by Dr. Tawna Schmidt
Axolotl Care Guide: Details for a Happy and Healthy Axolotl
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If you are planning to add an axolotl to your fish family, this guide will provide the details you need for proper Axolotl care.
Before you take your new pet home, be sure you have everything you need to give him a happy and healthy environment to live in.
While it does not cost much to care for an axolotl after the initial purchase, there are important guidelines to follow to get set up for your Axolotl for the best chances of survival.
You will also need to plan for an independent environment because axolotls are not good tank mates for any other species.
The axolotl, commonly called a Mexican Walking Fish, is an extremely fascinating creature. You might be surprised to learn that they are not fish at all but rather part of the salamander family.
Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum): What are they?
Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) are a small amphibian that was first introduced to Europe in 1863.
A legend says they were named after an Aztec God named Axolotl that dressed up like a salamander to avoid being sacrificed. The word Axolotl means ‘water monster.’
The species can be found in nature at Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco in the southern Mexico City neighborhood of Xochimilco.
However, they are rarely seen in person as they live their entire life in water, never stepping onto land like other salamanders that live in both water and on dry land.
A superpower of the axolotl is the ability to regenerate their limbs, lungs, spines, heart, jaws, and even parts of their brain.
In laboratory studies, scientists have found that axolotls can regrow a limb in just a few weeks with no evidence it was ever even missing. Another amazing fact about axolotls is that they can do this up to five times for each limb!
The species can get stressed very easily, so proper care must be administered their entire lives to keep them thriving in their environment.
However, the overall axolotl care requirements are minimal once you get the proper setup established with the correct water temperature and flow. In the proper environment, they are resilient, easy to care for, and breed easily.
They are also known to be very active and often rest on the bottom of the tank. A single individual can be housed in a 15-gallon long fish tank provided there are at least six inches of water to swim in.
Features of Axolotls
Axolotls have a body that is shaped like a cylinder, short legs, and a fairly long tail. They have moveable eyelids, four toes on the front feet, and five toes on their hind feet.
Their snouts are blunt and they have a large mouth.
They are also known for their feathery external gills.
While typically dark in color in the wild, axolotls tend to be more pinkish in color when bred in captivity.
Size of Axolotls
The adult size of axolotls is up to 18 inches in length, although this is highly uncommon.
The average adult axolotl grows to a size closer to a length of 9 inches.
Axolotl Life Span
The typical life span of this amphibian species is 10-15 years when in captivity.
They live long when kept in captivity than the wild type living in their natural habitat.
There are specific requirements for axolotls to survive and thrive. It is not as simple as filling up a tank with tap water and putting them in it.
Best Aquarium Size for Proper Axolotl Care
A 15- to 20-gallon aquarium is recommended for axolotls. Of course, the size you need depends on how many axolotls will live in it.
The minimal aquarium size for one adult axolotl is 10 gallons. A 20-gallon tank is suitable for 2-3 of these adult Mexican walking fish.
Another important note is that these amphibians produce an excessive amount of waste, which is another reason they need adequate aquarium size to stay healthy.
This can also cause poor water quality if proper cleaning is not completed regularly.
They commonly reside on the bottom of the tank.
Make sure the tank has a secure lid, as these creatures are known to rise to the top of the water for a gulp of fresh air and may try to jump out.
Axolotls are nocturnal aquatic animals, which is the reason they do not like light.
They tend to be shy if a bright light is shining on them, although they will adapt to this environment if they are given a place to hide when they need a break from the bright light.
Great hiding places are the usual aquarium toys like wood plants, logs, and caves.
Water conditions need to be accurate. The ideal temperature range is low to mid-60 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you let the water temperature rise above 74 degrees Fahrenheit, you will add undue stress to the environment, leading to loss of appetite, heat stress, and eventually death.
A water test should show the temperature to be between 57 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (14 and 20 degrees Celsius.)
Tap water treated with an aquarium water conditioner that removes chlorine and chloramines is acceptable.
Never use distilled water, and make sure the pH of the water remains between 6.5 and 7.5. Don’t allow the water temperature to get above 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
An appropriate substrate is imperative to keep an axolotl safe.
Sand is the safest choice. Particles of sand are very small and won’t cause any serious problems if your pet axolotl ingests it.
They thrive on digging and playing in the sand and can even appear to be playing like small children.
Any type of marble, stones, or gravel is a huge no for axolotls. These salamanders see practically everything as a food source. They are also very clumsy during feeding time.
Another option is to keep the bottom of your tank bare so you avoid the above problem.
However, note that a bare bottom tank can sometimes cause axolotls distress if they’re unable to grip the tank’s surface and walk properly.
If you decide to go the bare-bottom route, the best options are slate or tile so your Axolotl has some grip to walk on.
The most important thing to remember is to avoid adding any type of decor with a sharp edge.
Outside of this, normal aquarium furniture is acceptable such as live plants, artificial plants, rock-like structures, etc.
Diet for Proper Axolotl Care
These salamanders are voracious carnivores, which means axolotls ear primarily meat.
However, they are not picky with the food they eat.
Young axolotls need to eat two times a day.
They feed well on smaller feeder fish. Great examples are brine shrimp and frozen bloodworms.
Adult axolotls eat similar food, and great additions include red wigglers and soft pellets.
What Axolotls Eat
In the wild, axolotls will eat worms, insects, small fish, and anything they can fit into their mouths and swallow whole – even other salamanders.
The axolotl food diet is similar in an aquarium depending on what is available in your area.
The typical axolotl tank diet is organic worms such as nightcrawlers (giant earthworms), blackworms, and bloodworms. They also eat frozen shrimp, prawns, mealworms, tuna, and tadpoles. Another snack they will eat is snails.
If these are not readily available for you, another option is to feed your Axolotl a more convenient food such as raw beef meat trimmed of all the fat, liver, lamb or beef heart, vegetables, or cat food.
High-quality pellets of fish food are also a good option.
You will want the food to be in chunks rather than minced when feeding anything with preservatives to protect their digestive system.
Special Feeding Treats for Axolotls
Axolotls love a special treat, although they should be seldomly given. He will be happy with frozen shrimp (cooked) or pinkie mice.
Axolotls love fatty foods; however, they are not the most healthy for them so they should be fed infrequently and only used as a rare treat to prevent health issues.
It is best to avoid any fatty foods for optimal health and ensure you are trimming all fat off any meat cutlets.
How Often to Feed Axolotls
The frequency of when you feed axolotls depends on their size, stage of maturity, and water temperature.
It takes axolotls several days to digest their food when they eat, making the best feeding frequency twice a week, or three times a week.
Many owners do not realize the negative impact of feeding their axolotl too much and too frequently. By the time they reach about one year of age, they are ready to be fed a maximum of 3–4 times a week.
If you are feeding pellets, the most you should feed is 5 per feeding.
If the water temperature is higher, their digestion process is faster, so they need to eat a bit more often.
It is important to note if the water falls below 50 degrees Fahrenheit they will regurgitate their food, so this is another reason the water temperature needs to be closely regulated.
How to Feed Axolotls
The best way to feed axolotls may be through hand-feeding. Simply hold the food in blunt or round-nosed forceps in front of the salamander.
Another common method for feeding preparation is to prepare their meal in advance and freeze it.
Chunk beef cutlets into strips that are approximately 0.5 centimeters x 3 centimeters, wrap them in meal-sized portions individually, and freeze them.
If you choose to feed store-bought feeder fish, avoid live feed because they create the risk of axolotls developing bacterial infections caused by parasites and disease transmission.
Do Axolotls Need Vitamin Supplements
If you are feeding axolotls primarily fresh beef, you will need to supplement his diet with vitamins to keep him healthy and thriving.
It is important to feed axolotls a variety of foods for optimal health.
When to Feed Axolotls
Axolotls often refuse to eat during the day because they are nocturnal animals, meaning they sleep during the day and are active during the nighttime hours.
If you try to feed during the day, be sure to watch them closely to ensure they are actually eating.
You may need to alter your feeding time to nighttime if you find this to be the case. This is also good practice to keep them from munching on one another, which is common if they get hungry.
Senses of Axolotls
Axolotls have little eyesight, forcing them to find food through exploration.
They also use their lateral line organs, which are sensory organs that can be found on the sides of the body and head.
Water Requirements for Axolotls
An important note for this section is to make note of the importance of ‘aging’ the water for a minimum of two weeks prior to putting axolotls into it.
Then it is best to add one axolotl at a time to properly prepare the water for the best living environment.
However, if you choose to not take this route, you should clean the tank daily including a partial change in the water for a minimum of two weeks. Regular cleaning at least several times a week should continue for the first 2 months.
This allows the filter to be properly prepared for full capacity use. (source)
Filtration for Proper Axolotl Care
Filtration can be bypassed if you are willing to change the water frequently.
The typical hobbyist prefers to use a filter so less time can be consumed taking care of the pet since axolotls excrete a high amount of waste.
If you take the route of installing a water filter, there are numerous options available.
The following filtration systems are acceptable:
- under-gravel filters,
- internal power filters
- external filters
- canister filters
The most important part of your filter selection is ensuring the filter is the correct size for the aquarium water volume.
Installing the incorrect filter size is a common cause of added and unnecessary stress on your pet.
Slow-moving water is the proper water flow for axolotls. Fast flows are not safe for them and should be avoided. There obviously needs to be a mild flow of water to prevent bacterial growth on the surface.
Aquarium Maintenance and Water Changes
Regular tank changes are necessary for your pet to thrive and survive.
After the filter is established, which generally takes 1-2 months, water should be removed and replaced by one-third each week. Again, this is an estimate and it depends on the type of filtration being used and the number of amphibians in the tank.
The typical maintenance schedule includes:
- Removing fecal material daily (a tank vacuum cleaner works best for this job.) This is also the best time to remove uneaten food remnants.
- Changing the water as necessary following the above specifications. At the switch out the water, rake the gravel, and remove any loose debris if you are using an under-gravel filter.
- If you select an external filtration system, it will need to be cleaned and possibly replaced every two to four weeks.
- Clean the plastic plants as necessary, typically every few weeks, to remove the common algae growth.
Thorough tank cleaning should happen at least once every three months, no matter what type of filtration systemBest Aquarium Heaters – Ultimate Review for 2021 you use.
Chlorine and Chloramines
If your axolotl water is tap water, it is imperative to remove chlorine using a dechlorinator before you add water to your aquarium.
A dechlorinator will remove chloramines and many other trace metals (such as mercury and lead) from water that are dangerous to your pet.
You also need to check the pH level so you know the level of acidity in the water.
The correct pH level for axolotls is between 6.5 and 8.0, with 7.5 being the prime level. (source)
The best way to check the water pH is through an aquarium water-testing kit. These are readily available online or at most pet stores.
The second important factor in reference to your tank water is the salt and mineral levels. Both of these elements are vital to keeping your Axolotl happy and healthy.
The best water to use in your aquarium is spring bottled water because it is loaded with healthy minerals and salts axolotls will thrive in.
However, you still need to check the contents in the bottle to ensure the minerals are included and the water has not been distilled.
Distilled water does not meet the correct water parameters or water quality should never be used in an axolotl aquarium.
Behavior and Temperament of Axolotls
Axolotls aren’t particularly social creatures and don’t require any tank companions, although it is speculated they prefer not to be alone.
They tend to be fairly bold and are perfectly content to slowly move about their tank as they’re being watched by their humans.
Because they are nocturnal animals, the majority of their movement is done at night and during feeding time (which should be as close to nighttime as possible.)
Signs Axolotls are not Feeling Well
When axolotls get overly stressed they are highly prone to getting a disease.
Many times these diseases are treatable as long as the owner is aware there may be a problem.
Along with notifying your animal care provider, if you notice your axolotl is not acting normal, you should immediately check your water quality, and the aquarium filtration system.
Typical signs of illness might include the following actions or symptoms:
When sick, they present with rather non-specific signs of disease such as:
- Poorly responsive
- Gill degeneration
- Curling of the tail tip/tail membrane
- Anaemia (pallor to gill filaments)
- Ascites and subcutaneous oedema
- Skin lesions (excess mucus, ulcers, tumors, hyperemia, hemorrhage)
- Eye lesions (source)
Common Health Problems of Axolotls
Axolotls breathe through their skin. For this reason, it is important they never dry out.
They need to be checked daily.
The best avoidance of health issues for axolotls is to ensure they are living in the correct environment and getting the proper nutrition.
If you think your axolotl is not feeling well, be sure to consult a veterinarian. Do not try to diagnose the problem without the help of a proper professional.
New Tank Syndrome
If you have a biofilter insufficiency in your tank, which causes toxic ammonia or nitrite to rise, this will cause New Tank Syndrome.
This causes dangerous exposure to chemicals, low pH, over-feeding from increased stocking density, and low-dissolve oxygen.
Old Tank Syndrome
Properly caring for your aquarium is essential to the health of axolotls.
High levels of nitrate can build up from lack of proper care and cleaning, and the excess nitrates will cause depressed immunity and health issues with prolonged exposure.
Another cause of not taking proper care with your aquarium is the depletion of alkalinity, which leads to acidic water.
Axolotls respond to this by developing a mucus film on their body which will then make them sick.
Many axolotl owners feed live fish to their pets, not understanding this is potentially life-threatening to them.
Live fish have a high probability of carrying parasites, which are passed to the Axolotl when eaten.
In their natural environment, axolotls live in a habitat of active streams and melting snow. This creates a fairly consistent temperature of less than 75 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months.
If their water goes over the 75 degrees Fahrenheit mark, they will develop a lack of appetite and start to float. This requires emergency treatment for the Axolotl to survive.
The best plan of action is to contact your animal care provider. Possible quick solutions are to place the Axolotl in a dish in the refrigerator. Get specific details on this method of cooling down from your veterinarian, and any necessary follow-up treatment.
It is also advised to talk to your provider about the possibility or necessity of installing an aquarium chiller.
Saprolegnia is white cotton-like knots found growing on the Axolotl’s skin.
It can be caused by various things, such as:
- poor water quality
- high organics
Depending on the severity level of trauma determines if veterinarian intervention is necessary.
If axolotls get a bacterial infection, the most common symptom will be loss of appetite.
While the prognosis is poor for this condition, it can be treated if caught in the early stages.
Bacterial infections can be caused by numerous things that are not correct in their living environment and create stress on the reptile.
However, one of the most common causes is feeding live food to axolotls. If this is the cause of the infection, there is little that can be done to save the life of your pet.
Gastric Foreign Body
This illness is caused when axolotls consume a large piece of gravel or something they should not ingest and cannot regurgitate.
The most likely cause of this happening is that they are underfed. However, they commonly eat things they are not supposed to eat, which is the reason it is essential to be aware of everything you put into their environment.
If this happens to your axolotl, it may be necessary to manually remove the object with forceps or via surgery if it gets clear into the stomach. This would require you to contact your veterinarian.
The skin of axolotls is delicate and must be handled gently using a fine mesh net. When you use a net there is less chance of damage to the skin.
While it is common for animals to become aggressive during mating season, this will happen less frequently if they live in an environment with ample space and furnishing to hide from one another. This is especially important for a mixed-gender tank.
There are aquarium products that should be completely avoided in your tank because they are not safe for axolotl.
Some of these include:
- malachite green
- copper-based treatments
Excessive salt (only some treatments are safe so consult your animal care provider for details to ensure full safety.)
Tumors are fairly common in this species of reptile.
Typically, they involve pigment cells, are benign, and there is little reason for concern.
However, your veterinarian can tell you if treatment is necessary for survival.
How to Handle Axolotls
Axolotls are so cute, it is common to want to handle them or pick them up on occasion.
It is best to only handle them when absolutely necessary. An example would be when you are cleaning their home.
To remove them to clean, first, wash your hands and ensure all soap is rinsed off. Then trap them with a shallow net and gently grasp their body near the neck and shoulders with one hand, avoiding the axolotl’s head, and then gently grasp their abdomen and hind legs with the other hand.
Avoid any type of squeezing. They get stressed easily and they also damage easily.
It is also normal for them to start thrashing their tail back and forth when you pick them up. Therefore, be sure to be prepared for this action so you don’t squeeze them if they start this tail swinging.
Tank Mates for Axolotls
Axolotls are known to eat anything that fits in their mouths, including small fish, shrimp, other species of fish, and even other axolotls.
The amphibians should not be kept in a tank with any other aquatic species because they have a tendency to bite.
For this reason, it is best to keep young axolotls alone until they reach the age of maturity, which is typically around 5 months of age.
If you need to keep young axolotls together, the nipping of each other’s gills should be minimal if they are fed properly and have plenty of space to move around.
After this time, they rarely attack one another and they can thrive in a tank with playmates. The general rule of thumb is axolotls larger than 5 inches in length have the least number of fights.
There is contradictory information if axolotls desire playmates, so the recommendation is to have multiple Axolotls if you plan to breed. Otherwise, one is fine.
Availability of Axolotls
The internet has played a large role in the popularity of axolotls.
They have appeared in cartoons such as How to Train Your Dragon and Disney’s show Tailspin, as well as others.
It is no wonder axolotls are a widely sought-after aquarium pet. They are so darn cute with their broad smile, bright pink or red gills, and little dark eyes.
If you want an axolotl for your aquarium, you will likely need to find a private breeder.
While some people are lucky to find a pet store that has them in stock, this is not common because axolotls are not compatible with most reptile-friendly water temperatures.
Because they require this additional care in their own aquarium, most pet store owners choose not to offer them as part of their stock.
Another option is to ask a supplier if they are able to special order an axolotl for you, but generally, the best place to get a healthy axolotl is from another hobbyist.
You may also find an individual who is willing to sell their axolotl, even though you may pay a higher price than the typical price of $40-$60.
If you are looking to buy the species online, there are numerous places available. Be sure to do thorough research prior to placing an order so you are not disappointed and your money is well-spent.
Cost to Care for Axolotls
It will cost approximately $50 to feed an adult axolotl for a year.
Other requirements to keep the pet are the typical cost of an aquarium setup after the amphibian is purchased.
For a complete cost breakdown, Embora Pets provides a detailed breakdown list of axolotl expenses for you.
Axolotls are amazing creatures for aquarium enthusiasts.
With the proper preparation and care, they can give you years of enjoyment.
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