Axolotl Pet Care for This Exotic & Aquatic Creature

Published December 4, 2021
Ambystoma mexicanum f. leucistic (axolotl)

Axolotls are becoming increasingly popular as pets, and for good reason. This unusual animal has an adorable smile and is relatively easy to care for with the right husbandry. If you're considering acquiring one, it's important to review axolotl care guidelines before bringing your new friend home.

About the Unusual Axolotl

A member of the salamander family, the axolotl (pronounced "ax-oh-lot-ul") is often referred to as the "Mexican walking fish," thanks to its unique appearance and origin. These amphibians are native to a single lake system in Mexico. However, they can be kept successfully and will thrive in captivity.

Not only is the axolotl's appearance curious, but they have unusual anatomy. Axolotls are almost entirely soft-bodied, meaning their skeleton is made up of cartilage instead of bone. They also possess external gills and must remain in the water at all times. Axolotls can regenerate tissues and even limbs if necessary.

If you're looking for a cuddly pet, the axolotl is not a good choice, as they should not be handled. However, these cute critters can be very entertaining to watch.

Axolotl Appearance

Axolotls look similar to tadpoles because they are neotenic, meaning they retain their juvenile characteristics throughout adulthood. They have a long body with a flat tail, short legs, and feathery gills that give them a distinctive, feathery mane-like appearance. Adult axolotls typically reach around 9 to 12 inches long, although 18-inch axolotls have been recorded.

These smiling creatures can come in a variety of colors. Although there are over 20 different color variations in existence, many are rare and nearly impossible to find. Axolotl pigment genetics is quite complex, which is why there are so many morphs. The most common color varieties include leucistic (translucent with pink gills), golden albino, white albino, and wild type (green/black coloring).

Establishing the Ideal Axolotl Environment

Axolotls are relatively low-maintenance pets when housed in the right conditions. However, without proper care, these pets can develop serious health problems. Set yourself and your axolotl up for success with the correct knowledge and equipment.

Ideal Enclosure

Considering your axolotl is amphibious and lives solely in the water, you'll need to find an aquarium to house it in. The minimum size for a single axolotl is at least 15-gallons -- though some keepers recommend 20-gallons at a minimum for a single axolotl specimen -- with an extra 10-gallons needed for every additional axolotl. For example, if you plan to get two axolotls, you'll need at least a 25-gallon tank, then 35-gallons for three, etc.

Although this might seem like a lot of room for a juvenile axolotl, they will need the extra space once they reach their full adult size, which at 9 to 12 inches is quite long. Because axolotls tend to remain at the bottom of their habitat and walk along the aquarium floor, picking an aquarium with ample floor space is recommended-go for a longer aquarium vs. one that's taller. Also, as your axolotl ages, you might find that you want to swap it out for a larger setup to accommodate its growing needs.

Tank Mates

Axolotls might bite other specimens kept in their systems. Typically, mature axolotls are safe to house together, and juveniles are often safe to keep together. However, in an established setup with an adult axolotl, smaller, juvenile specimens may suffer as the adult nips at them.

Do not keep other species in the same aquarium as your axolotl. They are known to be aggressive to most other tankmates. Fish and invertebrates are not safe tankmates for an axolotl.

Safe and Unsafe Substrates

Axolotl. Endangered. Ambystoma mexicanum

Be careful when picking a substrate for your axolotl's aquarium. Axolotls are notorious for swallowing traditional aquarium substrates, especially gravel, as they forge for food, so you should never use a material such as pebbles, marbles, or gravel. A good rule of thumb to follow is to avoid anything that could fit in their mouth. If ingested, stones can cause significant harm or even death.

Instead, pick fine sand that is aquarium safe, such as Aqua Terra's Aquarium & Terrarium Sand. You could also elect to use no substrate at all. Some axolotl hobbyists choose to do this, although there are concerns surrounding the bare glass surface being too slippery. Another option is a large, flat piece of slate or tile on the aquarium floor to provide a bit of traction.

Hiding Places

Axolotl eyes are sensitive to light, so it's important to provide them with hiding places. Try a hollow rock, piece of wood, large hollow aquarium décor, PVC pipe, or terracotta pot in their environment. Again, anything you place with them should be larger than their head to avoid ingestion. Remember that axolotls live fully submerged in the water, so there's no need to give them a "basking area" or any spots with dry land. Provide at least two separate hide areas in the aquarium.

Temperature Requirements

Axolotls have specific water temperature requirements, so getting an aquarium thermometer as part of your setup is essential. A digital model is best, but an analog thermometer will work, as well. These creatures do best in slightly lower temperatures. The ideal water temperature range is between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. While most axolotls can tolerate water up to 70 degrees, these amphibians can become stressed and very ill or die at higher temperatures. Fluctuations in water climate can also be stressful, so aim to keep a constant temperature rather than allow the tank to warm or cool down rapidly.

Depending on your climate, maintaining the correct temperature range might difficult. A few effective techniques to accomplish this include installing an aquarium chiller, placing an airstone within the tank, or allowing a fan to blow on the water surface. The latter two strategies help cool the water by disturbing the surface, promoting evaporation, and ultimately cooling the water. Avoid placing your axolotl habitat in direct sunlight or using tank lights that produce heat.

Another option is to freeze an appropriately sized plastic bottle filled roughly half way with water, and place this on the surface of the aquarium water. Use this technique with caution, however, and closely monitor the water temperature to make sure it doesn't change too quickly. Typically, axolotl keepers use this method during the hot summer months to avoid a temperature spike.

Axolotl Underwater

Water Conditions

In addition to maintaining an appropriate water temperature, there are other water parameters to keep in mind. Tap water should be treated with an amphibian-specific water conditioner to neutralize unhealthy components. You may also use reverse osmosis-filtered water from an aquarium store. Consult with store staff at an aquarium or reptile store to make sure the water quality is appropriate for your pet. Safe pH levels for axolotls are between 6.5 and 8, although the ideal is somewhere around 7.5.

Use a filtration system in the setup to provide your axolotl with ideal water conditions. Axolotls create a relatively high bioload, meaning they generate a lot of waste that must be filtered out. Select a canister or hang-on-back filter, but make sure it's appropriate for the aquarium size you have.

Axolotls prefer calm, quiet water (similar to the lake environment where they live naturally), so high water currents can cause them harm. If your filter flow is too high, you can work to reduce it with a spray bar with the output directed back towards the aquarium glass, or by directing the filter's output toward the glass or water surface. Some axolotl owners elect to go without a filer, but in these cases, a significant amount of maintenance (frequent water changes, etc.) is required to keep them healthy, so it's not recommended.

Even with adequate filtration, you need to perform regular water changes of 20 to 25 percent on a weekly basis to ensure buildup of ammonia and nitrites are removed from the system. Make sure the water you use to replace the water you take out is near the tank water temperature. You will also have to top off the aquarium water periodically as the water level is reduced by evaporation.

Remember, this top-off water is not an acceptable substitute for regular water changes. Waste that is built up in the system does not leave with the evaporating water. If you only replace water and don't exchange some of it regularly, the total concentration of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates will slowly creep higher.

You also need to routinely vacuum the aquarium substrate or tank bottom to remove built-up organic waste, so purchase a quality aquarium substrate vacuum and use this when you perform each water change. Spot cleaning the system daily is a good idea, as is routinely testing the aquarium water for ammonia and nitrite buildup using an aquarium water test kit. Aquarium stores will often do this for you if you bring in a sample of water.

Live Plants as Accessories

Live aquarium plants can be an aesthetically pleasing accessory while improving your axolotl's health at the same time. Plants assist with absorbing harmful elements from the water. They're also a great hiding place for your axolotl.

The main concern when bringing aquatic plants into your tank, is the fact that they require light. Unfortunately, lamps and direct sunlight can be too harsh for your axolotl's eyes and can bring the temperature of the water up. Pick low-light, true aquatic plants such as Anubias, Java moss, or Java fern. Your axolotl will appreciate a lushly planted tank, but you need to provide at least two hides regardless, to give them a place to escape the aquarium light and rest when they need it.

Axolotl Feeding Guide

Axolotl eating

In the wild, axolotls eat a carnivorous diet of worms, fish, larvae, mollusks, and other aquatic life. You can simulate this natural diet in captivity by feeding your axolotl worms (bloodworms or earthworms), daphnia, or brine shrimp. You can offer these live, freeze dried, or frozen (thaw before feeding), as long as your axolotl is feeding. Just be sure to purchase food from a reputable place to ensure that it doesn't contain parasites that could harm your axolotl.

These pets don't require mineral or vitamin supplementation. The most important consideration with feeding is to make sure they eat a high protein diet. Offering a variety of foods can help prevent nutritional deficiencies. Pellets are another option to provide your axolotl with a balanced diet, though it is best to supplement pellets with fresh foods. Do not give your axolotl mealworms, feeder fish, or human food.

Overfeeding axolotls is usually not a concern because they tend to stop eating when they're full. However, if you offer them too much, you'll have to remove the remaining uneaten food. Axolotls should be fed only three to four times each week. Their teeth are not developed to bite and tear food, so instead they tend to swallow it whole.

Axolotl Health and Illness

axolotls yellow

Axolotls can live up to 15 years in captivity when cared for properly. These creatures have been of particular interest in research because they are reportedly one thousand times more resistant to cancers than mammals. The most common health problems in axolotls are typically related to stress due to poor water quality, inappropriate water temperature, or too much water movement in the aquarium. The following conditions can cause disease or harm and should be avoided.

  • High ammonia, nitrite, or nitrate levels
  • Strong water currents
  • Fluctuations in water temperature
  • High water temperatures
  • Low water pH
  • Overcrowding
  • Trauma from handling
  • Ingesting gravel, rocks, or other objects
  • Parasites (from live food)
  • Bacterial infections (often from live food)
  • Inability to hide from the light

Signs of illness in axolotls include the following.

  • Curled tail
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Pale gills
  • Changes in skin color or condition
  • Changes to the eyes
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Floating in the water (often tilted or leaned to one side)
  • Poor responsiveness

Pros and Cons of Axolotls as Pets

Axolotl mexican portrait underwater

If you're considering getting an axolotl as a pet, there's a lot to consider. Reviewing the pros and cons of owning this unique pet can help you decide if this is the right choice for you.

Pros

  • Axolotls are adorable and entertaining to watch.
  • They can regenerate tissues if they sustain non-life-threatening injury.
  • They don't require nutritional supplements.
  • These pets only need to be fed a few times each week.
  • They are happy living alone or with other axolotls (with adequate space).
  • When a healthy habitat has been established, these pets need little maintenance.

Cons

  • Axolotl tank requirements and setup can be pricy.
  • Maintaining a constant, cool water temperature can be challenging.
  • Water conditions must be closely monitored.
  • They are sensitive to stress.
  • Axolotl food must be carefully prepared to avoid parasites.
  • They aren't cuddly and cannot be handled.
  • These pets are illegal to own in some Canadian provinces and some states, including Main, New Jersey, California, Virginia, British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

How to Care for an Axolotl

The axolotl might be the perfect pet for you if you're willing to commit to the husbandry these unusual pets require. Make sure it's lawful to own an axolotl in your area of residence first, then build your own healthy axolotl habitat. Your new pet will say thanks olotl!

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Axolotl Pet Care for This Exotic & Aquatic Creature