Known as the Salamander that never grows up, Axolotls are just so gosh darn cute and wonderful to own as a pet.
If you’re looking for a truly one-of-a-kind pet, the smiling axolotl with its unique and clumsy characteristic is exactly what you’re looking for.
Require no specialist equipment, axolotl aren’t hard to care for, but do require the right aquatic environment to survive.
This guide will teach you the requirements for an easy-to-maintain tank and how to provide proper axolotl care so it thrives.
Table of Contents
- Tank Size: 20 gallons
- Tank Type: Planted with sand substrate and caves
- Diet: Carnivore
- Tank mates: None
- Temperature: 60-70°F (15-23°C)
- pH: 6.5-8.0
- Chlorine and Chloramines: 0 ppm
- Ammonia: 0 ppm
- Nitrite: 0 ppm
- Nitrate: 0-10 ppm
- General Hardness: 7-14 GH
- Carbonated Hardness: 3-8 KH
Axolotl Facts & Species Profile Overview
- Common Names: Axolotl, Mexican walking fish, Mexican Salamander
- Scientific Name: Ambystoma mexicanum
- Species: A. mexicanum
- Family: Ambystomatidae
- Genus: Ambystoma
- Size: 6-18 inches long
- Lifespan: 10-15 years
The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), also known as the Mexican salamander and Mexican walking fish, originates from several freshwater lakes (Lake Xochimilco & Lake Chalco) in Mexico.
Despite being categorized as a fish, the axolotl is actually an amphibian from the family Ambystomatidae. However, unlike other amphibians, the axolotl reach adulthood without going through metamorphosis. Never taking to land, the axolotl will remain aquatic and gilled.
It was the Aztecs back in the 13th century who originally named the axolotl after their god of fire and lighting “Xolotl” and it was then the axolotl became an icon of mesoamerican culture.
The axolotl was first introduced to Europe in 1863 to study their ability to regenerate their limbs, Axolotls quickly became a darling of the aquarium hobby due to their unique biology and their cute faces and infectious smile.
A fully grown axolotl will be anywhere from 8-16 inches in length (15-45cm) and will be quite the looker with their wide head, lidless eyes, and four long thin legs with elongated fingers.
Axolotls also have filament-lined gill stalks (which are called rami) that stick out from the back of their necks.
But, it’s their regeneration abilities which intrigues and bewilders. Axolotls have the ability to regrow almost any body part – arm, feet, legs, heart, or even the brain. In fact, Axolotls have the largest animal genome ever sequenced: 32 billion (10x larger than humans).
Sadly, the world’s only remaining wild axolotl live in Lake Xochimilco.
Because of their scarcity, axolotls are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s annual Red List of threatened species.
The population took a massive hit when Lake Calcho (axolotl’s native Mexican habitat) was drained to avoid flooding. As a result, huge numbers of axolotls were killed while the remainder began populating the canals of Xochimilco.However, their species is thriving in the aquarium hobby. And when provided with proper care and maintenance, an axolotl can live up to 17 years.
Axolotl Care Sheet And Tank Set Up
Axolotls can be particularly sensitive to poor water conditions. Follow the instructions below to ensure you provide the right care for your axolotl to live a healthy life.
Always ensure your tank water has gone through the nitrogen cycle before introducing your pet axolotl to their new aquarium.
Tank Requirements & Setup For Axolotl
Firstly, you need to pick your tank. You can get away with a 10 gallon aquarium for your axolotl, but you will find it much easier to manage them in a 20 gallon tank.
Axolotls can produce a lot of waste, so giving them a larger body of water will help keep your tank’s water parameters stable. You should prioritize floor space over height. So you want a 20 gallon long tank.
For substrate, you have two options: sand or bare bottom.
A bare bottom tank makes it easy to clean and maintain your axolotl tank, however if your pet is unable to grip the surface it may become stressed.
Avoid gravel substrate: axolotls feed by sucking water into their mouths, a gravel type substrate could get ingested. And if that happens, we’re talking about some serious gut problems, like impaction.
Sand substrate is the best and safest option when keeping axolotl as pets; particles of sand are very small and won’t cause any serious problems if your axolotl ingests them. Axolotls love to dig and play around in the sand, which can massively boost their wellbeing and help ensure that they don’t become distressed
You can then decorate your tank also with lots of plants (java moss, anubias, and horword are great options), and have plenty of hiding spots like caves (can use PVC piping or plant pots).
Axolotls don’t require any specific lighting, however, they can become stressed if the light is too strong. Using a plant-friendly LED light will be best as you can control the brightness and keep your plants healthy.
As I mentioned before, Axolotls can produce a ton of waste. You’re going to need a strong filter, but also ensure it doesn’t create a ton of water flow.
Axolotls prepare still or low-flow. Incorporating a spray-bar and spread out flow and minimize the effects. Other methods you could use would be to have plants around the outflow to reduce water pressure.
Water Parameters For Axolotl
Maintaining the correct water conditions is vital to your axolotls’ health, wellbeing and longevity.
- Temperature: 60-70°F (15-23°C)
- pH: 6.5-8.0
- Chlorine and Chloramines: 0 ppm
- Ammonia: 0 ppm
- Nitrite: 0 ppm
- Nitrate: 0-10 ppm
- General Hardness: 7-14 GH
- Carbonated Hardness: 3-8 KH
Shop bred fish/shrimp/amphibians can often adapt to many water parameters. Ask your axolotl seller what water pH it has grown up in. Then prepare your tank to be at that range. A stable pH is what you are aiming for.
Axolotl Tank Maintenance
To ensure your axolotl tank is well maintained and water parameters are stable, you will need the following:
You will then have to clean your axolotl tank once a week.
You should perform a 20-30% water change every week. During the change, you should be checking your water parameters, scraping off any unwanted algae, and vacuuming your substrate to remove any leftover food or debris.
Diet & Feeding Axolotl
When it comes to feeding axolotls, you just need to know 4 things:
- What do axolotls eat?
- How much do I feed my axolotl?
- How often should I feed my axolotl?
- How long can my axolotl go without food?
Axolotls are carnivoros: in the wild eating worms, insects, small fish, and generally anything they can fit into their mouths and swallow whole.
When you’re keeping axolotl as pets, you should be feeding a similar diet. You can feed them a variety of live and dead foods. Including:
- Earthworms (live nightcrawlers)
- Frozen brine shrimp
- Axolotl pellets
- Repashy Grub Pies
The amount you feed your axolotl will vary depending on the age and individual. You can slowly feed until it stops eating. Axolotls will stop eating once they are full so you can use this as a marker. And remember to always remove any uneaten food.
For larvae and junior axolotls, you will likely be feeding them twice a day. For an adult axolotl, you can feed them once every 2 to 3 days.
A healthy adult axolotl can go up to 2 weeks without eating.
Life Span and Common Health Problems
If you provide optimal care for your axolotl, it can live up to 15 years. A sign your axolotl is healthy would be:
- Fluffy gills
- Round belly (same size as head)
- Gills back
- No skin damage
- Active (for an axolotl)
However, there are a number of illnesses and injuries that axolotls can sustain. It’s vital that you learn how to treat these effectively so that you can bring your pet back to health quickly.
The common health problems in axolotls are:
Stress is one of the biggest causes of illness in axolotls. Chronic stress can lead to illness or infection.
Common causes of stress in axolotl:
- Strong water flow
- Temperatures over 24 degrees Celsius.
- Untreated water
- Foul water
- Aggressive Tank mates
Common signs of a stressed axolotl would be for them to lose their appetite, refusing to eat normally.
On top of that:
Signs like curling/hooking of the tail and forward-turning gills are signs that your pet is suffering from stress.
Axolotls have the ability to regenerate damaged tissue, so a lost leg shouldn’t be any alarm to you. However, the risk you want to manage here is infection.
Exposed wounds can quickly become infected, so during this period you need to monitor water parameters and ensure they are stable.
Impaction is a condition found in axolotls when the digestive system becomes dysfunctional.
Symptoms of impaction include:
- Refusal to eat for multiple days
- Low waste production
Often, this is caused when they ingest gravel or small stones, which is why it’s crucial that you house your axolotl with an appropriate sand-based substrate.
In the case of impaction, fridging can encourage fast recovery and help them to eject anything nasty in their digestive system.
Constipation as a result of overfeeding can also cause impaction, which is why adults should only be fed every 2-3 days at most.
Axolotls are able to float around tanks at will, though excessive floating may indicate air bubbles in the gut.
This should only become a concern if:
- Your axolotl is unable to return to the bottom of the tank
- They float up against their will
- They float very often
- They appear distressed when floating
Again, fridging can help get rid of this problem. You should also check your water parameters and adjust them if necessary.
Heat-stressed axolotls can develop dangerous bacterial and fungal infections, which is why you should routinely check your water temperature.
Common illnesses include ‘red leg’ bacteria, characterized by red patches on the limbs; Columnaris, characterized by sluggishness and white grey patches; and Saprolegnia, characterized by white patches on skin and gills.
These can all be treated using a salt bath or fridging.
Axolotls are native to cold water. For that reason, you can use lower temperatures to slow disease and infection.
It’s also beneficial for impaction:
In cool temperatures, undigested food is ejected to prevent rotting.
To fridge an axolotl:
- Make sure your fridge is between 5-8 degrees Celsius
- Prepare a container of dechlorinated water (not chilled) long enough for your axolotl to stretch to its full length. The container should have a lid with air holes and space at the top for the axolotl to jump up for air.
- Transfer the diseased axolotl to the container and cover with a towel to prevent light disturbance.
- Once in the fridge, change water daily, replacing old water with dechlorinated, refrigerated water.
- Keep the axolotl refrigerated until it recovers.
- Gradually re-introduce your axolotl to tank water before returning it.
Axolotl Salt Bath
You can use salt baths to treat axolotls suffering from skin infections, which is most effective when used in conjunction with fridging.
Axolotls with fungal infections will benefit from salt bathing. The salt works to kill off any infection, nursing axolotls back to health within a few days.
Salt baths should be given twice daily during infection, for 10 minutes at a time.
- Mix 1-2 liters of dechlorinated water with sea, rock, or aquarium salt. Avoid table salt.
- Refrigerate to the same temperature the water you’re using for fridging.
- Remove the container from the refrigerator once cooled and shake.
- Fill your salt bathtub and add your axolotl.
- Leave for 10-15 minutes maximum.
- Remove from the tub and return to the fridging container.
- Repeat every 12 hours until the infection clears, and for 2-3 days after to kill any remaining fungus.
You should never handle an axolotl or take one out of water.
Axolotls should only be handled if 100% necessary. They are soft-bodied amphibians with permeable skin and no true bones, making them vulnerable to damage easily.
If you have to, use a soft fine-mesh net.
Behavior, Temprement & Tank Mates
Axolotls tend to be more active at night or in low-light environments and can be wonderful to watch. They’re naturally clumsy creatures, so spend most of their days hanging out on the bottom of aquariums. It’s not uncommon to find your axolotl still with its legs up at an odd angle.
However, don’t let their friendly disposition, large smiley-face, and all-round cuteness fool you. Axolotls are voracious carneous that’ll eat anything they can fit in their mouths.
For this reason, it is not smart to house an axolotl with any other fish, salamander, or shrimp etc, because they like to nibble, nip, and eat whenever they get the chance.
Younger axolotls (around 8-16 cm in size) shouldn’t be housed together for this same reason: they’ll nip each other’s gills and feet and could cause serious damage. It could be possible to keep them together if you’re experienced and keep them well fed.
Fully-grown adult axolotls, on the other hand, may live together safely and will rarely attack one another. However, Axolotls are solitary amphibians and will not benefit from having another one in the tank.
Axolotls should be housed alone. Especially if you are a beginner.
Appearance and Main Axolotl Morphs
Axolotls possess the typical features you would expect to find on a salamander larvae: external fills and a caudal fin extending from behind its head to the vent.
However, axolotls are neotenic salamanders, meaning they carry traits from their childhood into adulthood. Most salamanders will lose their gills as they age, but not the axolotl.
A fully grown adult axolotl will have three pairs of gill stalks (rami) with filaments (fimbriae) used for breathing located behind their head. Their head will grow to be large and wide – giving them their famous axolotl smile.
They have lidless eyes and long, thin underdeveloped limbs with thin digits. Males can be identified by their swollen cloacae lined with papillae (the area where he poops). Females tend to have much wider bodies.
A sexually mature adult axolotl (male & female) would be fully grown at 18-24months, and range in length from 6 to 18 inches long, although 9 inches is the most common. They can weigh as much as 10.5 ounces (300 grams).
The color of a wild axolotl would be a combination of mottled browns, greens, and golds with purple gills. Since their introduction into the aquarium industry, breeding has lead to more colorful morphs:
- Albino: White/pale pink with clear/pink eyes and red gills.
- Melanoid: Black/dark grey with black eyes and dark gills.
- Leucistic: White/pink with dark eyes and bright red gills.
- Golden Albino: Golden with pink/orange eyes, bright red/pink gills.
- Copper: Copper with dark eyes, bright red/pink gills.
- GFP: Sometimes, a recessive gene called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) may be present, causing axolotls to glow green under black lighting.
- Other variations: Other, less common morphs may include Piebald, Golden Non Albino, and Chimaerism.
What To Know Before Buying An Axolotl?
If you’re going to buy an axolotl, the first thing you will need to do is check if they are legal in your state or not.
It is illegal to own an axolotl in California, Maine, New Jersey, and Virgina. Some states, like New Mexico, you can own but not import from outside.
You should check the exotic pet ownership laws.
If you’re legally allowed to own one, you should be aware you’re going to be buying a juvenile and it’ll cost anywhere up to $80usd. When looking at the axolotls available, make sure they have full feathery gills, clear skin with no obvious damage, eats normally, and looks adorable.
Axolotls are fairly easy to breed, but there are still some measures you should take to ensure they’re able to mate successfully.
Axolotls can reach sexual maturity anywhere between 5 months and a few years. but, shouldn’t attempt to breed axolotls before the age of 18 months.
Female axolotls can produce more than 1,000 eggs- which is pretty impressive! The body prioritizes egg production over other processes like growth.
But you should be aware:
This can be incredibly taxing and damaging to a non-developed axolotl, which is why breeding before 18 months isn’t a good idea.
Axolotl Breeding Methods
It’s possible to breed axolotls at any time of year, though some sources advise that breeding is most successful from December to June.
Here’s what the studies say:
The University Of Indiana Axolotl Colony subjected males and females to decreasing periods of daylight to trigger spawning. The results were pretty effective.
You can try to replicate these conditions, but before you go to all that effort you should keep in mind, any room in your house exposed to seasonal changes (even partial ones), usually provides good enough conditions to spur on breeding.
A pair of axolotls in perfect conditions with natural light should breed around once a year. But do be prepared for the fact they’re notorious for reproducing at odd, unpredictable times.
Setting up a Axolotl Breeding Tank
You should populate your tank with many silk/live plants to give females a place to affix their eggs.
Rough pieces of stone/slate should also be placed along the bottom of your tank, which will give males a place to deposit spermatophores.
Axolotl Courtship and Spawning
Males initiate spawning. They deposit around 5-25 spermatophores on top of stones and other items around their habitat.
During a typical breeding session, male axolotls will raise their tails, making vigorous writhing motions at the female as he leads her around the tank to their previously deposited spermatophores.
She’ll then pick these up and fertilization will take place internally.
Between a couple of hours and two days later, she’ll lay her eggs individually atop plant leaves, rocks, and scattered randomly around the tank.
She might lay 100-1,000 eggs per spawning session.
Hatching Axolotl Eggs
While albino morph eggs will appear bright white after a few hours, normal eggs will be dark brown.
After 2-3 weeks, these eggs will hatch and axolotl larvae will emerge.
Keep the eggs kept well-aerated; an air pump will help to do this. At 20 degrees Celsius, eggs should hatch around 14-17 days later.
Are Axolotls Right For You?
If you’re willing to put the time into providing the right tank, water parameters, and diet for an axolotl, then owning one will bring you a ton of entertainment.
Their adorable, wide-grinned face and clumsy nature makes them one-of-a-kind. They don’t take any special care and attention, but they are susceptible to stress, so being disciplined with your tank maintenance is a must.
Use this axolotl care guide I have provided you to ensure your pet lives a healthy and happy life.
Here’s are a few more commonly asked questions for you:
How is axolotl pronounced?
What’s the scientific name?
How big do they grow?
How long do they live for?
Up to 15 years, approximately 10 years on average.
How can you tell if an axolotl is male or female?
Males are longer, with a swollen cloacal region. Females have larger, rounder bodies for egg storage.
How do axolotls reproduce?
Males leave spermatophores around the tank which it leads the female towards during breeding. These fertilize female eggs.