In this article, we will be going over everything you need to know about pet axolotl care. We will discuss if these amphibians are good for beginners, what they eat, what to expect owning on, and much more.
You might be surprised to find out that these exotic-looking water dwellers are actually pretty easy to care for.
What is an axolotl? An axolotl is an amphibian closely related to salamanders, but unlike their cousins, axolotls tend to spend their entire lives underwater.
They are also amphibians that grow into adulthood without morphing out of their larval state. They have short, feathery tendrils that fan out behind their heads that are external gills.
Axolotls are also called Mexican Walking Fish because of their appearance. They retain their tails and dorsal fin but have short stubby legs they use to get around while at the bottom of their habitat.
Table of Contents
Information About Axolotls
- Scientific name: Ambystoma Mexicanum
- Alternate names: Mexican walking fish, Mexican salamander
- Family name: Ambystomatidae
- Adult size: 6 to 18 inches long
- Weight (average adult): 5 to 12 ounces
- Diet: Carnivore
- Average lifespan: 10 to 15 years
- Books on axolotl care: Axolotls, Mexican Salamanders as Pets. Axolotl. Facts & Information: A Complete Pet Owner’s Guide.
Interesting Facts About Axolotls
Axolotls are one of nature’s best regenerators
They have been known to regenerate entire limbs and even body organs. They can regenerate the same limb 5 times! I don’t want to know how scientists know that fact though.
Scientists have found out that even if the spinal cord is damaged, in nearly any way, it can regenerate itself. Other body parts aside from full limbs that can be regenerated completely in Axolotls include lungs, the heart, and even parts of the brain.
Axolotls have gills and lungs
Their main way of breathing is from the external gills that fan out behind their heads. They can also be seen swimming to the surface where they can grab a gulp of air and hold it in their internal lungs.
Like other amphibians such as frogs, axolotls can use their skin to absorb oxygen as well. They don’t do this often because they spend the majority of their lives completely submerged.
Axolotls are extremely resistant to cancer
Think of them as the animal equivalent to Deadpool or Wolverine. It may be due to their inane ability to regenerate body tissue so easily that they are so resistant to cancer.
Scientists study axolotls quite a bit because of this ability. They hope to find a way to reduce cancer or prevent cancer altogether in humans by studying these amazing creatures.
They are critically endangered
Axolotls are only found in one place in the wild, the canals of Mexico City. Once they numbered thousands per square mile, but recently their numbers have drastically dwindled.
They don’t have many natural predators, but because of the introduction of invasive species of tilapia and carp, along with rampant pollution, these little amphibians are on the decline in the wild.
Axolotls Live in Murky Waters
In the wild, axolotls live in low light, often low oxygen settings. They prefer to hang out at the bottom of still water where they can hide away from bright lights and eat small fish and mollusks.
What do Axolotls Look Like?
The axolotl resembles salamanders, except they keep the dorsal fin that runs from their mid-back to the end of their tail, and they have external gills. They have short front and back legs, and smooth, non-scaly skin. They also have lidless eyes and so they are sensitive to bright lights.
They come in many different colors and are often albinos. They can range in color from green to pink or white, golden, or a combination of colors. Some of the most popular colors are
- Wild—meaning they are olive, dark, and mottled.
- Pink—they look albino but aren’t true albino because their eyes are dark, and they often contain flecks of gold.
- Albino—these are all pink and have pink to red eyes.
- Black melanoid—these look similar to wild-colored axolotls, except they tend to be darker colored.
An Axolotl’s Diet
In the wild, an axolotl will eat worms, small fish, snails, insects, and about anything it can fit into its mouth. As a pet, you can feed them brine shrimp, blackworms, salmon pellets, nightcrawlers, and red wigglers.
Occasionally you can feed them small guppies or feeder fish, but we don’t recommend feeding them live fish very often. These fish can carry parasites and other illnesses that can be passed on to your axolotl.
When setting up an axolotl aquarium, care must be taken when it comes to the substrate. Axolotls are very curious animals and will ingest nearly anything they can get into its mouth. This includes the substrate.
While in the wild they will often consume some gravel as a digestion aid and to adjust buoyancy, while in their aquarium they could accidentally swallow gravel that is too large for them to pass, which could lead to impaction.
An Axolotl’s Lifespan
In the wild, an axolotl has a relatively short lifespan; living only for about 5 to 6 years. This could be due to many variables such as predation, pollution, or availability of food.
In captivity, they live much longer, up to 10 to 15 years. Reports are conflicting, while some say they can live at least 17 years, others tout 25 years as a max.
Either way, if you plan on getting an axolotl or more than one, be prepared for at least a decade and more of care.
Though there are reports that a Chinese salamander has surpassed 200 years, there’s no definitive proof of that. The next oldest that has been proved is a Japanese Giant Salamander that has lived for 52 years. These animals get much bigger than axolotls and are the only distant relatives.
During breeding, the male will drop a cone-shaped mass, then the female will pick it up with her cloaca. Fertilization will then take place. Soon she will lay between 300 to 1000 eggs. These eggs are covered in a protective jelly-like casing, much like frog eggs.
In the wild, she will place these eggs on plants or rocks to protect them from predation. After about two weeks the eggs hatch and the young axolotls are completely on their own.
The breeding season in the wild happens between March and June, typically once a year. The water is more temperate around this time which helps the babies grow and find plenty of food. They grow fast and by six months they are considered adults.
While in captivity, if you have a breeding pair, they could potentially mate two to three times per year.
In their native habitat, axolotls have few native predators. Herons and other wading birds will predate on axolotls but introduced species have wrecked their natural numbers. Non-native species of carp and tilapia have added axolotls to their dinner menus.
Urbanization and pollution are also contributing factors leading to the decline in wild axolotl numbers. They are also considered a delicacy in some areas of Mexico, so overfishing and consumption by humans also add to the damage to their populations.
Is it Legal to Own Axolotls?
Laws are ever-changing, so you will have to check the area you live to find out if it’s legal to own axolotls. As of last year (2021), axolotls are illegal to own in the states of California, Maine, New Jersey, and DC. In places such as New Mexico and Hawaii, you will need a permit to own them.
There are also places in Canada that require permits or do not allow axolotls as pets altogether.
These rules stem from a variety of reasons. One is because these pets have been bred in captivity for so long that they are no longer the same species as wild axolotls and if they were to be released into the wild, they could do irreversible harm to the environment.
Where Can I Get an Axolotl?
Since axolotls are becoming increasingly popular pets, you might be able to find them at local pet stores, or exotic pet markets. If you can find them locally, they will probably cost less because shipping live animals require fast shipping and specialized containers.
If you are unsuccessful in finding a local, reputable axolotl breeder or dealer, you can find them online. Here are a few places to get an axolotl online.
Axolotl Care Sheet
You’ll need a 10-gallon tank at a minimum, but this 20-gallon-long tank is optimal. Axolotls like to explore along the bottom so having more surfaces to run and explore will make them happier.
Axolotls are solitary creatures and studies suggest they do better alone than they do in groups. Especially when they are younger because baby and adolescent axolotls will often nip at each other’s gills.
They do just fine on their own, so you don’t have to worry about getting tank mates to keep them from getting lonely. If you plan on having more than one per enclosure, you’ll need a tank that holds at least 10 gallons of water per animal in the tank.
Unlike most tropical fish, axolotls prefer their water to remain on the cooler side. You shouldn’t need a water heater as you would for most fish, nor do you need an aerator. A good quality filter, and a low, preferably dimmable light should be all you’ll need as far as equipment for your axolotl.
Axolotls like cooler water, temperatures around 59℉ to 65℉ (15°C to 18°C) are best for them
Room temperature water, away from vents and direct sunlight should be fine for them, but if you keep your house on the warmer side or you just can’t keep the water cool, you may need an aquarium fan or water cooler to keep them at optimal temperature.
You won’t need an aerator for your axolotl, the running filter will create enough oxygen for them. Cooler water actually holds more dissolved oxygen than warmer water.
Axolotls are real introverts and do well all on their own. Other fish as tank mates will most likely end up on the dinner menu.
Larger fish can cause digestion problems like impaction because axolotls don’t care, they will at some point try to eat the fish unless it’s bigger than the axolotl itself. Larger fish such as goldfish can nibble away at your axolotl’s gills and fins, and their waste could cause an imbalance in ammonia levels.
Some people have said that small shrimp-like ghost shrimp can be good tank mates because they are bottom feeders and help to keep the tank cleaner for longer. Though you still need to do regular cleanings. Just know that your axolotl will end up eating the shrimp too.
Snails can help to keep the tank clean too, but again, your axolotl may look at them as personal snacks. While axolotls do often eat snails in the wild, they aren’t great for your pets to consume because the shells could either become an impaction or create sharp pieces that could injure them internally.
Other axolotls are the best bet for tank mates, still, there are some caveats to be on the look out for.
While still growing, they will probably nibble on the other’s gills, so you should probably wait until they are adults before housing them together. You will need at least 10 gallons of space for each axolotl you put together.
Now that you have the aquarium ready, what should be used to fill it?
Cool tap water is fine for your axolotl but you’ll have to use a water conditioner first. You can use this Seachem Prime Fresh and Saltwater Conditioner to remove all the toxic chemicals like chlorine before adding your new pet.
It’s recommended to set up the tank, condition the water, and let the filter run for two weeks before adding the axolotl. This way the beneficial filter bacteria have time to build up and get established.
Only fill the tank about three-fourths of the way up. Axolotls have been known to jump out of the tank if the water level is too high. Though they can survive for short periods out of the water, they shouldn’t be out for more than a few minutes.
About once a week you should do a 20 to 25% water change just to keep down nitrites and ammonia. You can do this while the axolotl is still in the tank. Just be sure to test the water with a good water testing kit and treat it with conditioners as needed.
A dedicated turkey baster works well for removing leftover food and waste that the filter does not catch. Use a gravel cleaner with each partial water change to help remove trapped debris.
Axolotls are pretty easy pets to keep, but they can be sensitive about water conditions, so weekly cleanings are a must as well as checking water quality. Once about every 3 to 4 months you should do a 90% water replacement and clean the tank glass and anything inside the tank as well.
For cleaning artificial plants or hiding places, use a soft bristle brush and tap water. Don’t use any chemical or soapy cleaners as residue can be left behind. A soft scrubbing and rinse with water will be sufficient.
Axolotls love to hide in plants and in little caves. Artificial plants do well, but you can also do live plants, though they will have to be anchored well. As they squirm their way around the plants, axolotls might end up accidentally knocking them loose.
Lighting for Axolotls
These little amphibians do not have eyelids and are sensitive to bright lights. Along with their need for cooler water temperatures, make sure their tanks are not getting hit with direct sunlight. Most times, the ambient lighting from your house is bright enough for your axolotl tank.
If you feel you need some kind of light in the tank, an LED light like this Hygger Full Spectrum Aquarium Light will be perfect for the tank. LED lights don’t produce as much heat as incandescent or halogen lamps and it’s dimmable to keep the light low.
Which Substrate Should You Use?
Axolotls can be their own worst enemies because of their curious natures. They will often try to eat anything they can fit into their mouths, so substrate can be a problem. The tiny rocks that usually go into aquariums are one of the worst choices for axolotls.
They will end up eating some of the gravel, which can end up causing impaction. Sand works better for them because if they end up ingesting some of the sand, it’s small enough to pass through its system.
You can put gravel in an axolotl tank as a substrate as long as it’s too large for them to swallow and smooth enough that it doesn’t damage their sensitive skin. Another alternative that is probably the best option is to forego substrate altogether.
Just leave the bottom of the tank free of a substrate and you don’t have to worry about your pet consuming anything it shouldn’t, and it makes it much easier to clean. The only downside is you’ll have to get artificial plants with weights in them, so they stay at the bottom of the tank. For me, that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.
How, When, and What to Feed Your Axolotl
Babies and juveniles need more calories than adults because they grow so fast. If you have a young axolotl, they should eat 2 times per day.
Offer them small bites of food and let them tell you when they are full. Remove any leftover food after 2 to 5 minutes, then feed them again several hours later.
Juveniles should eat once a day. The same rules above apply. Leftover food needs to be removed so it doesn’t start to decay which will offset the water balance.
Adults should only be fed every 2 to 3 days per week. As you get to know your axolotl you will start picking up on clues that let you know when he is hungry.
He may become more active, searching around the tank for food. If you have a container you put food in, it will probably start hanging around it when hungry. You axolotl may even skate around the glass as they try to get your attention.
Young axolotls will typically only eat live food. Eventually, you may be able to transition to pellet feed, but the little ones are a bit pickier.
Baby axolotls need small, fresh, brine shrimp, daphnia—which are water fleas—or tubifex worms if they can be found.
Juveniles can still eat the previous foods, but they can also start transitioning to blackworms—cut into smaller pieces—and bloodworms.
For adults, nightcrawlers and red wigglers are the best complete nutritional food for them. You can still feed them the aforementioned items but one or two nightcrawlers will fill up an adult axolotl. You can also try to start them on pellets if live worms are just too “yucky” for you.
Most axolotls are the responsible type and will stop eating when full, but there are a few exceptions that try to eat everything you put in front of their faces. Members of the “empty plate club” raise your hands. If you have one of the latter, you will have to limit how much you feed them.
In this case, you can use the two-minute rule. Set a timer for two minutes, and put food into the tank with them, when they start eating, start the timer, and after two minutes remove any excess food.
Occasionally you can feed your axolotl treats in the form of fresh fish. Make sure you get guppies that are small enough for your axolotl to swallow whole. Always get them from reputable dealers as wild fish can carry parasites and diseases.
If you do plan on offering fish as treats, a good rule of thumb is to quarantine them for at least two weeks to see if any illnesses present themselves. You don’t want to pass anything on to your axolotl.
Axolotls don’t really require any supplemental vitamins because everything they need comes from their normal diet.
What Vet Care do Axolotls Need?
As long as you follow these care steps and keep your tank clean, you shouldn’t have many health issues with your axolotl. The main things you might have to watch out for are internal or external parasites, impaction, and skin lesions.
Most skin parasites and lesions can be prevented with regular tank maintenance, but if something presents itself, you will have to take them to the vet to get checked and treated.
The main indicator for an axolotl that’s ill is a lack of appetite. If this continues for a few days, you will probably have to take your pet to the vet. Other than that, most axolotls live long, healthy lives.
Axolotls are easygoing pets that don’t require much care after the initial equipment is set up. They can be beautiful, quirky-looking additions to your household that can bring you over a decade of happiness.
For people looking for a low-maintenance, exotic pet, you can’t go wrong with your very own axolotl.
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