The Complete Guide to Keeping Axolotls

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Axolotls have to be one of the most fascinating amphibians on our planet. I became completely obsessed with them and just had to find out more.

I found so much about these amazing animals and I have so many ‘did you know’ facts to share with you it’s difficult to know where to start… Maybe I’ll make video!

Are axolotls fish?

Axolotls may look like fish, but they are neotenic salamanders related to Tiger salamanders. They are also known as ‘Mexican walking fish’ or ‘Mexican salamander’. They are native to just one lake system south of Mexico City, called Lake Xochimilco.

These rather unusual creatures stay aquatic even once they have developed their adult legs.

They have a keen sense of smell and use it as one of their primary ways of detecting prey and communicating with each other.

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Incredible powers of regeneration

They’re the most scientifically studied salamanders because of their incredible ability to regenerate any part of their body. And I mean any part. Limbs, jaws, skin, spinal cord and even parts of their brain.

It’s man’s dream to be able regrow limbs, so it’s not surprising that axolotls are subject to many studies. If successful, regeneration has the potential to help millions of people suffering from severe burns, loss of limbs, and even cancer.


“We must do what we can for this amazing animal.”

stephane Roy, UNIVERSITY OF MONTREAL

As if that isn’t incredible enough, the axolotl is also over 1,000 times more resistant to cancer than mammals.


You can read about Roy’s work here:
ROY, S. AND LÉVESQUE, M. (2006) LIMB REGENERATION IN AXOLOTL: IS IT SUPERHEALING? TSW DEVEL.& EMBRY. 1(S1).

Screenshot 2020 11 14 at 20.02.59
Figure courtesy of Harvard University

In addition to its regenerative capacity, the axolotl is also a perfect model organism for a feature known as neoteny, where an animal maintains all its juvenile characteristics, such as external gills, despite reaching sexual maturity. This gives them the appearance of wearing an elaborately feathered headdress on the side of their heads, which along with their small lidless black eyes and wide head, guarantees that you will never see an animal quite like them again.

How do you pronounce axolotl?

Ax-oh-lot-ul. Their scientific name is Abystoma mexicanum. The name ‘Ambystoma’ translates as ‘cup mouth’.

They get their name from the Aztec god called Xolotl – the god of fire and lightning. According to legend deities were being sacrificed to the sun god, so Xolotl transformed himself into an Axolotl and hid in the lakes of Mexico.

The name “Axolotl” comes from Nahuatl, the Aztec language. One translation of the name connects the Axolotl to Xolotl. The most common translation is “water-dog” . “Atl” for water and “Xolotl” for dog.

Xolotl god
Xolotl statue displayed at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

What colours are axolotls?

There are 5 basic colours of axolotls including, Wild, Leucistic (pink) – (known as Lucys), White Albino, Golden, and Melanoid. These are the most common colours of Axolotls.

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Wild – looks a bit like Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon?
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Lucy – Leucistic
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Melanoid
axolotls
Golden
axolotls
Albino – has pink or red eyes

In the USA some axolotls have the ability to glow under a black light. These are known as GFP. Sadly this originated when scientists started injecting them with a green fluorescent protein marker to determine certain proteins in their organs.

Why are axolotls endangered?

Unfortunately, human intervention with Lake Xochimilco, including changes to the ecosystem and pollution, mean that axolotls in the wild suffer seriously. A study in 2003 found an average of 6000 axolotls per square kilometre in the lake. In 2015 that number was down to just 36 per square kilometre. In 2006 the species was declared critically endangered and it is very likely by now that they are extinct in the wild.

Thankfully, a project led by the Centre of Biological and Aquatic Research of Cuemanco (CIBAC) has worked to maintain a small, isolated population in a quarantined area of the lake; a final effort to keep the species alive in its natural habitat.

How to set up an axolotl tank

As Axolotyls are native to Mexico, they need specific conditions to thrive and as adult ones can grow to around 30cm long, they need a substantial amount of water too.

How big a tank for an axolotl?

Each adult axolotyl requires at least 10 gallons of water, so you will require a tank with dimensions of around 50x30x20cm for one animal. If you house more than one together, they each need 10 gallons of water. 

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Tank length is more important than depth as the axolotl will spend a lot of time wandering around the bottom. Occasionally they like to float to the top.

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What water temperature should axolotls be kept at?

The temperature of the water should be 18C. If the water becomes too hot, your axolotyl could become distressed, be at risk from fungi and bacteria and ammonia toxicity which can occur it the temperature gets to high.

Never allow the water to exceed 24C. Conversely if the temperature drops too low, this can cause a drop in your axolotyl’s metabolism which can also make them unwell.

Keeping the water cool is often a big concern and you can buy aquatic fans or even a chiller to keep the water cool all year round.

What pH level for axolotls?

Aim to keep the pH between 7.4-7.6 and keep it as stable as possible. Fluctuating pH levels are not good for your axolotyl.

Do axolotls need light?

Axolotyls in their native habitat are used to low lighting levels and since they do not have eyelids harsh lighting in their tank could be painful. If you use lighting, try to make it soft and provide plenty of hiding places so they can ‘escape’ from the light if they wish.

What’s the best substrate for an axolotl tank?

Sand is the best substance to line the bottom of your axolotyl’s tank. This is because they feed by sucking water into their mouths so larger particles such as gravel could cause digestive injury. Sand allows the axolotyl to get a better grip when walking and as they love to dig, it is the best material to use.

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Which filtration system for an axolotl tank?

Axolotyls are extremely sensitive to poor water conditions so it’s vital that you have a good filtration system. It’s advisable to change at least 20% of the water each week. Ensure your filtration system doesn’t create too much water movement (current) because axolotyls are used to still water conditions.

Can axolotl tanks have plants?

Axolotyls love to hide in plants and caves so it’s a good idea to give them a few different options for tucking themselves away.

How much poop do axolotls do?

Axolotls do at lot of pooping. And it’s okay if you can fish it out without breaking the sausage skin that the poop is contained in, but if you burst it. Then it will explode into a million pieces and you’ll have one hell of a poopy tank.

I found that a turkey baster was essential for poo-picking on a daily basis.

Can my axolotl live with other fish?

Young axolotyls will eat other aquatic life including each other, so it’s best not to house them together in the same tank with other species. However adult axolotyls can rub along together and rarely attack each other. Small fish may also nibble on the gills of the axolotyl so it’s best to keep them apart.

What do axolotls eat?

Your axolotyl will get all the nutrition they need from a diet of large earthworms, but they are also partial to blackworms, bloodworms, shrimp, prawn, mealworms, tuna or even chicken as a treat.

For Young Axolotls:

  • Frozen Bloodworms
  • Small Micro-worms
  • Live Black-worms

For Adult Axolotls:

  • Red Wigglers
  • Night Crawlers
  • Soft Sinking Salmon Pellets

How often to feed your axolotl

Adult axolotyls require about 2 earthworms every 2-3 days but growing axolotyls will eat everyday as their calorie requirements are higher.

Don’t leave your young axolotyl more than 3 days without food whereas an adult can manage for up to 2 weeks, although this is not recommended. Consistent feeding is a much better approach to maintain optimum health.

How to breed an axolotl

  1. Do not attempt to breed your axolotyl before the age of 18 months as they need to reach adult size first.
  2. Best breeding season is December to June, although it is also possible the rest of the year.
  3. Your breeding tank needs to have plenty of places for the female to lay her eggs such as silk or live plants. 
  4. Males need stones on the bottom of the tank on which to deposit their sperm. Once sperm is deposited, the females will pick it up.
  5. Females lay as many as 1,000 eggs per spawning session.
  6. The breeding tank should be kept at around 20C.
  7. Eggs hatch in 2-3 weeks when the axolotyl larvae emerge.
  8. As the hatchlings begin to grow, keep an eye on the size and separate out any larger ones as these may attempt to eat smaller ones.

Axolotl Disease and illness problems

Axolotyls are very sensitive animals and stress can be a huge causative factor in illness.

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You can avoid causing your axolotyl to be stressed by ensuring that 

  1. Water flow is not too strong
  2. Temperature remains stable and below 24C
  3. Water is well conditioned
  4. Housed alone or with non-aggressive neighbours

How can I tell if my axolotl is stressed?

Like many other animals, a lack of appetite could indicate a problem. In addition, signs such as tail curling and gills turning forward show your pet is stressed.

What happens if my axolotl gets injured?

Axolotls only risk from injury is infection. This because they have the ability to regenerate body parts such as damaged limbs and gills. Ensure your axolotyl’s water is kept really clean if they are recovering from a wound.

Common diseases for axolotls

Axolotl’s digestive systems can be troublesome and impaction is a common issue. This is when food cannot pass through the digestive tract and the axolotyl cannot defecate.

This leads to pain, bloating and could cause infection. This can occur if the axolotyl has ingested gravel or stones that become lodged.

The answer is fridging, which can help them to excrete the waste. Overfeeding of adults can also lead to impaction.

How to fridge an axolotl

Axolotls are native to cold water which means that you can use lower temperatures to slow disease, infection and resolve impaction.

  1. Ensure your fridge is between 5-8 degrees Celsius
  2. Prepare a container of dechlorinated water (not chilled) long enough for your axolotl to stretch to its full length. The container should have a lid with air holes and space at the top for the axolotl to jump up for air.
  3. Put the axolotl to the container and cover with a towel to prevent light disturbance.
  4. Once in the fridge, change water daily, replacing old water with dechlorinated, refrigerated water.
  5. Keep the axolotl refrigerated until it recovers.
  6. Gradually re-introduce your axolotl to tank water before returning it.

How to give your axolotl a salt bath

You can use salt baths to treat axolotls suffering from skin infections, which is most effective when used in conjunction with fridging.

Axolotls with fungal infections will benefit from salt bathing. The salt works to kill off any infection, nursing axolotls back to health within a few days.

Salt baths should be given twice daily during infection, for 10 minutes at a time.

– Mix 1-2 liters of dechlorinated water with sea, rock, or aquarium salt. Avoid table salt.

– Refrigerate to the same temperature the water you’re using for fridging.

– Remove container from refrigerator once cooled and shake.

– Fill your salt bathtub and add your axolotl.

– Leave for 10-15 minutes maximum.
Remove from the tub and return to the fridging container.

– Repeat every 12 hours until the infection clears, and for 2-3 days after to kill any remaining fungus.

What to do if your axolotl is floating

Axolotls are able to float around tanks at will, though excessive floating may indicate air bubbles in the gut.

This should only become a concern if:

  • Your axolotl is unable to return to the bottom of the tank
  • They float up against their will
  • They float very often
  • They appear distressed when floating

Again, fridging can help get rid of this problem. You should also check your water parameters and adjust them if necessary.

How to treat axolotl bacterial and fungal infections

Heat-stressed axolotls can develop dangerous bacterial and fungal infections, which is why you should routinely check your water temperature.

Common illnesses include ‘red leg’ bacteria, characterised by red patches on the limbs; Columnaris, characterised by sluggishness and white grey patches; and Saprolegnia, characterised by white patches on skin and gills.

If your Axolotl is shaking their head a lot they may have fungus in their gills. Watch to see if anything is coming off their gills and treat accordingly.

These can all usually be safely treated using a salt bath or fridging.

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Where to buy an axolotl in the UK

You will find axolotls at your local aquatic store. Go and check them out. You will be there for hours!

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