Axolotl Care Guide: Species Profile, Tank Setup, Diet & More

Ambystoma mexicanum – Mexican walking fish
Dr. Mollie Newton
Published by Dr. Mollie Newton PHD| Senior Editor
Last updated: June 10, 2024
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Axolotls, often confused with typical salamanders, are a largely uncharted area within the freshwater aquatic species community. While they are frequently found in aquariums and zoos, they can also be kept as pets as long as they receive proper care.

We’ve demystified the care of axolotls through a combination of research, and long-term axolotl care and are ready to share the secrets of this great pet with you.

Article Summary

  • Axolotls are a unique and critically endangered species of neotenic salamanders that remain aquatic for their entire lives.
  • Axolotls are prone to certain diseases, including columnaris, septicemia, saprolegnia, intestinal nematodes, and myxobolus cerebralis, making regular tank maintenance essential.
  • Feeding axolotls consists of carnivorous diets, such as frozen bloodworms, brine shrimp, and small feeder fish, with care needed to avoid overfeeding.

Axolotl Species Overview

Common NamesMexican water dragon, Mexican walking fish, mud puppy, hellbender
Scientific NameAmbystoma mexicanum
SpeciesA. mexicanum
Size9 inches
Lifespan10-15 years
FamilyAmbystomatidae
GenusAmbystoma
DistributionExtinct in wild
ColorWild type, golden albino, leucistic, melanoid, piebald, white albino, copper, melanoid, lavender, firefly, chimera, mosaic 
DietCarnivore
TemperamentCalm when left alone, but aggressive if agitated
Minimum tank sizeAt least 20 gallons for 1
Place in the tankBottom to middle
Care levelAdvanced
BreedingHard

History and Background 

Axolotl on the Substrate
Axolotl on the Substrate

You might be wondering what these creatures are; mexican walking fish, scientific curiosity, simple pets? Here’s a breakdown of what they are, where they came from, and whether or not you can own one.

What are axolotls?

Axolotls are a unique salamander species that is critically endangered. Unlike other salamander species axolotls are neotenic salamanders. Neoteny is a condition where salamanders keep their larval features in adulthood such as feathery gills, to long, thin fins.

Unlike most salamanders, axolotls remain aquatic for their entire lives. Your axolotl’s tank should contain many diverse decorations as axolotls spend all their time in the axolotl tank and need plenty of enrichment.

How to pronounce “axolotl”?

The mexican walking fish or axolotl is a unique pet that many people are not sure what they are or even how to pronounce it. Before we go much further let’s teach you how to pronounce your Mexican salamander name: Ak-suh-laa-tl.

Axolotl Origin

Axolotls are native to only one place in the world; Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco in Mexico and the canals and waterways of Mexico City. Due to their unique location this critically endangered species are only available as captive bred animals.

According to Aztec legend the axolotl is the god “Xolotl” who is the god of fire and lighting. To escape sacrificing himself in the Aztec story of creation Xolotl transforms himself into maize (xolotl), agave (mexolotl), and a salamander or axolotl.

Are axolotls good pets?

In my experience they are excellent aquatic pets that have a unique personality and are a scientific abnormality. In fact axolotls are studied by many scientists for their ability to regenerate any part of their body, and their ability to be injected with bioluminescent dye.

For aquarists looking for an easy to care for species that can be the centerpiece of their hobby the axolotl is a perfect fit. Their ability to live alone and their preference for a heavily planted tank provides beginning aquarists an opportunity to get their hands wet at aquatic plants while still having a pet.

Is it legal to own axolotls? 

As of 2022 it is legal to own an axolotl in all states except in California, Maine, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. In New Mexico and Hawaii you are required to acquire a permit, because they’re technically considered to be an exotic pets.

In Nova Scotia, Canada a permit is required to own an axolotl, and it is illegal to own in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and British Columbia.

In Australia the axolotl is the only exotic amphibian that can be kept without a license.

Physical Appearance

Close-up view of an Axolotl
Close-up view of an Axolotl

Part of the axolotl’s appeal is their weird, alien-like appearance. Due to their unique genes the axolotl takes on the appearance of a juvenile salamander even in its adult form. They have been bred to have an extensive amount of color variation in the pet trade.

What do axolotls look like?

They have a long flat body with a large head. Feathery gills extend from the side of the head, and there is a thin dorsal din along the length of its back. Axolotl eyes are at the front of their heads with their mouth usually turned in an upward expression. They have webbed, pointed fingers extending from each of their legs.

Axolotl Color Varieties

Golden Albino

Golden albinos are slightly off color white to peach, yellow, or orange-gold. They often have reflective speckles with white, yellow, or pink eyes. Their gills are a light yellow tint. Golden albinos are well known to have xanthophores which are what gives them their golden-yellow color, the iridophores are what causes the display of the reflective specks.

Melanoid

The complete opposite of albinos, these range from completely black to dark green and have dark gills. Melanoids have the capability of changing their color tone based on the substrate.

Leucistic

Leucistic variety is one of the rarest morphs but also one of the most popular. A translucent white with shiny gold flecks, red or pink gills, and dark eyes, they are not often seen in the wild as they are easily spotted by predators in the wild.

Wild type

Wild types are a darkish green/gray with olive and black speckling. They also have the iridophores, similar to golden albinos.

Piebald

Piebalds are white with bright red gills, dark symmetrical patches on their face and back, and black eyes. This species is a rare morph that occurs due to a concentration of melanophores on the axolotl’s head and back.

Copper

A light gray body with copper speckles, and light gray and red gills. The darkness of the coloration varies from caramel to almost pink.

Lavender

A silvery purple hue with light gray and red gills and dark eyes these species are covered in gray spots. Lavender melanoid hybrids are often mistaken for lavender axolotls but these hybrids don’t have any spots and have a darker coloration.

Firefly

Artificially created they are wild-type axolotls injected with green fluorescent protein in their tails. Originally used to study limb regeneration their tail will only glow under a blacklight.

Mosaic

The result of two eggs fusing into one the mosaic axolotl takes the color displays of both parents randomly and have a variety of color.

How big do axolotls get? 

A healthy axolotl generally ranges from 8-10 inches, but this is dependent on genetics, the environment, and the diet. They have been known to grow up to 18 inches in their native lakes environments.

Do axolotls regenerate?

Yes! They are widely studied for their regenerative capabilities, and can regrow the spinal cord, backbone, or muscles.

Axolotl Temperament and Tankmates

Axolotl Swimming Through Aquatic Plants

Generally a calm species, axolotls are natural hunters and don’t do well with many tank mates.

Are axolotls aggressive?

When left alone axolotls tend to be fairly calm until provoked. When kept with tank mates your pet axolotl might turn aggressive due to the fish nipping on their gills. If your fish continually tries to nip your axolotl you should remove them from the tank.

Can axolotls live with fish

Yes, axolotls can live with fish, though you should choose the tank mates for your axolotl carefully. Small fish will be eaten by your pet axolotls, and some fish will nip at their gills.

Can axolotls live alone?

Yes, as long as you provide enrichment your axolotl will be perfectly fine being the sole inhabitant of an aquarium and doesn’t need a tank mate. In my personal experience, I’ve noticed that they often take interest in what’s happening outside their tank and often enjoy watching from the safety of a hide.

Compatible tank mates

Not a lot of tank mates make suitable matches for your axolotl’s specific water parameters. That being said, here’s our top 5.

  1. Other axolotls – other varieties of axolotls make for great tank mates. If you’re worried about any aggression you can place a tank divider up until they get used to each other.
  2. Guppy fish – fast and small guppies do pose the risk of being eaten by your axolotl, but many owners keep them for this reason. Overall guppies usually are calm and easygoing making them a good temperament match.
  3. Zebra Danios -For the most part zebra danios will stick to their shoals at the bottom of the tank and not bother your axolotl.
  4. Adult mystery snails – As long as an apple snail is bigger than your axolotl head they won’t try to eat it. If you choose to keep a snail, be aware that they will sometimes climb on your axolotl and suck off their slime coat.
  5. White cloud minnows – another feeder fish popularly used as a tank mate the lack of spines and shells mean they are safe for your axolotl to eat, but usually too fast for them to catch.

TIP

If you start to notice slime coat issues with your axolotl you can add an Indian almond leaf to their tank. The tannins from the leaf will provide soothing relief to your axolotl’s skin.

Tank Requirements

Woman Placing Empty Aquarium On The Table
Woman Placing Empty Aquarium On The Table

Tank requirements and water parameters are an important part of your axolotl care routine. You should never put your axolotl in anything warmer than room temperature water and only water that warm for a short period of time.

Tank Size

If keeping a single axolotl you should have a minimum of 20 gallons, with 10 additional gallons for each new adult. So if you have three axolotls you should have a 40 gallon tank. As most axolotls prefer to stay in the mid-to-bottom areas of the tank most experts recommend keeping them in a breeding tank that is low and long.

Water Parameters

Water typeFreshwater
Water Temperature60-64
pH7.4-7.6
Hardness7-14 dGH

NOTE


You can keep axolotls using tap water as long as the water has been treated with an aquarium water conditioner which removes chlorine and chloramines.

Tank Setup

SubstrateSand, large river stones
FilterYes, with a gentle flow
PumpYes
Water heaterNo
Lighting Low lighting

Axolotl Plants

You can add lots of live plants to your tank, not even young axolotls will nibble on their leaves. Plants also provide hiding spaces for your axolotls. Water lilies, moss balls, duckweed, and hornwort are excellent plants to add. If deciding to plant your tank be sure to add the proper substrate to provide proper root structure.

Axolotl Filter

Fully grown adult axolotls are very messy, so having a filter is necessary. Be sure that your filter has a very low flow as axolotls are easily stressed by high flow. If your water flow is too high, you’ll notice your axolotls gill stalks curve further signaling stress and unhappiness.

Axolotl Heater

Axolotls enjoy cold water so a heater is not necessary. In fact, you should keep your aquarium in cool room temperature as heat stressed axolotls are susceptible to bacterial infections and other diseases.

Axolotl Substrate

We recommend having a fine sand substrate or large river stones. Axolotls walk along the bottom of the tank and so having a bare bottom tank is not recommended.

Axolotl Lighting

Like the vast majority of amphibians, your axolotl tank should be kept in a low light area, so as to not stress them out.

Axolotl Care

Axolotl Eating

In the wild axolotls are endangered by predators, climate change, and bad water quality due to pollution. This makes captive axolotl care even more important due to the value of this aquatic life.

Axolotl Diet

In their native habitat an axolotl is a carnivore and eats small crustaceans, insect eggs, and fish.

What to feed axolotl?

In captivity axolotls eat much the same thing as they do in their natural habitat. You can include frozen bloodworms, and brine shrimp in their diet, axolotls will also eat feeder fish as long as they are smaller than their heads. As axolotls don’t eat pelleted food it does make cleaning uneaten food a bit harder, but more important in order to maintain your axolotl tanks water quality.

When to feed axolotls?

Axolotls feed once to twice a week, and can be fed as much as they’ll eat in a sitting. I usually feed my axolotls 2-3 earthworms or a scoop of dried brine shrimp.

How much to feed axolotl?

Juvenile axolotls need more nutrition than their adult counterparts and therefore will eat a bit more. The axolotl care sheet provided by most websites will tell you to feed your axolotl as much as they’ll eat in 3 minutes.

In my experience axolotls are very slow and it can take them 3 minutes to eat one earthworm and still be hungry. Therefore we suggest feeding as much as your axolotl will take in one sitting, and to be sure to remove any uneaten food out of your axolotl tank.

Axolotl Health

When you adopt an axolotl from pet stores it is often wracked with diseases such as fungal infections and other diseases. It is important for beginner pet owners to source their new axolotls from a reputable breeder or aquarium stores to ensure that captive axolotls are well taken care of and not abused through the pet trade.

Tank maintenance is extremely important for axolotl care as these soft bodied amphibians have permeable skin and are very sensitive to discrete changes in water parameters.

RECOMMENDATION

When removing your axolotl from its tank to perform a water change or other maintenance be sure to know how to hold an axolotl or use a fine mesh net to ensure safety and comfortableness during the move.

Common diseases of axolotl 

  • Columnaris – a bacterial disease often mistaken for fungus and brought on by stress. Symptoms include fluffy gray or white patches on skin and gills, slowness, and loss of appetite. Can be treated with antibiotics and aquarium salt baths.
  • Septicemia – one of the most serious diseases or health issues, it leads the axolotl to develop dangerous bacterial poisoning in the bloodstream. The main symptom includes red leg, ulcers, internal bleeding, and abdominal bloating. Treatment includes visiting a veterinarian who will likely prescribe injected antibiotics.
  • Saprolegnia – a common fungal infection that your axolotl is prone to because of its need for a cool water temperature. Symptoms include fluffy white clouds on the gills, and white or gray patches along the body. Treatment includes anti-fungal medicine.
  • Intestinal nematodes – one of the most common parasites due to axolotl diet, symptoms include vomiting worms, weight loss, and bloatedness. Once acquired it is hard to get rid of and the best treatment is prevention through proper quarantining of food sources.
  • Myxobolus Cerebralis – a severe, but rare parasite it will cause neurological issues resulting in loss of equilibrium and floating axolotls. Symptoms include swimming in circles, bent spine, and floating sideways or head down. A combination of several antibiotics is the most common treatment method.

TIP

Because of their permeable skin axolotls are prone to many skin infections and other problems such as ammonia burns, fungus, and gravidness.

Axolotl Breeding

Axolotls
Axolotls in an Aquarium

Breeding an axolotl is not for the faint at heart and does take a lot of work. Additionally, breeding these creatures takes a lot of room as they’re generally separated when young to avoid any aggression or curious nibbles.

How do axolotls reproduce?

Axolotls sexually reproduce and it takes males and females to breed axolotls.

Can you breed an axolotl?

Axolotls are able to be bred with other axolotls. It is discouraged to breed younger axolotls until they’re 7 inches, or sexually mature. Female axolotls tend to take a bit longer to reach maturity than male axolotls.

How to breed an axolotl? 

To breed an axolotl should be kept in an area that experiences slight seasonal changes to help induce breeding habits, and generally changes in length of daylight to stimulate breeding patterns.

Here’s a video of axolotls breeding…

Axolotls Breeding

Is the axolotl for you?

If you’re looking for an aquatic pet that does well in cool water environments, has a unique personality, and everyone will talk about the axolotl might be for you!

Conclusion

If considering an axolotl for a pet we suggest you thoroughly read our guide as they do require extensive care, proper handling, and specific tank requirements. Like all pets you should be ready to commit to the long lifespan of an axolotl and be prepared to provide it with a good home.

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