Are Axolotls Easy to Keep? A Complete Guide to Caring for Axolotls

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The popularity of axolotls as pets has increased dramatically in recent years, thanks to social media and Minecraft. Does that necessarily make them easy to keep though? Here's our complete guide to keeping axolotls, as well as some things you need to consider before purchasing...

Compared with, say, terrapins or bearded dragons, axolotls are significantly easier to keep and this has lead to a whole new, younger generation of aquatic hobbyists. Axolotls are smaller, easier to feed, and don’t (usually) require any expensive equipment to do well. At the same time, however, like so many exotic animals, when it comes to healthcare, prevention is better than cure. Their demands, though modest, are not up for debate, and if you can’t provide the conditions they need, these aren’t the pets for you. So, let’s take a deep dive into the real world of the axolotls outside their video game appearances...

 

What sort of tank do I need for an axolotl?

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Axolotls are completely aquatic animals that never come onto the land, and this makes housing relatively straightforward. A 90-litre tank should be considered the absolute minimum for an adult, and while youngsters might be reared for a while in a smaller system, I’d always advise people on a budget to get the tank needed for the adult, rather than wasting money on a smaller enclosure that’ll be outgrown in a year or so.

Related article: Your guide to what goes where when setting up your first aquarium 

 

Some things to consider when purchasing a tank for your axolotl:

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1. Besides the tank, you’ll need a secure lid 
While axolotls aren’t especially jumpy, they won’t last long out of the water if they do somehow manage to escape. The lid needn’t be anything fancy: a piece of plate glass cut to size and with the sharp edges ground off will do the job.
 

2. Lighting 
If you prefer, you can use a standard issue aquarium hood, but axolotls aren’t fussed about light—indeed, they prefer their tank to be dark.

 

Some people like to turn the lights on for a few hours so they can watch their pets, and that’s fine provided the axolotls have some hollow ornaments or thickets of plants where they can hide if they feel like it. If you want lights on your tank, use LEDs that don’t produce much heat and won’t warm the water too much.

 

Because axolotl tanks are usually dimly lit (if at all), live plants aren’t really an option. I’ve kept them with things like Anubias, but otherwise the best option would be floating, cold-tolerant plants such as hornwort.

While plants aren’t useful, hollow ceramic ornaments certainly are. Choose these according to taste, but make sure they’re big enough that your axolotl can comfortably wiggle in and hide away when it wants to. Avoid anything with rough edges as axolotls are easily scratched.

 

In a dimly-lit tank, your axolotls won’t hide away much, so don’t clutter up the tank with ornaments either. Open areas where they can feed easily, and where you can easily (spot and) remove any leftovers, are very important.

 

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3. Furniture or rocks for your axolotl tank


When it comes to décor, keep things simple. To start with, you can skip the addition of substrate entirely if you want. While there’s some debate about whether a few millimetres’ depth of sand is better (it stops light reflecting off the tank bottom, but is marginally harder work to keep clear) it’s widely agreed that gravel should be avoided. As is so often the case in animal husbandry, this is one situation where the natural behaviour of the axolotls conflicts with what’s best in captivity.

 

Wild axolotls swallow small amounts of gravel, just like many birds do, but in captivity the gravel particles aren’t necessarily the right size and shape, and there are reports of axolotls ending up with intestinal blockages because of this. How often this happens, and whether it’s the gravel that actually caused the death of an axolotl aren’t entirely clear—few pet axolotls receive post mortems. Nonetheless, it’s not worth the risk: either use smooth, lime-free sand or don’t bother with the substrate at all.

 

4. Water chemistry and temperature 

Axolotls come from Central America, so moderately hard, neutral to slightly alkaline conditions suit them best—they aren’t fussy, but they won’t do well in very soft water. ‘Liquid rock’ (extremely hard water) of the sort served up to hobbyists in Southern England is no barrier at all to axolotls, which will thrive in such conditions.
 

If you live in a soft water area there’s a bespoke mixture of salts, known as Holtfreter’s Solution, particularly suited to axolotls that you can either mix yourself or purchase ready-made (such as NT Labs’ Axotonic). Failing that, the salt mixes sold for Central American cichlids will usually do the job just as well.
 

However, water temperature is one of their non-negotiable demands. Although they come from Mexico, they aren’t ‘tropical’ animals in the sense of needing a lot of heat. In fact, axolotls are perfectly content in unheated tanks.

The ideal temperature range is something like 16-20°C—about the same as goldfish. An unheated room is ideal, with the tank located out of direct sunlight so it doesn’t become too hot or too bright during the day. If you have a basement or cellar that’s cool all year round, so much the better.

 

Related article: Why is my aquarium cloudy? 
 

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About the only time you’re likely to have problems is during a heat wave. Some axolotl keepers use a chiller to cool the water. Designs vary, but the basic sort is connected up the outgoing water from an external canister filter. You set the desired temperature, and the chiller will cool the water accordingly. Chillers aren’t cheap—basic models cost a little under £300—but they are reliable and easy to use.
 

Axolotls can tolerate a few weeks of summertime heat without too much bother if sensible precautions are taken to minimise stress. For a start, turn off any aquarium lights as these warm the water to some extent. Increase aeration, both to keep the oxygen levels high and to promote evaporation—when water evaporates, it takes some of the heat away. Replace the hood with a plastic mesh that’ll keep the axolotls in, and put a fan nearby to help even more.
 

More proactively, you can top up the tank periodically with small amounts of cool water—not enough to shock the axolotls, but enough to knock a couple of degrees off the tank’s temperature. 10-15% a day should be sufficient. Alternatively, plastic food containers can be filled with ice and then floated in the tank, unopened, to further cool the aquarium slowly. If the tank gets some sunshine, silver insulation packaging can be used to reflect away the heat and keep the tank inside nice and cool.
 

While a few days above 20°C isn’t anything to worry about if your axolotls are healthy and well looked after, prolonged exposure to high temperatures will stress them and shorten their lives.

 

What do axolotls eat?

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Feeding axolotls is fun! They prefer meaty foods, and adore earthworms, but they’ll also take bits of fish fillet and seafood, frozen bloodworms, and even small pieces of meat (of which more shortly). There are also axolotl pellet foods available—mine never showed much interest, but perhaps I spoilt them with other foods! If the axolotls at your local store are taking pellets, these are good staples and widely used in labs as the only food needed to keep and breed them.

 

Axolotls have poor eyesight and hunt by smell more than anything else, but they are attracted to movement. Use long forceps to wiggle something under their noses, and they’ll usually bite—or rather, suck. Axolotls have vestigial teeth and can’t really bite in any meaningful way, but instead suddenly inhale whatever it is they want to swallow.

 

In the wild, gravel that axolotls swallow (technically, gastroliths) probably helps to grind down the exoskeletons of whatever insects and other prey they consume. The big advantage of meat over the other foods mentioned is that it’s relatively cheap and something like a beef-heart can be cut up into slivers, frozen, and then used to feed them across several weeks.

 

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While axolotls accept meat, it’s debatable whether this is good for them. There’s not a lot of science on this either way, though needless to say there are numerous opinions online! Whether meat is ‘natural’ is neither here nor there at this point: earthworms and prawns aren’t a natural part of their diet either, but nobody has any issues offering those to their axolotls.

 

Probably the best that can be said is that lean meat, such as beef-heart, can be used sparingly without any trouble. But fatty meats may cause problems (again, we’re relying more on anecdote that science here) and given the widely availability of alternative foods, I don’t see any compelling reason to feed axolotls meat at all.

 

Can I keep more than one axolotl together?

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Axolotls are not social animals and can be kept singly—and there are good reasons for keeping them on their own. Kept in groups, there’s a risk of them biting one another, and in some cases one will bully the other. Damage to the gills and feet in particular is common. In good conditions, these heal right up, but if axolotls are fighting all the time, it’s clearly not fun for them. If size differences are very great, cannibalism can even occur.

 

Can I handle an axolotl? Should you hold them?

While axolotls can be hand-fed using forceps, avoid handing them directly. They are easily damaged and more to the point really don’t like it.

 

Breeding Axolotls

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Ideally, keep just the one axolotl in a tank, unless you’re looking to breed them. If you do keep groups, provide plenty of space and ensure each axolotl has access to a hiding place of some sort. Most of the time aggression is limited to ‘get out of my face’ sort of interactions, so a bit of distance and a line-of-sight break helps to ensure peaceful relations.
 

If you have a pair and keep them well, you’ll be rewarded with hundreds of frogspawn-like eggs at some point. They do seem to have a distinct breeding season— usually spawning in winter, just when ensuring a steady supply of live food from my pond was hardest!

 

What's the difference between male and female axolotls?

 

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Starting with the basics: males and females look similar, but the males have an obviously larger region around their back legs where their testes are. Females are usually a bit stockier as well. The eggs are quite large and scattered about all over the place. It’s possible to get over a thousand eggs at a time.

 

Remove some to a shallow rearing tank, and dispose of the excess. The rearing tank needs gentle filtration (a sponge filter is ideal) and shouldn’t be more than 10-15 cm deep. Don’t use sand in the tank as you’ll need to keep it as clean as you can.

The eggs take a couple of weeks to hatch, but because they’re large and transparent, it’s easy to watch the embryos develop. Eventually, the tadpoles wriggle out and start hunting. They enjoy hanging about floating plants near the surface, but will also crawl along the bottom.

 

They are ferociously cannibalistic if not given enough food. Daphnia and other very small live foods work well to start with, graduating onto live and then frozen insect larvae as they mature. Growth is slow at first, and it’s really important to segregate them by size if you’re aiming to breed them in significant numbers. If you don’t, you’ll probably end up with just one or two big ones…

 

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Axolotl Fact File
Scientific name: Ambystoma mexicanum

Pronunciation: Am-bee-stow-ma mex-ick-an-um

Size: To 45cm (rare), usually tops out at 25cm

Origin: Endemic to Mexico

Habitat: Heavily vegetated marshes, pools, lakes and canals

Tank size: 100x45x30cm (depth not too important)


Water requirements: Neutral to slightly alkaline water; 7.0-8.0pH, 5-20dGH

Temperature: Ideally 16-18°C
Temperament: Antisocial, likely to eat anything it can fit in its mouth
Feeding: Axolotl-specific dry foods, as well as earthworm, insects, bloodworm, prawn, fish pieces, other meaty foods
Availability and cost: Surprisingly common in modern aquatic stores, prices vary pending size and colour, but start around £25

 

Filters for an axolotl tank

As axolotls are sensitive to poor water quality, they require a filter, just as fish in an aquarium do. The filter needs to be large enough to deal with the mess the axolotl will create, but doesn’t need to have a powerful outflow—axolotls prefer their water to be relatively stationary.

 

An internal canister filter will do the job, especially if its flow can be turned down, but a safer option may be a large, air driven sponge filter that sits in the tank. This will require an air pump to power it (which can be quite noisy) but is also a very cost efficient way of keeping water clean.

 

As with fish, it’s the biological element of the filter that’s essential, so always clean axolotl filters in a bowl of water taken from the tank, and never directly under a tap—tapwater will kill off your filter bacteria!

 

Related article: Do I need a filter for my aquarium?

 

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Fun fact: Did you know?

Axolotls don’t metamorphose because they don’t produce the hormone thyroxine that triggers metamorphosis in other amphibians. They also retain stem cells able to regenerate tissue to such an extent they can regrow missing limbs and even some of their organs. Scientists have injected axolotls with thyroxine and caused them to metamorphose, in which case they turn into something like a tiger salamander.

 

Recommended care products for axolotls 

For many years, axolotl care products were either DIY affairs (such as Holtfreter’s Solution), or repurposed from aquarium fish use, as in the case of dried foods, medicines and water conditioners. More recently, axolotl specific products have become readily available, taking the guesswork out of axolotl care. Here are four we wouldn’t want to be without…

 

Pro-f Axolotl Pellets — when it comes to dry food, axolotls want a nutritionally balanced, quick sinking food with a high protein content. Rich in smell to entice even the most stubborn of axolotls, Pro-f pellets remove the risk of introducing disease pathogens from live foods. Smaller junior pellets are richer in protein and vitamin content (for healthy growth) while the larger adult pellets ensure optimal nutrition without excess pollution.

 

AxoSafe Tap Water Conditioner — some commercially available aquarium dechlorinators contain aloe vera which isn’t desirable for axolotl care. AxoSafe is a conditioner that tackles chlorine, chloramine, halogens and heavy metals found in tap water, making it safe for use in waterchanges. Simply mix it with your water before use and you’re good to go. If you’re unsure of how much to use, NT Labs even has a dosage calculator to help you at ntlabs.co.uk/dosage-calculator

 

AxoTonic Salt Mixture known amongst axolotl keepers as a ‘modified Holtfreter’s Solution’, AxoTonic has many uses. Primarily, it caters to an axolotl’s need for optimal pH, KH and GH levels, it also helps to prevent fungal infections, and aid recovery should your axolotl become infected. In an idea world, it would be mixed with RO water, but if using tapwater (which will need to be dechlorinated first) all you need to know is the hardness level of your supply to calculate the exact dosage.

 

AxoCure Medicine Bath just like any animal, axolotls can fall victim to various disease pathogens, especially the likes of Chilodonella, Ichthyobodo, and monogenetic trematodes. Instead of risking a haphazard (and potentially dangerous) aquarium fish medication, AxoCure is specifically created for axolotls. For symptoms like sores and blisters, sliminess of the body, peeling skin, scratching or rubbing, and assuming that water quality is as it should be, then this is the treatment you’ll need.