Have you ever seen those pastel-colored, smiling amphibians and thought — “I need that as a pet?”
You wouldn’t be alone! Over one million people in the world own axolotls. Also known as a Mexican walking fish, it isn’t a fish at all. It’s a type of salamander able to walk and swim on its four legs. In the wild, most axolotls are brownish-gray and deemed “ugly cute” by herpetologists.
Because axolotls are critically endangered in the wild, you can only find these salamanders in two natural habitats: Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco — both of which are in Mexico. According to the San Diego Zoo, wild axolotls continue to lose their homes to water pollution and human degradation of their habitat.
What can you do to help, and how can you get an axolotl yourself? Discover everything you need to know about owning an axolotl as a pet, from how much they cost to how to take it to the vet.
How Much Does an Axolotl Cost?
Did you know basic axolotls remain an incredibly affordable pet? In 2023, axolotls cost anywhere between $30 and $80 — not bad at all, considering some purebred dogs can cost upwards of $8,000! However, the cost of an axolotl will depend on species, age, and region. Don’t forget about the shipping costs, too.
It’s All About Species
As mentioned earlier, wild axolotls usually have brownish-gray coloring. If you’re looking for a more exotic-colored axolotl, you’ll have to pay more. Morphs, or variations in coloring produced by selective breeding, may range from uncommon to so rare, they’re not sold. Chimera axolotls, axolotls with one white and one black side, are one such morph.
The adult Golden Albino axolotl costs around $45 while the Piebald axolotl costs about $100. Axolotl Planet, a company run by passionate biologists and breeders in Texas, gives the following price ranges for different species of axolotls.
- GFP axolotl: between $150 and $300.
- Albino axolotl: between $110 and $215.
- Copper axolotl: between $160 and $270.
- Wild Type axolotl: between $85 and $120.
- Axanthic axolotl: between $190 and $270.
Depending on skin pigmentation, age, and gender, axolotl prices will vary. They’ll also vary from breeder to breeder.
Pricing Based on Age and Gender
On average, younger axolotls (“juveniles”) will cost less than their adult counterparts because they require more time and care on the breeder’s part. The biological gender of the axolotl will play a role in pricing as well. Females are usually more valuable than males, based on their ability to reproduce, and cost more.
Behavior and Health Can Lower Price
Unhealthy axolotls will cost less than a healthy axolotl, but ethical dilemmas remain with purchasing a sick axolotl. They will have a harder time traveling — whether they’re shipped from a breeder or driven in a car — and have more health needs than their healthy counterparts. In addition, their behavior is less pronounced; they’re usually lethargic and unresponsive.
If you’re looking for an affordable axolotl based solely on a lack of resources to care for the pet, it’s not advised for ethical reasons to buy a sick axolotl.
Axolotl Pet Supplies
With the affordable cost of the actual axolotl coming in under $100 for most common species, the main cost for axolotls remains the supplies you’ll need. So, what do you need to keep an axolotl healthy and happy in your home?
First, you’ll need a tank. Axolotls swim in a tank at least 30 inches wide, so a standard 20-gallon tank would be a good pick for new Axolotl owners. Of course, a barren tank won’t make a happy axolotl, so buy a few pieces of decor that are easy to clean and able to stimulate your axolotl’s natural senses. When it comes to housing for axolotls, steer clear of marbles, larger rocks, or coarse sand — anything that could impact an axolotl’s stomach.
Once you have your tank, buy the proper filtration and lighting system for your axolotl. Because they’re sensitive creatures, they won’t need much in terms of lighting; especially in the first week of getting acclimated to their new home. As for filters, several great models exist on the market, including sponge filters, hang-on back filters, and canister filters. Because axolotls are native to still waters, it’s important your filter doesn’t have a high-pressure pump. It should also purify water of any debris and sediment so the water that axolotls may ingest when gulping water with their food.
Other accessories for your axolotl’s tank may include:
- Water conditioner
- Water testing kit
- Cooler/cooling machine
- A water dechlorinator
As amphibians that can camouflage themselves well, axolotls enjoy spending most of their day hanging out in safe spaces. They’re not big fans of light, so it’s important to have shade somewhere within the tank. You’ll also have the choice between creating a bare-bottom or covered-bottom tank. If you choose a covered bottom tank, try to stay away from aquarium gravel. Axolotls will ingest these pebbles, which can lead to health complications and even surgery.
Consider the following when creating an enriching environment for your axolotl:
- Pipes. As long as they’re big enough for an axolotl to comfortably walk or swim through, pipes provide enrichment and a means of transport through their tank.
- Hammock and platforms. Many pet parents say their axolotls enjoy resting on hammocks immensely, and platforms add a dimension of engagement to an axolotl’s daily journey from the bottom to the top of their tanks.
- Plants. Big and small plants give axolotls something to explore and grab onto in their tanks.
- Hides. These provide shade and a safe hiding space for your axolotl.
- Wood. Like driftwood, or another type, that your axolotl can grab onto or rest on.
In addition to these pieces of decor, adding toys will enhance your axolotls enjoyment of the space.
Unlike dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, and other domesticated animals, axolotls don’t necessarily have a “play” drive. Instead, they are content to swim, eat, and rest. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t create a diverse and engaging home for them to explore. Coupled with an interesting and safe landscape within the tank, a few toys here and there will ensure your axolotl remains entertained throughout their life.
The most important factor in choosing “toys” for your axolotl is that it doesn’t imbalance the pH or harbor parasites. Some axolotl parents report their pets enjoying moss balls while others like to chase ghost shrimp. Ping-pong balls are a good option too.
Perhaps the most complex part of caring for an axolotl is the responsibility of keeping their tank clean. It’s not only about keeping the aquarium clean; the water needs to be at a very specific level for axolotl comfort.
Aim for the water’s pH to range between 7.4 and 7.6. A few decimal points on either side is acceptable; however, 7.4 to 7.6 remains the ideal. As for the rest of the water’s inclusions, strive for zero parts per million of ammonia and nitrites, between five and 20 parts per million of nitrites, and a temperature oscillating between 60 and 68 degrees.
Your water- or biofilter will come in handy time and time again by automating the water’s contents and alerting you when something is amiss.
Axolotl Food Cost
Axolotls are carnivorous creatures with teeth — they can and will bite their food to swallow and digest it. The diet of an axolotl in its natural habitat is a combination of worms, small fish, mollusks, and more. As a pet, they’re not picky as long as they get meat. Usually, adult axolotls eat earthworms as their primary food source, with bloodworms as a treat and other small fish peppered into their diet, as their owners please.
Axolotls only eat a few times a week, rather than a few times a day. As such, the cost of food for axolotls isn’t as high as one would expect. Diet needs for axolotls also change by their age. While they eat more frequently — and different food — as babies, adults plateau at a comfortable two to three meals a week.
As larvae, axolotls eat twice a day to keep up with their aggressive metabolic rate. According to Axolotl Planet, sea monkeys are the best thing to feed baby axolotls. Not only are sea monkeys (also called brine shrimp) small enough for tiny axolotl mouths; they offer a full profile of nutrition.
Once juveniles, an axolotl will cut back to eating once a day, or even less. They’ll move on from brine shrimp to nightcrawlers or European earthworms. If you’re raising a juvenile axolotl, make sure the pieces are small enough to avoid choking.
Finally, adult axolotls will continue their diet of earthworms and nightcrawlers, but eat just a little less often than juveniles. At this age, axolotls may also enjoy hunting for their food, so feel free to treat them with ghost shrimp or guppies to nurture that predator instinct.
If starving, axolotls have dipped into cannibalism; they’ll eat the limbs of other axolotls in their tank. Never let your axolotl get that hungry, though!
Axolotl Insurance Cost
Did you know there’s only one insurance company in the U.S. that provides exotic pet insurance? Nationwide has an avian and exotic pet insurance plan that provides coverage to exotic pets. While the company’s coverage policy may change with axolotls’ endangered classification, this is a good place to start when looking for insurance for your axolotl.
Alternatively, axolotls remain pretty durable if they’re cared for correctly and may not need health insurance. If owners keep abreast of common health problems axolotls face — and understand how to prevent or curb those issues — they may not need insurance at all. Common problems for axolotls follow.
Ingesting Small Objects
Axolotls will eat small things around their aquarium, which is why all decor should be larger than their heads. One common thing axolotls eat is gravel from the bottom of their aquarium. While it looks nice and even feels natural as an addition to an aquatic habitat, gravel (especially brightly colored kinds)
Poisoning and Burns
Failure to clean an axolotl’s habitat will result in a buildup of ammonia from waste; a dangerous health issue that can cause burns on your axolotl. Ensure your aquarium’s filter remains in working order and the water has the correct pH balance and clarity. Ammonia poisoning, if not treated, can create respiratory and neurological problems — so it’s vital to act quickly if you notice red coloring or deteriorating gills.
While rare, axolotls can undergo metamorphosis — a painful, physically-stressful process. Again, this usually doesn’t happen in many axolotls, but if you notice growth spurts in your pet, contact your vet immediately.
New tank syndrome is another behavioral change to watch out for in your axolotl. This happens when a new tank’s biofilter leaves toxic ammonia and nitrate levels in the water. Fix the filter and monitor your axolotl before calling the veterinarian.
Axolotls can have bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections. The former two types come from failure to keep the tank clean while the latter infection usually finds root in your pet’s diet. Feeding your axolotl live fish carries the risk of bringing microscopic parasites to their environment. If your axolotl’s coloring changes drastically without prompting, consult your vet immediately.
Axolotl Vet Cost
Axolotl vet visit costs vary widely, so much so that it’s hard to give a straight answer. Expect to pay for a regular exam fee, as well as any medication, shots, or water treatment therapies the vet prescribes.
Before getting an axolotl, make sure you have a vet close to your home that specializes in amphibians or exotic pets. Axolotls continue to gain notoriety in America, yet they have unique needs not every veterinarian will know.
On average, axolotls remain pretty hardy; they have impressive regenerative abilities and if they’re fed and taken care of well, can exist for long periods of time without significant health issues. It’s smart to at least consult your vet once a year for an annual check-up if nothing seems amiss.
If your axolotl does have a behavior or diet change, it’s time to consult your vet — even by video if the change is noticeable in their physical body. Some signs something may be wrong with your axolotl include, but aren’t limited to:
- A curled tail.
- Bulging eyes.
- Skin lesions or ulcers.
- Lots of mucus.
- Panicked swimming.
- Lack of appetite.
Because trips to the vet for axolotls remain dangerous and stressful, consult your vet before bringing your axolotl to ensure the trip is worth the risk. While your vet can (and should) give you instructions for transportation, a few best practices exist to ensure safety.
Axolotls are amphibians that cannot be handled or taken out of the water, so even transporting them into a carrier runs several risks of asphyxia, injury, accidental dropping, and more. Their carrier needs to have water below 60 degrees, so you’ll need to account for a way to keep the water cool on hot summer days. Ensure the carrier is well padded in the car, too, so you don’t jostle your axolotl too much.
Are You Ready for an Axolotl?
Axolotls are great amphibian pets with less-than-average health needs, exciting species variations, and an adorable “ugly cute” smile. While not cuddly creatures, axolotls bred in captivity can respond well to their human owners. However, it’s not a pet novice amphibian owners should choose, as the care for these salamander cousins gets demanding during pivotal points of development. In addition, axolotls need fresh meals similar to their natural diet — meaning you’ll have to feed them worms and insects to keep them healthy.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Vitaliy Halenov
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.