Axolotls are fascinating and unique amphibians that bring an exotic beauty to any tank that houses them. They’re known to bring a lot of joy to their owners because of their playful behavior and their smile – that’s right! The shape of their face and mouth makes it look like they’re constantly smiling. Who doesn’t want a happy amphibian in their aquarium? But to have a happy amphibian, you need to understand Axolotl care.
Axolotls are somewhat challenging to keep, so they can present a challenge for beginner aquarists. They’re sensitive to water conditions and lighting, so proper care requires some careful consideration and planning.
Below, we’re going to go over everything you need to know about Axolotl care. We’ll cover their required tank set up, diet needs, appropriate tank mates, and more to help you decide if these happy little amphibians are right for your aquarium.
Recommended Axolotl Care Items:
What is an Axolotl?
An Axolotl is an amphibian native to lakes, canals, and other stagnant water sources in Mexico. Its scientific name is Ambystoma mexicanum.
They are commonly referred to as Mexican Walking Fish because they use their four legs to move along the bottom of their habitat. Despite being called a fish, the Axolotl is actually an amphibian.
They are unique not only in appearance but in their lack of metamorphosis. While most amphibians undergo significant physical changes as they mature, the Axolotl maintains its larval features throughout its life.
Additionally, Axolotls are among the few amphibians who live their entire lives underwater. They rely on their gill stalks for oxygen intake and cannot survive on land like most other adult amphibians.
Axolotl Care: Appearance
Axolotls are adorable creatures that resemble a salamander. They have broad heads with lidless eyes and a small mouth that typically makes the Axolotl look like it’s smiling.
Their bodies are slender from a top view but look thick from the side. They have a caudal fin beginning behind their heads and extending down the length of their bodies to their tails. The tails resemble those of a tadpole; they are thick and vertically positioned to aid in movement.
Axolotls have six gill stalks sitting behind their heads, three on each side. These amphibians live in stagnant waters, and these stalks help move oxygenated water to their external gills. The stalks have filaments extending off of them that branch out to capture adequate oxygen, making them look like feathery gills.
They have four legs, which they use to walk around the floor of their habitat. Each leg is thin and extends into four long, slender “fingers.”
They have tiny teeth that aren’t typically visible. It’s believed that these are vestigial structures and aren’t actually used for eating. Instead, Axolotls rely on suction to take in food.
Axolotls have a few color variations, the most common of which in the wild is brown and olive green with yellow or golden spots across the head and body. The most frequent coloration for captive Axolotls is pale pink or white with reddish filaments on their gill stalks. This coloration is found in Axolotls that are both albino and leucistic, two recessive traits that are often selected for by breeders.
Axolotl Care: Lifespan
Axolotls live around 10 years on average, but some have been known to reach about 15 years.
Although they generally have a long lifespan, they are sensitive to changes in their environment, so proper care must be taken to extend their lives for as long as possible.
Axolotl Care: Size
Axolotls most commonly grow to around 10 inches long, but they can range from anywhere between 6 inches and 30 inches. Most are under 25 inches, and even this is considered very large and uncommon.
They typically weigh around 6-8 ounces when fully grown but can reach weights over 15 ounces in some cases.
Axolotls are somewhat challenging amphibians to care for because they need healthy and stable conditions at all times to stay healthy. They don’t fare well with changes in water quality, lighting, or diet, so they need a higher level of maintenance than most fish and other amphibians.
Below, we’ll discuss everything you need to know to provide a proper Axolotl care so your pets will thrive.
Axolotl Care: Habitat
Axolotls are native to Mexico and live primarily in Lake Xochimilco. They previously inhabited Lake Chalco as well, but it was drained to help prevent flooding, which killed off many of these amphibians.
Unfortunately, Lake Xochimilco has lost much of its size as well in response to the growth of Mexico City. The existing natural habitat of the Axolotl is minimal and has been exposed to invasive species, such as the Asian Carp and African Tilapia. Axolotls have therefore been named as an endangered species. Their numbers in the wild are believed to be dropping continuously despite this designation.
They live naturally at the bottoms of lakes and canals where the water is stagnant. As such, they require little – if any – water movement in their tanks in captivity.
Axolotl Care: Tank
Axolotls are relatively active amphibians, so they need plenty of space to move around in their tank. A single Axolotl will require at least a 10-gallon tank, despite its small size. This volume will give them room to exercise and explore and will leave enough space for a cave or other places to hide, which Axolotls enjoy greatly.
Keep in mind that, although these amphibians often can’t be housed together, each additional Axolotl you keep in a single tank would require an extra 10 gallons if you do choose to keep more than one.
If you’re searching for a tank that will be suitable for your Axolotl, we recommend the Aqueon 10-Gallon Black Aquarium.
What We Like About This Tank
- It provides plenty of floor space for your Axolotl to move and explore
- It’s very affordable and will fit into most aquarists’ budgets
What We Don’t Like About This Tank
- It doesn’t include a lid, light, or stand
- You’ll need to purchase a filter and heater separately
Axolotl Care: Water Conditions
As we mentioned previously, Axolotls are very sensitive to changes in their water conditions. You’ll have to take great care to keep their tank clean, and you’ll need to carry out regular water testing to ensure that chemical levels are within the proper range.
Axolotls live in relatively cold conditions where the water temperature rarely reaches into the 70s (Fahrenheit). You’ll want to maintain a temperature between 60 and 70 at all times, and it should never get over 75.
Axolotls can quickly become distressed if the temperature fluctuates too rapidly or reaches levels that are too low or too high. Temperatures below 60 can slow your Axolotl’s metabolism to dangerous and potentially deadly levels, while temperatures above 70 can distress your Axolotl, leading to a greater risk of infection and death.
As such, a constant water temperature is best, so aim to keep your tank around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Axolotls live in stagnant waters like lakes and canals, and they don’t fare well with water movement and can get distressed and lose their interest in food if they experience too much motion in the water. As such, we strongly recommend using a canister filter and a spray bar to reduce the flow rate of water inside your tank.
In addition to proper water return from your filter, plants and other decorations can help limit the movement of water in your Axolotl’s tank.
We recommend a low-flow spray bar like the Eheim AEH4004310 Spray Bar Set to return clean water without disrupting the flow too much.
Axolotls are very sensitive to the chemicals dissolved in their water, and even low chlorine levels can be dangerous and even deadly.
Chlorine is found in most tap water, as water treatment plants use it to kill bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms. While it’s healthy enough for humans to drink in small quantities, it can be deadly to your Axolotl. We suggest you dechlorinate water before adding it to your Axolotl’s tank and use a testing kit to ensure healthy levels.
Like most fish and amphibians, Axolotls are also sensitive to nitrites, nitrates, and ammonia, all of which are natural byproducts of animal waste and uneaten bits of food breaking down in your water.
These three chemicals need to be kept to an absolute minimum to keep your Axolotl healthy. They will require weekly water changes of around 20% of the tank volume, and regular testing should be carried out to keep your water in check.
We recommend picking up the API Aquarium Test Kit for testing your water.
What We Like About This Test Kit
- It’s very affordable
- It includes 800 tests for various harmful chemicals
What We Don’t Like About This Test Kit
- It doesn’t include a test for chlorine
- It relies on color changes, which isn’t the most accurate
4. Water pH
Lastly, you should take care to maintain healthy pH levels in your Axolotl’s tank, as fluctuations or spikes can cause distress, a greater risk of infection, and death.
Axolotls are accustomed to a pH between 6.5 and 8.0. A pH of 7.5 is considered the healthiest. Regardless of the level you maintain within that range, it should remain constant at all times.
Axolotl Care: What to Put in Their Tank
Designing your Axolotl’s tank is more important than creating a beautiful aquarium. You’ll need to maintain a healthy environment for your animal as well. Below are our recommendations for what to include in an Axolotl tank.
Axolotls eat using suction, which means they commonly ingest bits of the substrate while they’re feeding. Large bits of substrate that get consumed can cause impaction, which is life-threatening.
Some Axolotl owners leave their tank floor bare to prevent this, but Axolotls can get distressed if they cannot get ample traction on bare glass.
The best substrate for Axolotls is sand, as the small pieces will move freely through their digestive system and can be safely excreted without the risk of impaction or other complications. Additionally, sand allows them to dig and play, which can improve their mood and general well-being.
We recommend the Caribsea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand for your Axolotl’s tank.
What We Like About This Substrate
- The small pieces don’t present an issue if ingested
- It resists the build-up of dangerous compounds beneath the surface
What We Don’t Like About This Substrate
- It can be a bit challenging to clean with an aquarium vacuum
- It is relatively expensive
Axolotls require carefully maintained water, so an efficient, reliable filter is crucial to keep your animal healthy. We recommend a strong canister filter that can handle well above your tank’s volume. Canister filters will remove more waste and reduce the concentration of nitrites, nitrates, and ammonia in the water through the use of biological filter media.
For more information on canister filters and which will provide the best multi-step filtration for your Axolotl, check out our comparison of the best canister filters available.
Remember, high water flow rates can cause distress and even death for your Axolotl, so the filter you decide on should reintroduce clean water with minimal movement. A spray bar is best to keep the flow to a minimum.
We recommend hooking your filter up to a spray bar like the Eheim AEH4004310 Spray Bar Set. This will reduce water flow and help aerate your tank simultaneously.
For your filter, we recommend using an aquarium power strip. It protects against power surges and keeps your aquarium cabinet organized.
Axolotls are accustomed to low-light conditions in their natural habitat, and they quickly become stressed if they experience intense light. As such, many owners choose not to include a light at all in their tank.
If you do want a viewing light, a weak one is best. Take note that any dedicated aquarium light will likely stress your Axolotl, so keep an eye on signs of distress and remove the light or leave it off if your animal isn’t reacting well. Most Axolotls can adapt to low-intensity aquarium lights in a week or so.
While Axolotls are beautiful animals by themselves, tank decorations can improve the appearance of your set up and provide some mental stimulation for your amphibian.
Plants are an excellent addition and can provide some natural cover that your Axolotl will greatly appreciate. They do well with anubias, hornworts, and java ferns, and they won’t mind artificial aquarium plants either.
More important than plants is a good cave for your animal to hide in and feel secure. You’ll very likely find that your Axolotl loves any covered area where they can relax, so we strongly recommend including one in your tank.
We recommend the AQQA Aquarium Trunk Decoration Hideout Cave. It provides a large enough space for your Axolotl to fit and feel secure, it brings a lot of beauty to your set up, and it provides a viewing window in the side, so your Axolotl will always be in sight.
Axolotl Care: Potential Diseases
Unfortunately, Axolotls aren’t the most resilient animals, so you’ll need to be aware of the diseases they are prone to and the warning signs that can indicate that they are stressed or unhealthy. Understanding potential diseases is an important part of Axolotl care. We’ll go over everything you need to know about Axolotl health and wellness below.
1. Regenerative Powers!
Axolotls have the unique ability to regenerate and heal damaged portions of their bodies throughout their whole lives. In fact, they’re studied by scientists interested in regeneration because of how readily they can regrow even entirely missing limbs.
In the right conditions, they can heal damaged body parts like gills, legs, and tails, in addition to healing other topical wounds. We think this limb regeneration capability is pretty special.
Axolotls are prone to stress more than most fish and amphibians, and many factors can exacerbate their anxiety.
Among these factors are changes in water temperature or pH, rapid fluctuation or unhealthy levels of chlorine, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates, water flow being too high, improper lighting, and changes in temperatures or temperatures reaching harmful levels.
Quickly fixing the condition that causes your Axolotl stress is imperative for maintaining their health, so you’ll need to know the signs of distress and keep an eye out for them regularly.
Common signs of stress include a disinterest in eating, irregular eating habits, excessive or agitated floating in the tank, forward-bending gill stalks, and a curled tail.
Once you identify that your Axolotl is stressed, you should immediately fix the underlying problem to avoid additional complications like infection and death.
Impaction most often occurs in Axolotls if they ingest large substrate pieces during feeding, but it can also be caused by overfeeding. It’s a condition where the substrate or food gets caught in the digestive system and prevents regular digestion and excretion.
Signs of impaction include a disinterest in food, odd eating habits, and irregular waste production.
Fridging – which we’ll discuss below – can help resolve impaction problems in some cases.
The best ways to prevent impaction entirely are to get the right kind of substrate that won’t cause blockages and maintain healthy feeding schedules.
4. Common Diseases/Infections
Axolotls aren’t prone to many diseases, but they can experience several infections.
The most common infection is caused by a bacteria called Aeromonas hydrophila. More commonly referred to as “red leg bacteria,” it’s characterized by reddish or pinkish patches on the limbs and body.
Columnaris is a bacterial infection that presents itself in whitish patches on the skin.
Additionally, Saprolegnia, an aquatic fungus, can infect your Axolotl and cause white or grey discoloration on the skin.
While Axolotls commonly walk around the bottom of their tank, they can also float at will and can be seen swimming even up at the water’s surface.
However, excessive floating or signs of distress while floating can indicate a problem with your animal, including impaction and other infections.
6. Axolotl Fridging
“Fridging” is the process of removing your Axolotl from its tank and placing it in a smaller, refrigerated container in the fridge. Temporarily maintaining water temperatures around 40-45 degrees (Fahrenheit) can help resolve impaction and infections, so it’s commonly used to treat sick or overly-stressed Axolotls.
To carry out fridging, place your Axolotl in a container of dechlorinated water in the fridge. The container should provide enough space for your animal to extend fully, and it should have air holes in the lid and headspace to allow your Axolotl to gulp air from above the water’s surface.
Change the water every day with dechlorinated water, and avoid feeding in the small container. Axolotls won’t be hungry in colder water, as their digestion will be slowed.
Fridging should be done for about one to two weeks or until their condition improves. Reintroduce your Axolotl to tank water slowly to prevent temperature shocking.
7. Axolotl Salt Bath
Salt in low concentrations is a natural disinfectant that can be used on aquarium equipment. You can use it to treat bacterial and fungal infections to which your Axolotl may be exposed.
You can prepare an Axolotl salt bath by mixing a liter or two of dechlorinated water with non-iodized salt at a ratio of 2 teaspoons of salt for every liter of water. Match the temperature of the salt bath with your tank water, and then transfer your Axolotl. Let your animal soak for 10-15 minutes before returning them to their regular tank.
You can intermittently use salt baths alongside fridging, in which case you would match the saltwater bath temperature to the temperature of the fridging water.
You can give your Axolotl a salt bath once every 12 hours or so for a few days until the condition clears.
Axolotl Care: Feeding
Axolotls are carnivores, and they feed on worms, small fish, and insects in their natural habitat. Feeding is an important part of Axolotl care. You’ll need to take care to offer them a diet rich in protein to sustain their size and keep them healthy.
What Do Axolotls Eat?
In captivity, Axolotls have many food options, including fish pellets, bloodworms, earthworms, and small feeder fish.
Whole food options, like bloodworms, can be offered live or frozen, but Axolotls can be a bit picky and refuse frozen food.
Be very careful if you offer them feeder fish, as they can contain parasites that could infect your animal.
How Often Should They Be Fed?
Axolotls should be fed every 2-3 days, and you can continue to feed them during a feeding session until they stop eating. Adolescent Axolotls should typically be fed daily.
You should avoid feeding adults more often for two reasons. First, overfeeding can easily lead to impaction, which can, in turn, lead to increased risk of infection and even death. Second, uneaten food will break down in your tank into nitrites and nitrates, both of which are harmful to your Axolotl and can cause many complications and death.
If you are fridging your Axolotl, they shouldn’t be fed – and likely will refuse food anyway – until they are returned to their regular tank and water temperature.
How Long Can They Go Without Eating?
A healthy Axolotl can survive for about two weeks without food. An Axolotl in fridging may survive longer, but we don’t recommend going beyond the two-week mark at lower water temperatures.
Axolotl Care: Tank Mates
Axolotls aren’t known to be aggressive, so many aquarists assume that adding other non-aggressive species to their tanks is acceptable. However, we strongly recommend against keeping them with any other animals.
An Axolotl’s gill stalks are very attractive to fish, and most species end up nibbling at the filaments. Even fish that are otherwise friendly can quickly destroy the Axolotl’s gills and make it difficult for them to breathe.
Small fish and shrimp are also likely to be mistaken for food and eaten by your Axolotl.
As such, there are no other species that are entirely safe to house in the same tank as your Axolotl.
Axolotls have similar issues with others of their species. Large Axolotls often eat smaller ones, and juvenile Axolotls regularly attack each other and have been known to kill other juveniles. Fully-grown Axolotls are generally peaceful when kept in the same tank, but they need to be kept separate until they’re fully mature and can coexist peacefully.
Axolotl Care: Morphs (Important for Breeding)
In the wild, axolotls are typically olive green and brown with random golden specks on their bodies and tails. However, several morphs present with drastically different color patterns. Some of these are recessive and rare, but they show up regularly due to selective breeding in captivity.
Wild-type axolotls maintain their natural olive green, brown, and black coloration with spots of gold. They have dark eyes with a distinct golden ring. The gene responsible for the natural color is dominant and appears most regularly in wild Axolotls.
Albinism is a recessive trait in Axolotls. An Albino axolotl presents with a white or pale pink body and bright red filaments on the gill stalks.
Melanoid Axolotls are deep grey and can appear as if they have a bluish hue in certain lighting. They have dark eyes and dark grey or black gill stalk filaments. Melanism is a recessive trait.
Leucistic Axolotls look similar to albinos with white or pinkish bodies and bright red or pink gill stalks. However, they have dark eyes. Like albinism, leucism is a recessive trait.
Unsurprisingly, Golden Albino Axolotls are a form of albinos, so they result from a recessive trait. They have a distinct yellow or golden hue to their skin, peach-colored gill stalks, and pale eyes.
A Copper Axolotl doesn’t contain any black pigmentation, so their skin appears to have a light red or copper color. They have red eyes and dark red gill stalks. The trait responsible for this coloration is related to albinism and is recessive.
GFP (green fluorescent protein) Axolotls originated in a lab setting, where their DNA was altered to contain a protein that glows bright green under black light. The trait is recessive and can be passed onto offspring. Any Axolotl morph can have the green fluorescent protein, but the glowing will be more significant in those lacking pigment.
There are several other morphs that are less common, some of which cannot be selected for.
The Chimera Axolotl is exceptionally rare because it cannot be selected for and is believed to result from two eggs merging randomly. It appears to have two completely different colorations with a distinct dividing line down the middle of their bodies.
Mosaic Axolotls cannot be selected for either and are a result of two cells merging during development. The product is a mixed coloration in a mosaic pattern that can include any of the other morphs’ colors.
Finally, the Piebald Axolotl often appears white or pinkish on its underbelly but has green, grey, or black coloration on its back in a mosaic pattern. The gene responsible for the piebald coloration is recessive.
Axolotl Care: Breeding
Axolotl breeding is widespread and can be done without too much difficulty. Successful breeding is a reward for proper Axolotl care. We’ll go over everything you need to know about breeding these beautiful amphibians below.
Sexing and Reaching Sexual Maturity
Identifying the sex of your Axolotl is generally pretty straightforward. Males will have a swollen cloaca on their abdomens, which is an opening that serves as an exit point for the digestive and reproductive systems. Females tend to have smaller cloaca and wider bodies to support egg development.
Axolotls reach sexual maturity in their larval stage, which is uncommon in amphibians. Full maturity takes just a few months. However, it’s recommended not to breed until your Axolotl is fully grown, as breeding can put a lot of stress on a young axolotl and cease development. Waiting around 18 months is the standard for safe breeding.
Thinking Through Morph Combinations
Axolotls have 28 chromosomes. Just like all animals, their sex cells – sperm and eggs – have half that, at 14. During fertilization, 14 chromosomes from the sperm merge with 14 chromosomes from the egg to form a new, complete set of 28 chromosomes.
Each chromosome has alleles, which are gene variations that determine the genetic makeup of an Axolotl. When the alleles meet, the dominant allele will always take precedence over a recessive one. As such, Axolotls that present recessive traits (like albinism) will always pass on the gene for albinism and never the dominant alternative. Two albino Axolotls will always produce another albino.
You can use this logic to determine which Axolotls you should breed to get the morphs you’d like in the offspring. The axolotl genome is a fascinating one to learn about!
Male Axolotls are only ready to deliver sperm to unfertilized eggs every four months or so. You can begin counting the months once the tips of their digits start to darken or lighten, as this is a sign they have reached sexual maturity. Use this cycle to determine when breeding can occur.
Adult axolotls don’t have a very predictable breeding schedule. Some research suggests that shorter days – or simulated shorter days – can help prepare your animals for breeding, but this isn’t definitive.
Thankfully, your Axolotl can coexist year-round once they’re fully grown and don’t require a separate breeding tank. You can house a male and a female together and simply wait for them to start breeding. The process naturally takes place about once annually.
Axolotl Breeding Tank
Some aquarists opt for a separate breeding tank if they begin to see signs of the breeding process beginning. Whether you use a separate tank or not, make sure there are plenty of live plants and stones where the sperm and eggs can be laid safely.
Courtship and Spawning
When your Axolotls are ready to begin breeding, the male will lay its sperm down on leaves, plants, and other fixtures in your tank. He will then get the female’s attention with quick flaps of his tail and lead her to the areas where his sperm is waiting. Fertilization occurs when the female moves over the sperm.
Within a few days of fertilization, the female will lay up to 1,000 eggs around the tank, affixing them to plants and other surfaces.
Hatching the Eggs
Eggs will naturally hatch in about 2-3 weeks in proper water temperatures around 65-70 degrees (Fahrenheit).
Keep the tank well aerated with an air stone during the hatching process. Once the eggs hatch, you can feed the babies live food, including baby brine shrimp, daphnia, and microworms.
Baby Axolotls should be separated from other Axolotls to prevent fighting and nipping as they mature.
How is Axolotl Pronounced?
Are Axolotls Good Pets?
Axolotls can be great pets if you’re willing to put the time and effort into meeting their need for clean, well-regulated water. They’re beautiful animals that are playful and always appear to be smiling, so they bring a lot of joy to many aquarists. They are unique and can also serve as conversation pieces.
How Much Does it Cost to Buy an Axolotl?
Standard morphs are inexpensive and typically cost around $30-40. The equipment required to keep them healthy can be costly, sometimes up to $300 for a single-Axolotl tank. Rarer morphs reportedly fetch hundreds of dollars.
Can You Legally Own an Axolotl?
Although they are considered endangered in the wild, they are legal to own in most states. It’s illegal to own one in California, New Mexico, and Maine. Some other states have limitations on importing them but no issues with ownership.
Are Axolotls Dangerous to Humans?
Just one look at their adorable smile, and you’ll see that they are entirely harmless to humans!
Do Axolotls Like to Be Touched?
Like most amphibians, Axolotls can be touched, but they don’t particularly enjoy it. If you do want to touch them, do so gently and with clean hands.
Can Axolotls Live with Fish?
Not usually. Axolotls often mistake small fish for food and eat them. Otherwise friendly fish of any size are attracted to the Axolotl’s gill stalks and tend to nip on them, causing damage to your amphibian.
Why Do You Put Axolotls in the Fridge?
“Fridging” is a technique used to help impaction (a digestive issue) and help kill off parasites, bacteria, and fungal infections.
Can Axolotls Live with Goldfish?
Axolotls will usually eat Goldfish if they are housed in the same tank. Goldfish also tend to nibble on the Axolotl’s gill stalks, which can be harmful and even lead to death.
Are Axolotls Endangered?
Unfortunately, yes. Due to habitat destruction, Axolotls are listed as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Wild axolotl numbers are extremely low; there are estimated to be between 700 to 1,200 axolotls remaining in the wild.
Is the Axolotl Right for Your Aquarium?
Axolotls are beautiful, unique amphibians that bring a lot of joy to aquarists and a conversation piece to many homes. They’re playful and happy, but they require specific conditions to maintain good health. They’re cute with frilly gills and vibrant colors. They also have the superpower of tissue regeneration. They’re endangered with only limited numbers of specimens remaining in the wild axolotl population.
As long as you can commit the time and energy to keep up with their required Axolotl care, including weekly water changes, proper feeding schedules, and restorative practices in the case of infection, your pet Axolotl will be a wonderful addition to your home, provided you intend to keep them as a sole tank inhabitant.