How to Keep Axolotls

Housing

Axolotl - Ambystoma mexicanum

Even Easier than Keeping Fish

A younger axolotl can be comfortably housed in a 10 gallon tank, but they will outgrow it in adulthood. A 20 or 40 gallon long/breeder tank provides a comfortable amount of floor space for your axolotl(s) to clamber around, and a short trip to the surface if they want to gulp air. We don’t exceed 3 fully grown adults per 40 gallon “long” tank, to keep the axolotls from being overcrowded. Your mileage may vary if you have smaller axolotls or a uniquely shaped tank.

Just like keeping fish, your lotls need a good filter on their aquarium. Offering them a place to hide is a good idea too, as they are not very fond of bright light. Whatever decorations you want in the tank are fine, as long as they do not present a safety hazard. They will even hide in glass jars of the right size. Make sure to use sand instead of gravel at the bottom, and if you don't have a cover on your tank, make sure the water level is not too close to the top, as they can jump out.

DOs & DON'Ts

Do:

  • Use sand on the bottom of the tank. Or you can just leave it bare.
  • Keep the aquarium in a place that doesn't get frequent sunlight. This could raise the temp, and cause algae blooms.
  • Keep your 'lotl by itself, or with other 'lotls of the same size. (Don't worry- they won't get lonely.)

Don't:

  • Don't use gravel or small rocks as substrate. These can cause impactions that can kill your 'lotl.
  • Don't use a heater. They love cool water, and the temp shouldn't get above about 74 degrees F.
  • Don't house with fish. Either the fish will eat the 'lotl, or your 'lotl will eat the fish. It's not good either way.

Food

Axolotl Foods:

Worms
  • Earthworms, nightcrawlers, red wigglers, etc.
  • Bloodworms when the axolotls are babies.
Krill (shrimp)
  • A favorite. Axolotls treat it like candy!
Squid
  • Chopped into bite-sized pieces, this keeps the water cleaner than any other food type we’ve tried.
Protein pellets
  • Especially Omega One Shrimp Pellets. We aren’t getting paid to endorse them; we have just tried lots of brands and are grateful to this one for saving us from having to change out the water so often due to mushy, wasted axolotl chow.

Worms = good. Pizza = bad.

What do they eat? If it will fit in their mouth, they will try! But though it may be tempting, don’t feed your axolotl bacon. Instead, try rotating through a combination of foods.

  A Word of Caution:

While we’re on the topic of the voracious appetites of axolotls: we don’t ever recommend gravel substrate in their tanks. It’s not a matter of if they will ingest the gravel, but how much. All that ballast in their tummies makes it hard to get to the surface to gulp air, negatively affects their digestion, and in a worse case scenario, can result in impaction. Aquarium grade sand is best.

Other Requirements

Getting Started

As with keeping fish, the water in an axolotl tank needs to be clean. We use tap water in our tanks, but we make sure to dechlorinate it first by using Stress Coat or Prime brand dechlorinators. These are available at any store that sells aquarium products (PetSmart, Petco, Walmart, etc.). When you first set up a fish tank, everything is brand new, and there hasn't been sufficient time for beneficial bacteria to colonize it. These helpful bacteria turn waste material in your tank into less toxic substances. However, they need time to multiply and grow. This is what is called "cycling" your tank- these bacteria facilitate the Nitrogen cycle. (We'll add more on this section soon.) Basically, it's best to have your tank up and running, with water and filtration, for a few weeks prior to getting your axolotl. In our experience, they are quite a bit more tolerant of the ups and downs of water quality during cycling than fish, but it's best to have the water ideal before introducing them to their new home.

Water Quality & Regular Maintenance

Once your tank is up and running for a month or so, you will notice that your water starts to get a bit discolored. This, of course, is due to the waste in your tank put out by the lotls. We recommend changing part (but not all) your water on a regular basis. If you have a 20 gallon tank with one adult axolotl, you should probably change about 50% - 80% of the water in the tank every couple weeks or so. Keep in mind- the more axolotls you have in your tank, and the more you feed them, the more frequently you will need to change the water.

Water changes are pretty easy, really. Changing a small tank shouldn't take more than about 20 minutes. To remove the old water, we use a siphon hose with a hand pump that you can get at a fish store, or PetSmart, Petco, etc. Once the water is removed, we use a large water jug to transfer water from the faucet to the tank. Make sure the water coming from your tap is fairly cool, and that you have added dechlorinator to the jug before adding the water. (The chlorine in tap water is very bad for 'lotls and will make them sick immediately.) Some people opt for a hose to refill their tanks, and thus add the dechlorinator directly into the tank during refill.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you pronounce “axolotl”?

ACK-suh-lot-uhl. It's an Aztec name.

How can I tell if my axolotl is a male or female?

Axolotls usually have ambiguous genitalia until they get ready to breed. Then the males get bulges at the base of their tail, and females round out with eggs. For the record, your axolotl will not hold it against you if you call him Samantha or her Jimbob, as long as you keep bringing on the worms.

Can axolotls be kept together?

Axolotls are opportunistic feeders, and when they get hungry, any movement in the tank means a potential meal. We recommend keeping them separated until they’re ~5 inches long. With adequate tank space and food, they seldom if ever try to chomp on one another. Please note: while axolotls can regenerate some parts, they do not always grow them back perfectly or retain full use of the new limbs. It’s better to prevent cannibalism in the first place! (Apologies, Dr. Hannibal Lecter.) If you house males and females together, be prepared for eggs! And if you get in over your head with hundreds of them, we will always help take in surplus eggs or axolotls and find them good homes.

Can I hold them?

We understand… they’re really cute. But axolotls have sensitive skin and a protective, slippery mucous coating, so recreational handling is out. Moving them by hand when transferring between tanks can be easier and even safer than using a net, so brief handling such as this is all right. Otherwise, just love them from afar.

What kind of water do you use?

Tap water treated with dechlorinating drops, particularly a brand containing aloe to help with slime coat, is generally a safe water treatment for them. Water samples can be tested for free at most local pet stores to ensure correct parameters, if you’re not sure.

Can they be kept with other pets, like fish?

No, we don't recommend keeping them with any other animals, except other similarly-sized axolotls (provided your tank is large enough). Adding fish to the tank is a bad idea. Either your axolotl will eat them, or the fish will nip at the 'lotl and cause damage. Not good either way.

Can males be kept with other males?

Axolotls aren’t all about the “machismo”. Any combination of males and females can be housed together given enough space, hiding places, and especially food.

My axolotl’s gills got really pale suddenly, is this ok?

Gills fronds can change color depending on exertion of the axolotl. When they dart around the tank, the gills will flush bright red or purple, depending on axolotl color. When the axolotls are sedentary (relaxalotls?), especially less active during colder months, their gills can become pale, but this is harmless.

How often do I feed them?

This is contingent on their age, growth rate, and metabolism which can be affected by water temperature and the axolotl’s general health. Here’s a general guide to frequency:

  • Hatchlings: every day, twice a day if you can.
  • Juveniles: every 1-2 days.
  • Fully grown adults: 2-3 times a week.

Are they the same as mud puppies, Mexican walking fish, water dogs, woopers, etc…?

Common names get assigned willy-nilly to animals and cause confusion amongst the pet trade, but Ambystoma mexicanum refers only to axolotls, colloquially known as Mexican walking fish. We’re not crazy about that name, as it misleads people to think these special animals are fish instead of amphibians. However, their Mexican heritage was the inspiration for the name Aguamigos. Other relatives include tiger salamanders, mudpuppies, sirens, and according to Pokemon fans, woopers.

How long do they live?

10-15 years is the estimated average. We drink to your axolotls’ health!

How big do they get?

Average adult size ranges from 8-12 inches long, but some buck the trend. The mother of our first batch of cute little water monsters is now 14 inches long! It’s always better to err on the side of excess when it comes to tank size, in case your axolotl is a gluttonous overachiever.

How do I keep the water cold enough for them?

This is a valid concern, especially here in Texas in the summer. The larger a volume of water, the more stable the temperature, so keeping your 'lotls in a large tank is beneficial. Keeping them in a downstairs room is better than an upstairs one, as well as positioning the tank away from windows which may add solar heat. Using fluorescent lighting adds less heat than incandescent. Generally if the air conditioning is at a comfortable level for humans (77 or below for us), it will stay a safe temperature for your axolotls. Their water should never exceed 74 degrees, and cooler is better.

 

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