Axolotl Care Guide
Axolotls are fascinating creatures that give us an insight into a world that is completely alien to human beings. Originally from freshwater pools deep in the caves of Mexico, axolotls are now kept as pets worldwide. Due to their unique evolutionary history and physiology, they require specialised care and a very stable, specific environment. Axolotls evolved in cold, clean water without much sunlight or water variation. That means that they are unable to tolerate a wide range of parameters, and require close attention to things like water temperature and quality in order to thrive.Â
Axolotls are a type of salamander, an amphibian similar to frogs but with a body shape like a lizard. We donât have any native Australian salamanders, but they are common in Asia, the US, and UK. However, most salamanders are amphibious but mostly terrestrial, which means they can tolerate being in water and do require water nearby, but are land-based. Like frogs, salamanders have their eggs and babies in water, which then go through a larval phase just like tadpoles. Salamander babies have gills and a tail which help them to swim and absorb oxygen from water. Axolotls are particularly interesting as they never lose their gills and tail, even after they grow up. This trait is called neoteny, and they may have evolved this to help them survive and reproduce in an environment with few resources.Â
Axolotls also have an amazing ability to regenerate body parts! This is very unusual for a vertebrate (an animal with a backbone), although many invertebrates like crabs also have this ability. This means that axolotls can actually regrow entire limbs if they lose them! This incredible trait has made them a model organism for scientific study, and so there is a lot of information available about keeping them in optimal conditions.
What do I need to know before getting an axolotl?
The biggest challenge keeping axolotls in Australia is maintaining the water temperature at a stable temperature of 16-18 degrees Celsius. As Australia experiences quite a warm climate, with large differences between day and night temperatures, water temperature can also fluctuate more than is ideal. When considering an axolotl as a pet, ensure that you have a place for the tank that doesnât get direct sunlight and is fairly stable in terms of room temperature. As they are also shy cave dwellers, the room should be quiet and not get a lot of foot traffic. Pets like dogs and cats may also stress axolotls by jumping up and looking at them. Axolotls also need still water without any current, and so frequent bumping or moving of the tank may stress them.Â
Axolotls can grow to a considerable size, reaching up to 30 cm in length! Therefore, a large tank is required, even if you are getting your axolotl as a baby. Axolotls generally become adults at 6-12 months of age, and so it is best to prepare for an adult animal from the start. A single adult axolotl requires a tank that is at least 75 litres, and the larger the tank, the better. Axolotls can be kept together as long as they are about the same size, as if not, the larger one will eat the smaller one! They are not social animals, and do not need to be kept with a friend. Axolotls kept in groups should have multiple hides and visual barriers. Even so, similarly sized axolotls may still cause trauma to their tank-mates. Fish should not be kept with axolotls, as smaller fish will likely be eaten, and larger fish may harm the axolotl. For every additional axolotl, increase the tank size by another 75 litres. Although axolotls can swim, they mostly rest along the tank bottom, and so prioritise floor space rather than vertical space when selecting a tank. This means that it can be a significant space commitment if you want to keep multiple animals.Â
Axolotls can live up to 15 years! Therefore, another thing to consider before getting an axolotl is that they require over a decade of commitment.Â
Facts about axolotls
Place of origin
How do I set up an axolotl tank?
Apart from a tank that is at least 75 litres in size, you will also need at least one water chiller, and ideally 2-3, a filter, appropriate substrate if using, a water quality test kit, and a space in your fridge for food storage. You will also need to cycle the tank for 4-8 weeks prior to getting your axolotl, and you can read our tank cycling article for more information. It is vitally important to ensure your tank is fully cycled before adding any inhabitants to prevent illness and death. The tank should have a lid to prevent the axolotl from jumping out. Although this is not common, it has dire consequences. Do not install bright lighting as this will stress the axolotl.
Axolotls donât require a lot of tank furniture, and live plants are generally not recommended as providing the light the plants require will cause stress for the axolotl. However, fake plants are absolutely fine. However, be careful to ensure that the fake plants are large enough to not be accidentally ingested by your axolotl. This goes for any tank furniture, as axolotls are notorious for ingesting foreign objects that are not food! Because of this, many axolotl keepers do not provide a substrate at the bottom of the tank. For display tanks, this can look a little barren, so if any flooring is provided, ensure that all the pieces are significantly larger than an adult axolotlâs head to prevent accidental ingestion. Another option is to use very fine sand that can easily pass through your axolotlâs digestive tract, but that isnât risk free, as large amounts of ingested sand may still cause impaction.Â
Providing hide spaces is the most important thing to do when planning tank furniture. Apart from providing enclosed, darker areas for your axolotl, hides also help to dampen any water current produced by your filtration system. Ensure that hides are smooth and canât damage your axolotlâs skin, as well as large enough for an adult to fit in. Although hides are important, be sure not to overclutter the tank floor.Â
When installing the filtration system, there are several things you can do to ensure adequate filtration and water flow, but not too much water current. Placing tank furniture and fake plants in the stream of the filter output helps to dampen the current. Some filters will also have an adjustable water intake and output, which reduces the flow rate. A spray bar can also be used to dampen water flow. Ultimately, some balancing and fine tuning of water quality versus filtration rate will be needed for each individual tank. Increasing the frequency of water changes can also help to reduce the filtration rate required.Â
Water chillers are extremely important for axolotl tanks, and it is best to set up a thermostat to automatically keep the temperature between 16-18 degrees Celsius. Using multiple thermometers to monitor temperature at different locations in the tank can also help ensure that water temperature remains between the ideal limits.Â
How do I maintain an axolotl tank?
Once the tank is up and running, the most important thing is ensuring that the water quality remains adequate and consistent. Weekly to fortnightly water quality testing is ideal to ensure that steps can be taken to rectify any build up of waste before it starts to affect your axolotlâs health. Water changes should be done weekly to fortnightly depending on what the water quality test is showing. A 20% water change should be done each time. If a larger amount needs to be changed, changes should be made more frequently, or the filtration system should be upgraded.Â
Due to the low water temperatures, algae growth is less likely to occur. However, feeding your axolotl needs to be done with care, as uneaten food will impact water quality. Other things to be mindful of include inspecting tank furniture and substrate to ensure that sharp or abrasive edges arenât developing, and that the substrate isnât fragmenting into pieces that can be swallowed.
Water temperature is also very important, as high water temperatures are one of the most common causes of illness in axolotls, and sometimes a broken water cooler isnât noticed immediately. Ensure that water temperature is checked twice a day using an easy to read thermometer.Â
What do axolotls eat?
Axolotls are carnivores, and eat a variety of invertebrates, but it is important to ensure that foods are high in quality protein, and low in fat. Young axolotls may need to learn how to eat pellets as their feeding response is stimulated by wriggling movement, but many adults will eat soft, sinking pellets readily. Axolotl pellets are a good staple food, but axolotls will also benefit from a variety of 3-5 other types of feed. Great options for food include bloodworms (particularly good for young axolotls), brine shrimp, blackworms, nightcrawlers, and water fleas. Live foods can be grown at home and harvested as needed. Do not use wild caught food items as they may harbour parasites and other infections that can be dangerous to your axolotl.Â
Ensure that food pieces are smaller than your axolotlâs head. Pieces that are too large will be left uneaten, and they will contribute to waste in your tank.Â
Axolotls should be fed about 2-4 times a week. Younger axolotls will benefit from more frequent, smaller feeds, and adult animals can tolerate larger, less frequent feeds. It is best to feed axolotls in the evening or at night due to their nocturnal preferences.Â
How to tell if your axolotl is sick
Signs of illness in axolotls are non-specific, which means that symptoms may be caused by a variety of different things, and further investigation is often required to figure out the root cause of illness. Most of the time, illness is caused by issues with water quality, temperature, or improper tank furniture, and so investigating symptoms of illness always starts with reviewing water quality and husbandry.Â
There are two common signs of illness, tail curling and gill curling. Both of these are signs of stress, which usually means that some aspect of their environment and husbandry is subpar. Common issues that cause these symptoms include water currents, warm water temperatures, waste buildup in the water or other water quality issues, or conflict between tank mates. It is important to note that these are not diseases, but signs that their husbandry needs to be corrected. If husbandry issues continue, they can then fall prone to disease like infection or trauma.Â
Bacterial and fungal diseases can also occur, but as many in-water fish treatments can be dangerous to axolotls, veterinary help is the best option to treat health problems. As it can be difficult to differentiate between bacterial and fungal infections with the naked eye, the vet can do further testing to ensure that the right diagnosis and treatment is given.Â
Physical trauma is also a common problem, and it is usually due to improper tank mates or tank furniture. Axolotls can fight and injure each other, and smaller axolotls should never be housed with larger animals. Axolotls should also not be housed with fish, as even small fish can cause gill damage by nipping at them. Abrasive surfaces or tank furniture can also cause scrapes, and stressed axolotls may rub their snouts against tank furniture or tank walls, causing chronic wounds. Axolotls are surprisingly good healers, and many injuries will heal well when the inciting cause is removed and conditions are kept ideal. Wounds that donât heal as expected should be treated under the guidance of a vet, as the axolotl may require pain relief. Severe limb injuries may also require veterinary attention, as some limb injuries will benefit from amputation. As axolotls can regenerate limbs, a properly amputated limb will actually grow back!Â
The best way to reduce the risk of your axolotl getting sick is making sure that their environment, husbandry, and diet is as ideal as possible. A healthy axolotl can grow up to 25 cm and live over 10 years, making them a long term companion and friend!Â
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