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Everything About Axolotls, a Basic Guide for New Owners

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I'd be one of those crazy animal hoarders if my husband didn't keep me in check.

Everything About Axolotls, a Basic Guide for New Owners

Everything About Axolotls, a Basic Guide for New Owners

Axolotl Basics

There's lots of wrong information out there. I wrote this article because I'm upset by how much bad advice and misinformation I see online. I'd like to say it's animal abuse. However, I think most people were probably mislead or didn't do enough research. I'm here to save a lot of axolotls from dangerous, unhealthy lives (or death!).

Even most pet stores do not know how to properly care for them. I could tell you horror stories, but I'll skip that. I have axolotls (see photos of mine below!) and have learned a lot about how to take care of them with research, hard work, trial, and error.

How to Care for an Axolotl

In order to care for an axolotl properly, you must understand some important basics, like. . .

  • where they come from, what their life cycle looks like, and how rejuvenation works
  • their proper habitat (housing) and space requirements
  • tricks for keeping more than one axolotl
  • what they need inside the aquarium (including substrate and places to hide)
  • feeding and dietary needs (for adults and juveniles) and how often they need to eat
  • how to discover the gender of your axolotl

Below, you'll find information about all these topics and more!

Where Do Axolotls Come From?

Axolotls in the wild are only found in high altitude cold lakes and canals close to Mexico City, Mexico. However, today, these lakes have diminished. Only small bits and pieces of the canal can be found and now, it's very rare to find an axolotl there.

As a result, axolotls are on the endangered species list. Luckily for us, there are tons bred in captivity.

An axolotl is a type of water salamander that is stuck in its larval stage like a permanent tadpole, never growing up to be an adult.

An axolotl is a type of water salamander that is stuck in its larval stage like a permanent tadpole, never growing up to be an adult.

An Axolotl's Life Cycle

This wonderful amphibian is kept in its larval form. In other words, it hasn't completed metamorphosis like most amphibians do. What does that mean?

I will use a frog's life cycle to explain: A frog starts out as an egg, the egg hatches, and out pops a tadpole. The tadpole transforms as it grows and turns in to a frog. The larva form of a frog is a tadpole.

An axolotl is a type of water salamander that is stuck in its larval stage like a permanent tadpole, never growing up to be an adult.

In the wild, many did grow up to be adult water salamanders, completing the cycle. But in captivity, it is very, very rare for an axolotl to fully complete its difficult metamorphosis. Most die trying, and those that survive don't usually survive for long. So it is very important to never let your axolotl grow up.

How do you keep an an axolotl in its larval form?

You do this by keeping it in water, fully submerged at all times.

Axolotl Rejuvenation

Did you know axolotls can rejuvenate themselves? Meaning that if they lose a limb or a piece of their tail or gills, they are able to regrow them.

Proper Habitat (Housing)

How big of a tank do they need?

You will need an aquarium, at least a 20-gallon long tank. There is quite a difference in size between a standard 20 gallon and a 20-gallon long, so make sure you get the long version, which has much more floor space. That's where axolotls spend most their time—on the bottom of the tank.

Will a single axolotl get lonely?

Axolotls aren't social beings, they don't mind living alone, and no they wont be lonely or bored.

What if I want more axolotls?

If you want to keep more than one axolotl, you will add 10 gallons or more per axolotl—the more space, the better. So for two, you want at least a 30-gallon long tank. (In case you're wondering, most pet stores do carry both types: standard and long.)

If You Want More Than One Axolotl, You Should Know...

If you do plan to get more than one, it is important that you know that axolotls are cannibals (not on purpose) until they reach 6". So if you're getting more than one, they can NOT be housed together until they reach that size. They will hurt each other by attempting to eat each other. They will bite off gills, fingers, toes, and tails, thinking it's food. They have very poor eyesight.

This photo is from a member in the Caudata.org Axolotl Forum. It's an X-ray of an axolotl that has inhaled/eaten gravel.

This photo is from a member in the Caudata.org Axolotl Forum. It's an X-ray of an axolotl that has inhaled/eaten gravel.

Inside the Aquarium

The bottom of the tank is best if left bare. This is the number-one problem and risk I see: people and pet stores that put axolotls on gravel, tiny pebbles, or pretty little glass rocks/gems. These are huge no-nos.

Axolotls inhale their food by strongly sucking in. Picture a vacuum hose sucking up anything in its path. These guys can open their mouths as wide as their entire heads, so it is important not to have anything in the tank that is smaller than twice the size of your axolotl's head, to be safe. As your axolotl grows, so does its mouth, so remember that the sizes of the items in their tank should also get larger as they get larger.

If you do a simple image search for axolotls, half the photos you find will show them living in aquariums that have gravel. I get so mad. Those owners don't understand how dangerous and deadly this is. Chances are a pet store sold them the gravel. Either they just don't know or they know, but care more about making money than providing proper care.

What if my axolotl swallows gravel?

It gets stuck in their belly. It obviously can't be digested and it's usually to big to poop out. If the gravel is small enough, some have been known to pass it, but who knows what damage it causes internally on its way out. Most will live with the gravel inside them, slowly making them sick. Eventually, they'll stop eating and die of starvation. Trust me, the risks are not worth the look of gravel.

What substrates are safe?

There are a few substrates people use that are okay.

  • Play sand, like the kind you find at hardware stores or toy stores that is meant for kids' sandboxes. However, you have to rinse it thoroughly, and I'm talking a very long and tedious process. You put the sand in a large bucket, run a hose over, and run the water, constantly stirring the sand with the water running until the sand is no longer cloudy. I did this once for over 40 minutes. It seemed clear, so I put in my tank, but it was still cloudy. I let it sit for several days and it still looked cloudy. After that, I removed the sand. I will keep the bottom of the tank bare until I put in tile.
  • Some use fake aquarium grass, but to me it looks like it would be uncomfortable to the axolotl's delicate feet.
  • Large smooth river rocks are good too, but they're a pain to clean.
  • Ceramic tile is what I personally use. I got some from the hardware store that look like slate. I sealed it with a silicone that's safe for aquariums so nothing can get underneath.

Whatever you decide, remember you have to clean the tank often, and some substrates (like sand and rocks) are harder to clean.

This is my axolotl tank. This is the slate tile I adhered to the bottom of her tank.

This is my axolotl tank. This is the slate tile I adhered to the bottom of her tank.

Hides

Axolotls do NOT have eyelids, making them very sensitive to light. You will need to give them several places to hide to escape unwanted light. Some great examples are large PVC pipes, small terra cotta clay pots, fake plants, and caves.

I bought my hides in the reptile section in the pet store. My axolotl prefers hiding in the plants to get away from light. I do have tall leafy silk aquarium plants that are much softer than the plastic plants in the store. Some of the plastic ones have sharp edges on the leaves or stems which, in my opinion, could cut their fragile skin.

Fake plants or real?

I use the silk plants, but you can use real plants as well. I didn't research which types are best since I knew I wasn't going to use them, but I do keep a marimo moss ball in there. It helps filter the tank. I know many people use live plants and have special lighting. Axolotls may do great with them, but I think they are happier without any light (but that's my opinion).

Don't forget: an axolotl's skin is very delicate, more fragile than a fish's. So make sure not to put anything in the aquarium that is rough or sharp.

See the tall, leafy silk plants? Those are her favorite places to hide.

See the tall, leafy silk plants? Those are her favorite places to hide.

Feeding Time

Axolotls are strictly carnivores (meat eaters). Making sure your ax is getting enough nutrition is very important. Earthworms are the best food for them.

  • When axolotls are small juveniles, frozen bloodworm cubes are recommended. For adults, bloodworms do not have enough nutrition, but can be given as a snack on occasion.
  • You can also buy earthworms (and the other worms listed below) and cut them up into small pieces. I didn't have the heart to do that, it grossed me out, so I fed only frozen bloodworm cubes.
  • If you can cut the worms into small pieces, they will have better nutritional value.

Below is a list of foods that are great for them. Again, earthworms are best.

What to Feed Your Axolotl

JuvenilesAdults

Frozen Blood Worm Cubes

Earthworms

Small Ghost Shrimp

Ghost Shrimp

Cut-Up Earthworms

Black Worms

Cut-Up Black Worms

Pellets

How Often Do They Eat?

Axolotls do not need to eat every day. Since they are kept in cold water, their digestion is slower than other aquatic species. Feeding every 2-3 days is normal, but it depends on your individual axolotl. Some feed every day, others eat one or two large earthworms every day or every other day. It really depends. After awhile you will figure out how much yours needs to eat.

You do not want to leave uneaten food in the tank, as it will decompose and mess up the water chemistry. To remove uneaten food, use a turkey baster to suck up the leftovers.

I was feeding my ax every day, but she got pretty fat (and is still thick!) so now, I feed her every other day.

How do I know if I'm feeding too much?

If there are leftovers and if your axolotl is getting fat, you can probably reduce the amount. Axolotls' stomachs should be about as wide as their shoulders. Females are rounder, so don't think your male is underweight if his body isn't as full as wide as others. You just want to make sure they aren't too skinny.

Is Your Axolotl a Boy or Girl?

Determining the gender of an axolotl is impossible until they are at least a year old—sometimes it takes even longer. They all look like females until a large bump appears underneath, right by the base of the tail (right where the butthole is, lol). That whole area becomes a large bump. Females do develop a small bump there as well, but a male's is much, much larger. Please see photos below.

everything-axolotl
Showing the bump sizes to tell if a boy or girl.

Showing the bump sizes to tell if a boy or girl.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Sonya on September 15, 2020:

So i have 2 axlotos, i got them from a reptile expo when they were babies. They breeders didnt even tell me anything about them, how to care for them, what to put in their tanks. Nothing!! Are u suprised?? So after now 3 years they are about 9 inches? I feed mine every 2-3 days. I feed them large meal worms. Ive tried fishing worms, but they didnt like them, they literly took a bite and spit them back out! They did love the frozen blood worms when they were little. Ive always hand fed both of my axlotos. So ive never had to worrie about leftovers floating around. I feed them about 5-7 meal worms each feeding. Their tank ive always kept between 64-70 degrees and they have been fine with it. Its hard to keep it any lower than that unless u get the tank cooling system you can buy. In the sumer i do freeze bottles of water and put them in the tank to help cool the water. For a filter in their tank i use the fully sumeragable filter. I use silk fake plants and large large stones for the bottom of their tank. Also have some caves and bridge that i got in the reptile section (cause its cheaper) for them to go under and in. I use led light for their tank. However i typicaly only turn their light on at feeding time. So they know when the light comes on its time to eat! Whats the life span? My friend had one for almost 10 years!!

Dee (author) from FL on May 14, 2019:

Nova, Their water temperature should be under 70F. I had planned to ad more to the post, but totally forgot about it.

Dee (author) from FL on May 14, 2019:

Actually Kate, it may seem so, but I personally wrote it with the knowledge I've learned over the years. And because of the wrong information on 75% of the websites.

kate on August 20, 2017:

This is just a regurgitation of every other Axolotl article I've read online, with the VERY BASIC basics.

Nova on August 05, 2017:

What temperature should the water be?

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