Pet Axolotl Guide: What You Need to Know

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Published: April 6, 2022
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Before Buying a Pet Axolotl

The axolotl is a unique and endangered salamander that originates from the waters around Mexico City. In the wild, they have long brown-colored bodies with gold speckles, big heads, and three pairs of gill stalks with tiny red filaments. They undergo a process known as incomplete metamorphosis in which they retain many traits from their tadpole phase, including the gills and the body shape. They spend their entire lives underwater and never come up on land. Most specimens top out at around 10 inches long, but they can conceivably grow up to 18 inches. They also have the amazing ability to regenerate lost limbs and organs. This makes them very valuable in scientific research. Here’s more information about how big axolotls get.

RELATED: What is an Axolotl?

pink pet axolotl "smiling"
Axolotls are carnivores, adhering to a diet of shrimp, bloodworms, earthworms, small pieces of beef, and other frozen prey.

Axolotls are overall underrated pets: cheap to own, relatively easy to care for, and curious about their owner. While they should rarely be handled, they are interesting to look at and observe through the glass. However, keep in mind they are extremely sensitive to changing water conditions. Axolotls will require a 15- or 20-gallon tank filled to the top with water. The temperature should be kept at between 57 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Water above 75 degrees may cause health problems. The pH of the water should be maintained at 6.5 to 7.5 at all times too.

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide to Keeping an Axolotl as a Pet

Tap water is generally not safe on its own, because it contains chlorine and other harmful chemicals for the axolotl. This issue can be solved by pretreating the water with an aquarium water conditioner first. Provided you get the conditions right, the filter will do most of the work. In fact, even before bringing your axolotl home, you should fill up the tank and let the water filter work for a few weeks so it can accumulate beneficial bacteria and achieve just the right conditions.

Unless you plan to breed them, axolotls should not necessarily be housed together, and they should preferably avoid fish as well. They are solitary animals that prize their personal territory. Young axolotls in particular have the habit of resorting to cannibalism against other members of the species. To avoid nasty fights, you should probably keep a single axolotl per tank in your home. This is not a hard rule, but there is some risk involved in keeping multiple axolotls together.

How Much Does the Axolotl Cost (to buy and own)

The standard brown and tan color morph costs about $30 to $75 from a typical breeder or store, but if you want a pet with a little more visual flair, there are also dozens of unique color morphs to choose from, including white albino, golden albino, copper, and Dalmatian, that may cost hundreds or even more than a thousand dollars to acquire due to their rarity. You can read more about these color morphs here. Beyond the initial cost, you will probably pay between $100 and $300 for the habitat and all the equipment within it. Some tanks come with everything you need to start with straight out of the box, but it’s also possible to buy everything separately.

Because of their relatively Spartan appetites, the cost of food is only about $50 to $100 per year. You may also need to spend upwards of $100 to replace equipment and for any unexpected medical bills. With enough luck, you axolotl will rarely have any medical issues, but if they do need to see a vet, then there’s the added risk that few vets in your area may be specialized in amphibian care. That is why it’s so important to find a specialty vet early on and establish regular contact or visits with them. But overall, given their rarity, axolotls are surprisingly cheap to own compared with most pets.

RELATED: What’s a Baby Axolotl Called? Plus 4 More Fun Facts

New Owner Shopping List: What to Buy

This is a list of all the items you will need to purchase and set up before the axolotl is even brought home. The setup is a fairly straightforward process, but it may take some time and experimentation to get the habitat just right. This is one of the most crucial steps of axolotl care.

  • Tank – As mentioned previously, an adult axolotl will need, at minimum, a 15-gallon tank and preferably at least a 20-gallon tank, plus an additional 10 gallons for any tank mates. Since axolotls do have a tendency to jump out of the tank, it should always be fitted with a secure lid at all times and filled completely to the top with water. While the tank should be kept away from exposure to direct sunlight, you can still use your own artificial light to make your viewing experience better. Choose one that doesn’t emit a lot of heat such as a fluorescent or LED light.
  • Substrate – A substrate is the substance you will place at the bottom of the tank. The axolotl does not necessarily require a substrate, but it will help your pet get a better grip on the bottom. The best type of substrate is probably small sand that it won’t mistake for food. Gravel is generally not recommended, because the axolotl has a tendency to swallow it. It’s rarely worth even taking the risk.
  • Filters – A filter is highly recommended to improve the water quality inside of the tank. Just make sure it has a slow filtration rate to replicate the slow-moving water it would inhabit in the wild.
  • Décor – The tank should ideally have the following décor: a hiding place (like a ceramic object or hiding cave), big rocks, driftwood, and strong plants (Java fern, Elodia, Marimo moss balls, and even floating plants like Amazon frogbits are all fine). Just make sure there aren’t any sharp objects for your pet to accidentally hurt itself.
  • Water chiller – If you are having trouble with the water temperature, then you may want to purchase a device that will keep it low enough for the axolotl to thrive in.
  • Thermometers – It is a good idea to have thermometers on hand to measure the temperature of the water at all times.

Ongoing Needs: What You Need to Care for Your Axolotl

The axolotl has few ongoing needs apart from the daily supply of food, but there is one important exception: water test kits will check the level of ammonium, nitrate, pH, and other factors to make sure the water condition is optimal. You will want a ready supply of these available at all times. You should also have a siphon and bucket on hand for cleaning purposes, which will be covered in more detail below. Moreover, over the course of the axolotl’s lifetime, some parts may break down and need to be replaced. It might be a good idea to have a backup water filter on hand just in case.

Exercise and Ongoing Care

The axolotl will get all the exercise it needs as long as it has a big enough tank. The décor will also provide an interesting place for the axolotl to swim around and enjoy. The most important aspect of its ongoing care (besides feeding) is the cleaning process. In order to clean the tank properly, you will need a siphon and a bucket. You will want to siphon out 20 to 25 percent of the water at a time, preferably focusing on the areas of the tank around the substrate where there is waste. Then you will want to gradually replace the water with a fresh, clean supply; do not just pour it all in at once. In this manner you can basically maintain the same chemical composition of the water without causing enormous stress to the axolotl. If you have a filter, then you only need to clean the tank about once a week. If you don’t have a filter, however, then cleaning should occur every single day to avoid risking health problems. That is why it’s so important to buy a filter.

Feeding Your Axolotl

The axolotl will need to be fed a diet heavy in shrimp, bloodworms, earthworms, small pieces of beef, and other frozen prey. The food should be specialized exclusively for pets. Do not catch the food yourself or use prey intended for recreational fishing, because this can make your axolotl sick with infections. Juvenile axolotls will eat almost once a day, but an adult will only feed two to three times a week. Evening is usually the best time to feed your pet, because that is when they are most active. It does not matter if you try to feed your pet by holding the food in forceps or dropping it directly into the water; either method is fine. If the axolotl has left behind any uneaten food bits, then they should be removed from the tank quickly to prevent it from reducing the water quality.

Find out more about the axolotl’s diet in this article called “What do Axolotl’s Eat?

How Long Will Your Pet Axolotl Live?

With the proper habitat conditions, excellent diet, and a bit of luck, the axolotl can easily surpass 10 years old. Some specimens have even been known to live past 20 years old, but this is relatively rare. The axolotl is a long-term responsibility, so you should prepare accordingly. Here’s more information on the lifespan of an axolotol.

An albino axolotl among rocks underwater
Axolotls come in a variety of colors. This one is a young albino axolotl.

Common Health Issues for the Axolotl

Your pet axolotl should be checked regularly for signs of health problems. A healthy axolotl will be active and alert with clear skin, normal breathing, and an excellent appetite. While their soft cartilage-based bodies are sensitive, they do have the ability to regrow limbs. An unhealthy axolotl, on the other hand, may be lethargic, weak, and slow-moving. Skin blemishes, abnormal feces, ragged breathing, and strange, unexpected excretions are all obvious signs that something has gone wrong. Mismanaged environmental conditions, poor nutrition, infections, and even genetic problems are usually the culprit. Here is a list of potential health problems:

  • Ammonia poisoning – Ammonia is a waste product of the axolotl. If it’s not filtered or cleaned out properly, then it can result in serious health complications, including inflammation, burning, asphyxiation, and even death.
  • Intestinal blockage or occlusion – This is a problem when the axolotl accidentally swallows something large it has trouble digesting. It may refuse to eat or start floating to the surface. If the axolotl hasn’t evacuated the obstruction after a few days, then you should consult your vet.
  • Mycosis – Also known as a fungal infection, this may result in sudden changes to the skin or gills of your pet. Fungus usually builds up from poor environmental conditions, particularly if the water is too warm.
  • Bacterial or parasitic infections – Signs of an infection may include inflammation, loss of appetite, unexpected weight loss, and skin problems. Good environmental conditions and proper nutrition can help decrease the chances of an infection.

Where to Buy Your Pet Axolotl

Axolotls are hard to find in general pet stores. They might be available from an exotic pet store, but the best way to buy one is from a private breeder with a good reputation. Always do a bit of research first and talk with the breeder or store owner to get a sense of how they breed or acquire their axolotls. Proper documentation of their breeding practices is important too. When it comes to the health an animal, quality should not be compromised, even if it means paying a little more.

Keep in mind that the axolotl may be illegal to own in some countries and states, including California, New Jersey, Maine, and Virginia. Other states might require permits to own one. While most pet axolotls are privately bred, their critically endangered status in the wild means that many governments restrict their access to prevent poaching. Always check with the local exotic pet laws in your state or country to make sure you aren’t illegally purchasing, owning, or importing one.

Special Considerations with the Axolotl

The axolotl has very few special considerations. Just keep in mind that because axolotls have few bones in their body, they are very sensitive. You should rarely try to handle one unless it’s necessary. If you try to catch it in a net, then use a very fine mesh that won’t damage its body.

About the Author

AZ Animals is a growing team of animals experts, researchers, farmers, conservationists, writers, editors, and -- of course -- pet owners who have come together to help you better understand the animal kingdom and how we interact.

Pet Axolotl Guide: What You Need to Know FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are axolotls good pets for beginners?

It does take a bit of time and effort to set up the correct habitat and environmental conditions, but overall, they are surprisingly easy to care for. Just keep a constant eye on the water quality and the axolotl’s health.

Do axolotls bite?

Axolotls do have a tendency to nibble on anything they can, but their bite doesn’t hurt much and they’re fairly docile and mellow around humans.

What is the difference between a male and female axolotl?

Sexual differences are relatively minimal. Females tend to be rounder and wider than males, especially when they are carrying eggs. Males will also have a larger “bump” near the back legs (this is the organ known as the cloaca). But it may be difficult to distinguish between the sexes without seeing them side by side first.

Can you keep the axolotl with fish?

It is possible, provided that you choose very tame and non-aggressive fish that can thrive in the same environmental conditions, but there is always a high chance that they won’t get along, so it’s usually best to keep your axolotl separate.

Is the axolotl poisonous or toxic at all?

No, the axolotl does not produce or carry any toxins within its body that may harm humans and other animals.

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