“Exotic,” “unique,” and “uncommon.” These are some of the words that describe axolotls. Many people don’t have a clue what the animal is or ever heard of it before, let alone think of keeping one as a pet.
Caring for an axolotl is not difficult considering its minimal care requirements. The unusual animal is hardy and can live up to 10 years if kept in an aquatic environment with the correct water temperature. While an axolotl is more forgiving than an aquarium fish in terms of water quality, it is important to keep the water clean using a filter with low flow.
This article is for you if you’re considering an axolotl for a pet. You will find useful and need-to-know information before you buy one. This will help you to properly care for the weird fish-like creature.
You’re in luck if you’re simply curious about the less-known axolotl because you’re about to get clarifying answers to many of the common axolotl-related questions.
What is an Axolotl?
At first glance, an axolotl looks like a cross between a fish and a lizard, or even a frog, depending on how you look at it.
The Mexican walking fish, as it is fondly called, has features and adaptations that resemble a fish, lizard, and frog. It has gills like a fish, four legs, and a long tail like frogs and lizards, and it lives in water.
Obviously, it is not a lizard because lizards don’t live in water. It is not a fish, too, since fish don’t have legs. Instead, it is an amphibian related to the tiger salamander.
Full-grown axolotls can grow to a length of 12 inches (measuring from the nose to the tail’s tip) and can weigh up to 10.5 ounces.
These amphibians have little stumps for teeth, so they don’t really chew food. It won’t hurt if they bite you but they can chop off each other’s tails, feet, and gills when they bite each other. Fortunately, they are known for their impressive regenerative ability. That means nearly all their body parts can grow back when cut off.
Just don’t cut off your pet’s head in the hope that it will re-grow! Once the head and brain are off, there’s no means to communicate with the nervous system and other organs to activate the regeneration process.
Where do Axolotls Come From?
The scientific name for axolotl is Ambystoma mexicanum. Okay, it might not be obvious, but “mexicanum” sounds a lot like Mexico, giving us a hint to the origins of the water animal.
Axolotls come from the Valley of Mexico (Ambystoma mexicanum literally means “Mexican salamander”). They are found in only two water bodies in the entire world, namely, Lake Chalco and Lake Xochimilco.
Both lakes are still-water bodies and have considerably low temperatures. Keep that in mind when you set up a tank for your pet axolotl.
Unfortunately, axolotls are an endangered species due to increasing human activities that pollute and degenerate the water conditions.
Quick fact: Axolotl is a Spanish word (originally pronounced “ajolote”) that means water-servant, water-slave, or water monster.
Axolotl Suitability Checklist
You may like the idea of keeping an exotic pet like the axolotl but before you head off to a fish pet store to buy one, I’ll strongly suggest you take a few minutes to consider the following.
While they are generally easy to care for and ideal for beginner pet owners, this suitability checklist will help you determine if an axolotl is a good pet for you.
1. Do you want a sociable pet?
Axolotls are not social creatures although they are not unfriendly. They are solitary animals, so they keep to themselves and prefer to be left alone. They spend most of their time hiding from light and don’t interact much with their human owners or other tank mates (unless they are mating).
Touching might not kill or hurt an axolotl but if you want a pet you can pick up and cuddle, an axolotl is not for you.
2. Can you deal with a messy water creature?
Here’s the deal; axolotls are very messy amphibians and will quickly fill their tank with poop dust. You will have to deal with changing the water often in addition to using a good water filtration system.
3. Are you okay with chopping live earthworms?
Earthworms are the go-to food for axolotls. You shouldn’t own one if you are uncomfortable handling earthworms. If the idea of chopping live earthworms disgusts you, it is probably best to buy another type of aquarium pet.
4. Is the creature outlawed in your area?
It is illegal to own a pet axolotl in some states of the US. For example, the creature is outlawed in places like New Jersey, Maine, Virginia, and California. I strongly recommend checking your local exotic pet laws before buying an axolotl.
Quick fact: Axolotls remain juvenile in behavior and appearance even in adulthood.
Shopping List for Axolotl
Here’s a shopping list you can use to get all the supplies you need before you buy an axolotl:
- A 20-gallon tank for one axolotl.
- Digital thermometer to monitor the water temperature.
- Aquarium water tester kit to monitor pH levels
- Good filtration system with low flow. A sponge filter or spray bar are excellent choices.
- Fine sand is an ideal substrate for the tank. You want to avoid using gravel. Your pet might swallow pieces of gravel, which can cause gut impaction and even death. It is okay to have a bare bottom tank (no substrate) if you don’t want to use fine sand. Besides, adding no substrate to the aquarium makes spot cleaning a lot easier.
- Plenty of hides. Provide lots of hiding spots for your pet, especially at a very young age.
- Chiller, ice, or fan to keep the water cool.
- Aquarium décors, including live plants, driftwood, and fake plants are okay. Keep in mind that live plants can be uprooted or crushed under the weight of the axolotl when they rest on the plants.
- Turkey baster for spot cleaning.
- Tongs for feeding
- A food bowl is completely optional. However, having a feeding bowl can make it easier to keep worms or any other food pieces in one place.
Quick fact: Axolotls have a keen sense of smell
Setting Up a Tank for Your Axolotl
There’s nothing too complex about caring for axolotls but because they are not as common as fish, many people do not know how to care for them in captivity. For starters, axolotls have a higher sensitivity to light, water flow, heat, and water conditions than fish.
Here’s everything you need to know to keep your pet’s tank habitable.
Recommend Tank Size
These creatures can create surprisingly large amounts of waste, so consider getting an aquarium of about 20 gallons in size for one axolotl.
If you plan to have more than one pet, it is usually a good idea to increase the tank size by 10 gallons for every additional pet.
Keep the water temperature in the aquarium between 60oF to 68oF (15oC to 20oC). Always remember to check the temperature using the digital thermometer. Higher temperatures than recommend can stress out the exotic pet.
If possible leave the aquarium uncovered. Alternatively, you can use a screen-top lid to allow adequate airflow and evaporation. Place a fan on the screen to keep the water cool. This is usually more effective and reliable than using ice and significantly less expensive than using a chiller.
Water pH and Flow
The ideal water pH for an axolotl tank ranges between 7.4 and 7.6 but anything around 6.5 to 8 is equally acceptable.
The tank water conditions should be similar to freshwater fish. Brackish water is also a great idea. It has a salinity between freshwater and seawater, making it tolerable for axolotls.
Using a filtration system can cause a lot of movement inside the water, and that’s not something you want for your pet. Remember that axolotls are lentic creatures. That means they live and thrive in still-waters. Always use a filtration system with low flow.
These exotic creatures do not have eyelids, which explains why they don’t like staying in a brightly lit area for too long. Imagine staring into the bright sky all day with no option of shielding your eyes. It hurts, right? That’s exactly what happens if you keep an axolotl in bright light.
The Mexican walking fish is a nocturnal creature and prefers to live in dim light conditions. I recommend turning off any light in the aquarium at night to replicate the natural darkness of their habitat.
Your water pet doesn’t need a tankmate to thrive because it is not a social creature. If you house a fish or another species together with an axolotl, the fish will stress it out by nibbling on the external gills. On the other hand, the axolotl will eat the fish if it is small enough to fit into your pet’s mouth.
However, you can house more than one axolotl in the same tank, as long as you keep the following conditions in mind:
- Both pets should be roughly the same size or else the smaller one will end up as a snack or lose some body parts to the larger one
- Avoid keeping opposite sexes together if they are adults unless you want to breed them
Cleaning the Tank and Changing the Water
Consider spot cleaning the tank using a Turkey baster. Clean up visible poop or uneaten food as soon as possible to prevent it from breaking down and mixing with the water’s consistency.
I recommend changing the water at least once a week. Dirty water can quickly cause problems for your pet.
Quick fact: Axolotls suck their prey like a vacuum.
Feeding Your Axolotl
First things first, an axolotl doesn’t eat a normal fish diet. It may live in water and have gills (external ones) but that’s about where its similarity with a fish ends.
If you want a happy axolotl, keep it on a main diet of earthworms. Not just any type of earthworm, though. The nightcrawlers are the best food you can ever give to your exotic amphibian friend.
You will have to cut the large nightcrawlers into smaller pieces before feeding, especially when the pet is still very young. Variety is great, so consider mixing things up a bit by offering some tasty treats in the form of lean pieces of chicken or beef and frozen shrimp.
As your pet grows older, you can feed small fish and live shrimp, provided the live foods are healthy and small enough for your axolotl to swallow whole. Remember that they do not really chew food. Instead, they vacuum up pretty much anything they consider food.
In the wild, axolotls feed on worms, insect larvae, crustaceans, tadpoles, and mollusks. You may not be able to easily find some of these foods in fish pet shops, but here’s a list of easy-to-find foods that should form your pet’s complete diet:
- Large earthworms (nightcrawlers)
- Frozen blood worm cubes
- Frozen shrimp (cooked)
- Lean pieces of chicken and beef
- Small live shrimp
- Small fish
- Soft-sinking pellets (for adult axolotls)
How Often Should You Feed an Axolotl?
I will recommend feeding younger axolotls every day because need plenty of food to grow. Once they become adults and growth has slowed down, you can feed them every two to three days.
But how do you determine if your pet has had its fill?
Here’s how: keep an eye on the abdomen. Axolotls are full if their abdomen is about as wide as their head.
Quick fact: Axolotls communicate by secreting chemicals.
Axolotls are hardy pets, which is why they are easy to care for, even for people with little experience in owning exotic pets. These creatures don’t need attention from their owners. They are happy as long as the water conditions are good and you provide them with enough food.
For best results, I recommend a species-only type habitat, especially if you like to keep several kinds of aquatic animals.