, it may cause some irritation or discomfort, but only if you ingest it.

This can happen when you handle a spotted salamander with your bare hands, then rub your eyes without first washing your hands. Ingesting toxins this way would most likely give you a painful sting, and could even lead to swelling.

Another way the toxins can be absorbed is through open sores or cuts on your skin. This would most likely lead to a burning sensation and a feeling of numbness.

For this reason, you should avoid handling any salamanders if you have cuts or sores on your hands.

Also, avoid touching your eyes or mouth after handling any salamanders, until you have washed your hands.

Salamanders Can Carry Salmonella

Like most amphibians, spotted salamanders can carry harmful bacteria called salmonella in their digestive tracts.

A salamander carrying salmonella may look very clean and healthy but can transmit the bacteria to humans. Humans can be exposed through contact with the salamander or its droppings.

Salmonella bacteria
Salmonella bacteria

You can also be exposed by touching anything the salamander has come In contact with, such as water in an aquarium/terrarium where the salamander lives.

Exposure to salmonella can cause an infection called salmonellosis, which is characterized by a running stomach, fever, and sometimes even vomiting.

The infection is usually mild but can spread to the bloodstream, leading to severe and sometimes even fatal illness.

Fortunately, you won’t get sick by simply touching a spotted salamander. The bacteria can only cause illness when they get inside your body.

For this reason, it is important to practice good hygiene and wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap after touching salamanders or anything in their enclosure.

It’s not a good idea to let children younger than five touch or handle any salamanders. Younger children tend to inspect things with their mouths, and doing this with a salamander can make them severely ill because their immune systems are not as strong as those of adults.

Are Spotted Salamanders Dangerous to Dogs, Cats, or Other Pets?

If a pet, for instance, a dog or cat were to bite or attack a spotted salamander, it would get a mouthful of bitter toxin and most likely let go right away.

If a dog ingests enough of this toxin, it may drool, slobber, spit and possibly even foam at the mouth. The toxin may not be fatal, but it can certainly make a dog sick.

In addition, salamanders often carry tapeworms and other parasites, so a dog that eats a spotted salamander is not only at risk of poisoning, but may also be exposed to parasites.

For this reason, it is important to keep your pets away from any salamanders. If you have pet salamanders at home, keep them secured in their enclosure so they do not come in contact with any of your other pets.

Safety Precautions to Take When Handling Spotted Salamanders

In general, It’s not a good idea to handle spotted salamanders. This is because they have very delicate semi-permeable skin which they use to absorb moisture and oxygen.

Their skin does not just absorb water though, anything that comes in contact with their skin can be absorbed, including salts, lotions, and other chemicals on your hands.

This means handling a spotted salamander with dirty hands can harm it. Substances on your hands can be absorbed into the salamander’s body. For this reason, it is a good idea to never handle salamanders unless you absolutely have to.

If you ever have to handle a salamander, take the following safety precautions:

Before Handling

  • Very thoroughly wash your hands and ensure they are very clean. Not just clean from dirt, but washed off thoroughly so that there is no residue of soap or any other potentially harmful substances that remain.
Even better, wear protective gloves (such as powder-free vinyl gloves) to eliminate the risk of substances on your hands harming the salamander.

How to Safely Handle

  • Gently pick up the salamander and allow it to walk on your hands without restraining it. The salamander will just sit, or walk across your hands.
  • Do not put any force or stress on the salamander because if you do, it will feel threatened and secrete its toxin all over your hands.
  • Keep the salamander away from your eyes nose and mouth and, be very careful not to touch your face.
  • Very gently put the salamander down. If you found the salamander on your property (or on the road), move it to the closest forested area preferably near a stream or another body of water. The salamander will find its way from there.

Salamanders should only be handled for a short time. Handling a salamander for too long can stress the animal  or even dry out and damage its skin.

After Handling

  • Very thoroughly wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap.

Remember, salamanders can secrete toxins and may carry salmonella so you have to protect yourself. Even if you wore gloves, I suggest you go the extra mile and wash thoroughly.

Before washing your hands, do not touch your face, rub your eyes, or put anything in your mouth.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Question: Do spotted salamanders bite?

Answer: Spotted salamanders do bite, however, this is very rare. They are normally very docile creatures that will typically put up no fight in your hands aside from an initial struggle.

The only time a spotted salamander may bite is during feeding when it mistakes your finger for food, or when it is being handled in a way that makes it uncomfortable.

A bite from a spotted salamander is nothing to be worried about. It’s more of a shock than anything because its tiny teeth are unlikely to even hurt your skin.

For more thorough information, check out this post I wrote on this topic.

Conclusion

Spotted salamanders are normally harmless creatures when left alone. The only real threat they pose is that they can be carriers of salmonella, which can be transmitted to humans.

However, this threat can be dramatically reduced by simply practicing decent levels of hygiene. Other than that, spotted salamanders are mostly harmless creatures.