Cute, fun, and colorful. Axolotls are an aquatic pet that many people don’t realize are so accessible. As with anything else in the hobby, they have very specific needs and wants.
What are they?
Axolotls are a fully aquatic salamander that originate in Mexico. Originally they were found in Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco in the Valley of Mexico. Lake Chalco no longer exists so the entirety of the wild population now lives in Lake Xochimilco. There are between 700 and 1200 wild axolotls left in the world, so the keeping of them in the hobby is just as much conservation as it is a pleasure for hobbyists. Unlike other salamanders, axolotls do not undergo a metamorphosis. They spend their entire lives as aquatic beings, keeping their larval gills (called rami). They have incredible healing abilities like many amphibians. They can regrow limbs and even their rami. While you can keep multiple adults in the same aquarium (providing the size and filtration is correct) it is usually frowned on to keep juveniles and adolescents together as it can instigate some nipping and fighting. They can grow to around 10 inches and live for upwards of 10-20 years.
A 10-gallon aquarium can accommodate a single adult axolotl, but due to the large amount of waste produced by these messy creatures, a 20-gallon aquarium is a safer choice. Axolotls do not emerge from the water, so a land area would go unused. Fill the aquarium to the depth of your choice, but it will be easier to maintain good water parameters when the aquarium is filled, as you would for aquarium fish. A lid or aquarium hood should be kept in place at all times because axolotls have been known to jump out of their aquariums.
A filter will help maintain safe water parameters. Ensure the water outlet to the aquarium is fitted with a spray bar or other flow-spreading outlet. This is necessary because axolotls do not tolerate water flow like fish. Axolotls that live in a noticeable water flow for a few months will stop eating and develop stress-related diseases. Lack of appetite and forward-curled gills are usually a sign of stress from too much water flow.
Lighting and Temperature
Like the vast majority of amphibians, axolotls do not require lighting. New axolotls may be shy if kept under bright lighting, though they will become accustomed to it if provided with some hiding places (the usual aquarium “furniture” such as caves, wood, plants, etc.). Lighting is generally for our viewing pleasure and for the benefit of aquarium plants and salamander habitat supplies. Choose a plant-friendly bulb, such as those sold for freshwater aquarium fish. Keep in mind that lighting fixtures often generate a lot of excess heat and this can be detrimental to axolotls. An ideal temperature range is the low to mid 60s. Temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit will invariably lead to heat stress, loss of appetite and death. If you cannot provide year-round temperatures below this limit, axolotls are not the ideal pet for your circumstances. If you must have an axolotl but you have temperature problems, consider buying an aquarium chiller for the warmer parts of the year.
The ideal substrate for axolotls is aquarium-safe sand or bare bottom. Axolotls have a bad habit of ingesting gravel and mouth-sized objects if they are available. This can lead to gut impactions and the death of the axolotl. Anything the size of an axolotl’s head or smaller can and will be consumed!
Good staple foods for axolotls include live reptile food such as nightcrawlers (large earthworms) and store bought frozen bloodworm cubes. Good treat foods for axolotls include frozen shrimp from the supermarket (cooked), and lean pieces of beef and chicken. Avoid live food such as feeder fish because of the risk of parasite and disease transmission – axolotls are vulnerable to many fish diseases and parasites. Pinkie mice and other fatty foods are best used only as a rare treat for axolotls and preferably not at all.
As is the case with most salamanders, axolotls have no need of vitamin/mineral supplementation, and indeed it would be hard to deliver this to an aquatic animal. In my experience, axolotls fed solely on nightcrawlers will never develop any vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
Tap water is fine for axolotls, provided it is pretreated with aquarium water conditioner to remove chlorine and chloramines. Axolotls are far more forgiving than aquarium fish when it comes to water quality, but a good filter and regular water changes should be employed nonetheless. If you’ve ever kept aquarium fish, follow a similar routine. Ideally, a new aquarium and filter should be allowed to cycle for several weeks prior to the introduction of axolotls to let the water conditions settle and filter bacteria develop. Be sure to keep an eye on water parameters using the water test kits sold at aquarium stores. Look up the nitrogen cycle if you are unsure about tank cycling.
Handling and Temperament
Axolotls have virtually no true bone in their bodies, particularly when young. Much of their skeleton is made up of cartilage. Axolotls are delicate and soft-bodied amphibians with permeable skin. As such, axolotls should not be handled unless absolutely necessary (they are tricky to catch in a net). If you use a net to move an axolotl, avoid nets with mesh that would let an axolotl’s fingers get damaged. Use a soft, very fine-mesh net. Young axolotls tend to nip at or bite off the legs and gills of their tankmates, so youngsters should only be kept together if fed well and given plenty of space. Axolotls larger than 5 inches tend to be safer tankmates, and adults will rarely have any altercations. Contrary to the advice of some sources, axolotls are not social animals and do not benefit from having a companion axolotl. Keeping multiple axolotls is purely for the keeper’s benefit and for breeding. Due to the tendency of nipping, fish should not be kept with axolotls. In fact, an axolotl aquarium should contain only axolotls!
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