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What to feed your axolotl

Axolotls are carnivores, and insects make up the bulk of their diet in the wild. In the aquarium, they will accept a range of live, frozen and dried foods. Here are a list of recommended staples and treats. Scroll down for more info on each of these!

Recommended staples:

  • Soft, sinking carnivore pellet
  • Live nightcrawlers (Canadian earthworms)
  • Live red wigglers (compost worms)
  • Repashy Grub Pie

Recommended treats:

  • Frozen bloodworms
  • Live small fish (home-bred)

How to choose a pellet

I have tried a lot of the “axolotl pellets” on the market and I have to tell you, my critters were none too pleased. My personal recommendation is Northfin Jumbo Fish, which is a soft sinking pellet for carnivore fish. The reason I like it is that it has quality ingredients, is reasonably-priced, and I’ve never encountered an axolotl who didn’t like them.

If you want to try a different pellet, make sure it’s the sinking type, as axolotls have difficulty learning to look for their food at the water surface. Choose a pellet with a protein content around 40%, and which don’t list grains within the first three ingredients. It should be supplemented with vitamins and minerals, and the pellet should soften quickly without losing its shape or making the water cloudy.

Regardless of the brand you decide to go with, it’s a good idea to supplement your axolotl’s diet with the occasional live worm.

Looking to transition your axolotl from live/frozen foods to pellets? This FAQ entry is for you!

Live nightcrawlers

Axolotls love their nightcrawlers! I consider them a form as enrichment as well as a healthy, affordable food staple. Most axolotls will enthusiastically lunge at them as soon as they see them.

Where to find them: Nightcrawlers are the large Canadian earthworms sold as fishing bait throughout the country. If you want to use the ones you find in your backyard, make sure your neighbors aren’t using any herbicides or pesticides, as those could be toxic to your axolotl. If you’re in the area, you’re welcome to come by my shop to pick some up. I can also ship them when the weather permits. If you’d like to order some and they’re not listed in my shop, email me and I’ll see what I can do for you.

How to store them: Nightcrawlers need to be stored in a cool place, such as a basement or a wine cooler. If you transfer them to a plastic container with fresh soil and a couple of small ventilation holes, they will keep for several months. There is no need to feed them — just lightly mist the soil with water if it looks dry. If all of the worms are at the surface when you open the container, it’s a sign that they are either too hot or the soil is due to be changed.

How to feed them to your axolotl: I recommend using tongs, and swishing them in a bit of water first to dislodge any dirt and excess slime. You might want to cut the really big ones in half, too.

How much to feed: One nightcrawler every other day is enough. Alternatively, you could do half a nightcrawler every day.

Problems with fussy eaters? If your axolotl spits out his food, try offering it again once or twice — sometimes they just didn’t get a good enough grip the first time. If your axolotl is giving up on the worm after trying to wrestle it into submission for a while, try cutting the worm into smaller pieces. If your axolotl is immediately and repeatedly spitting the worm out, or turning away from it, see: why is my axolotl refusing to eat? [Coming soon!]

Red wigglers

Red wigglers are compost worms, which means you can start your own culture at home if you have the patience for it. There’s a lot of trial and error involved, as certain foods cause them to develop a bitter taste which axolotls are quite fussy about.

Where to find them: Most of the big stores that sell camping and fishing supplies carry them as fish bait. You can also order them online through most of the year. I frequently have some in stock, as well. If they’re not listed in my shop, email me and I can probably order some in for you.

How to store them: These do well at room temperature. Make sure there’s some ventilation in their container. If you’d like to start your own culture, you’ll find plenty of vermicomposting guides online. Personally, I haven’t developed the knack for it, yet.

How to feed them to your axolotl: These survive longer than nightcrawlers in water, so you can just drop them in and wait for your axolotl to find them. I still prefer to use tongs, personally — it prevents the worms from sneaking under the decor, and makes it easier for the axolotl to grab. I also recommend swishing them in a bit of water first to dislodge any dirt and excess slime. Some axolotls are fussy about that.

How much to feed: It depends on the size, but I find that one per day is usually enough. Alternatively, you could do two every other day.

Problems with fussy eaters? Chances are your red wigglers taste bitter. Try a different kind of food, and if your axolotl accepts that one, take it as a sign that you need to modify your red wigglers’ diet.

What the heck is Grub Pie?

Repashy Grub Pie is ground bug powder that can essentially be turned into bug jello. Axolotls seem to really enjoy the smell (it’s quite stinky!)

Where to find it: You can buy it from some online shops. I frequently have it in stock.

How to store it: The gel keeps for up to two weeks in the fridge.

How to feed it to your axolotl: Axolotls like to gobble up their food in one bite, so you should start by cutting the gel into appropriate-sized pieces. I highly recommend using tongs to feed these to your axolotl — in my experience, axolotls don’t like to pick these up from the bottom of the tank. If they stay in the water for too long, the pieces start to fall apart and the water turns quite nasty.

How much to feed: Most adults will eat a piece that is roughly the size of half a gummy worm every day, or one whole gummy worm every other day. Juveniles who are still growing and females who are plump with eggs may want to eat a little extra.

Problems with fussy eaters? If you’re using the tong method, try hand-feeding. If that still doesn’t work, see: why is my axolotl refusing to eat? [Coming soon!]

Frozen bloodworms

Everyone loves bloodworms! They are the french fries of the aquatic world. They make a great treat, and are useful when trying to convince a sick or stressed axolotl to eat. They are high in fat and low in protein, so they should not be fed as a staple.

Where to find them: Your local fish store most likely carries them.

How to store them: Stick them in the freezer, and break off a little piece whenever you need it. They will thaw very quickly in the aquarium.

How much to feed: If you buy bloodworms in small amounts, chances are it will be pre-partitioned. If not, try to break off a piece that’s no larger than a quarter. Remember, it’s only meant to be a treat!

Problems with fussy eaters? If an axolotl is refusing bloodworms, something is definitely wrong. See: why is my axolotl refusing to eat? [Coming soon!]

Live small fish

“Feeder” fish sold at pet stores are best avoided, as they may harbor parasites or other pathogens. Fish that you breed yourself can be a healthy food source, so long as they are small enough that the bones won’t cause a blockage. Even so, I wouldn’t recommend feeding live fish as a staple. Axolotls are just not very good at catching them. Their natural hunting method is to dig through the mud with their noses to find bugs and invertebrates, or to camouflage themselves among plants and wait for prey to venture near their mouths. Trying to ambush fish this way can be a fun game for them, but you can easily see how they would starve if they had no other meal option!

If you do want to try raising fish to feed your axolotls, make sure you select a compatible species. You can find my recommendations here: Axolotl tankmates: fish edition.

 

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Axolotl tankmates: fish edition

Can you keep axolotls with fish? The answer, surprisingly, is yes — you just need to choose your fish carefully.

One thing to keep in mind when keeping fish with axolotls is that those long flowy gills can start to look like food to just about any fish who’s hungry enough. Make sure to keep your fish well-fed, and be ready to separate them if you notice that your axolotl’s gills are showing signs of damage.

Ideal tankmates
My personal success stories! These peaceful fish enjoy cold, hard, neutral pH water. In addition, they are either too fast for axolotls to catch, too big to make an attractive meal, or they reproduce fast enough that the population should be able to maintain itself.

  • Golden skiffia
  • Orange-finned danio (extra aeration & aquarium cover required)
  • White cloud mountain minnow
  • Zebra danio

Potentially good tankmates
These fish sound like they could be good axolotl tankmates in theory, but I have not tried them personally, or they did not work for me, for various reasons.

  • Bengal danio (extra aeration & aquarium cover required)
  • Dusky millions fish
  • Frail gourami
  • Giant chinese bitterling (non-breeding, large aquarium required)
  • Golden barb
  • Green swordtail
  • Indian glass barb
  • Inle loach
  • Maharaja barb
  • Moustached danio
  • Pearl danio
  • Peninsular danio (extra aeration required)
  • Playfair’s panchax
  • Rainbow characodon
  • Red-line torpedo barb
  • Red-spotted panchax
  • Rosy barb
  • Rosy danio (extra aeration & aquarium cover required)

Swimming buffet
These are fish who enjoy the same water parameters as your axolotls, but are likely to become dinner very fast. If you breed them in a separate tank, they could be an attractive option as a source of cheap live food.

  • Checkered barb
  • Golden dwarf barb
  • Medaka (japanese ricefish)
  • Northern glowlight danio
  • Odessa barb
  • Shalyni barb
  • Two-spotted barb

Experienced fishkeepers only!
These species could potentially be a good match, provided that you are able to maintain your water temperatures at a steady 20°C ±1°C. Do read the fish’s care requirements carefully before you make the plunge, as you may need to modify your tank setup or maintenance routine. Do keep an eye out for signs of stress in both species, and be ready to separate or adjust your setup as needed.

  • Black-barred danio
  • Blue danio
  • Blue moon danio
  • Clown barb
  • Dwarf spotted danio
  • Glass barb
  • Gold ring danio
  • Greenstripe barb
  • Guppy (I know it’s typically considered a beginner fish, but trust me on this!)
  • Hikari danio
  • Onespot barb
  • Scarlet badis
  • Spotted barb
  • Swamp barb

Not recommended
While these fish can be kept at room temperature, they should not be kept at temperatures below 21°C for extended periods of time.

  • Banded epiplatys
  • Banded leporinus
  • Beardless barb
  • Black neon tetra
  • Black paradise fish
  • Black phantom tetra
  • Black ruby barb
  • Blackwing hatchetfish
  • Bleeding heart tetra
  • Bluefin nothobranch
  • Brown spike-tailed paradise fish
  • Celestial pearl danio
  • Cherry barb
  • Chocolate gourami
  • Columbian tetra
  • Common hatchetfish (silver hatchetfish)
  • Crossband chocolate gourami
  • Crystal red tetra
  • Cuming’s barb
  • Dadio
  • Discus tetra
  • Dwarf barb
  • Dwarf panchax
  • Dwarf rasbora
  • Ember tetra
  • Emerald dwarf rasbora
  • Empire gudgeon
  • Eyespot rasbora
  • False spanner barb
  • False x-ray tetra
  • Filament barb
  • Fire bar danio
  • Fireline devario
  • Five-banded barb
  • Flag tetra
  • Flame red rasbora
  • Flame tetra
  • Flying barb
  • Flying minnow
  • Glowlight rasbora
  • Golden pencilfish
  • Green line lizard tetra
  • Green neon tetra
  • Green panchax
  • Harlequin
  • Honey gourami
  • Indian glass fish
  • Jelly bean tetra
  • Least killifish
  • Lemon tetra
  • Lined barb
  • Lipstick leporinus
  • Lyretail killi
  • Mad barb
  • Madagascar panchax
  • Marbled hatchetfish
  • Mayan tetra
  • Mosquito rasbora
  • Narayan barb
  • Neon tetra
  • Ornate tetra
  • Pookode lake barb
  • Powder-blue panchax
  • Queen danio
  • Rainbow tetra
  • Red dwarf rasbora
  • Red phantom tetra
  • Red-chinned panchax
  • Red-striped killifish
  • Red-tailed tinfoil barb
  • Rosy loach
  • Savanna tetra
  • Siamese algae eater
  • Silver hatchetfish
  • Six-barred panchax
  • Snakeskin barb
  • Spanner barb
  • Spiketail paradisefish
  • Spotfin hatchetfish
  • Spotted headstander
  • Steel-blue killifish
  • Steindacher’s apisto (A138)
  • Striped flying barb
  • Striped headstander
  • Tasseled-mouth loach
  • Three-striped apisto (A204)
  • Threespot leporinus
  • Variable platy
  • Whitespot eartheater
  • Yellow phantom tetra
  • Yellow tetra

Direct competitors
These bottom-dwelling fish would infringe on your axolotl’s turf, which could lead to stress and aggressive behaviors. This includes most loaches and catfish.

  • Badis
  • Black-lined loach
  • Chinese false gudgeon
  • Horse face loach
  • Kansu loach
  • Mini dragon loach
  • Moose-faced loach
  • Panda loach
  • Peacock loach
  • Ring loach
  • Yo-yo loach
  • Zebra loach

Probably too aggressive
While these guys enjoy cold hard water, I’m not sure about their temperaments. Based on what I know of their close relatives, I would expect them to be too aggressive to be kept with axolotls.

  • Florida flagfish
  • Mekong tiger perch
  • New guinea tiger perch
  • Roundtail paradise fish
  • Sharphead eartheater

Too endangered
Given their precarious conservation status, it wouldn’t make sense to keep these fish in the same tank as a potential predator.

  • Eyespot gourami
  • Siamese tiger perch
  • Spanish toothcarp

Don’t even think about it!
These fish have a tendency to nip at flowy fins and gills, or have environmental needs that differ greatly from those of axolotls. This includes most bettas, cichlids, piranhas, pacus and sharks. I’m not including obligate brackish or saltwater fish, but it goes without saying that those would not be a good match either!

    • African blackfin barb
    • African butterfly barb
    • African red-eyed tetra
    • Ajime loach
    • Amapa tetra
    • Apistogramma spp. (A52, A164, A165, A167, A174, A188, A208, A218, A220, A221, A222)
    • Arrow loach
    • Arulius barb
    • Banded tiger loach
    • Barred danio
    • Barred pencilfish
    • Bengal loach
    • Betta (siamese fighting fish)
    • Biara
    • Black darter tetra
    • Black kuhli loach
    • Black shark
    • Black spot pirhana
    • Black tiger dario
    • Blackstripe pencilfish
    • Blind cave tetra
    • Bloodfin tetra
    • Blue-faced peacock
    • Brichardi
    • Broken-line killifish
    • Brunei beauty
    • Buenos aires tetra
    • Burmese badis
    • Burmese red-tailed garra
    • Butterfly goodeid
    • Butterfly loach
    • Canara pearlspot cichlid
    • Cardinal tetra
    • Chameleon loach
    • Cherry-fin loach
    • Ceylonese combtail
    • Climbing perch
    • Clown loach
    • Congo barb
    • Crescent betta
    • Croaking gourami
    • Cupid cichlid
    • Dawn tetra
    • Deissner’s liquorice gourami
    • Doctor fish
    • Drape fin barb
    • Dwarf chain loach
    • Dwarf pencilfish
    • Emerald betta
    • Emperor botia
    • Emperor cichlid
    • Emperor tetra
    • Fire rasbora
    • Flame-back bleeding heart tetra
    • Flying fox
    • Forktailed loach
    • Gabon killifish
    • Gar characin
    • Giant chocolate gourami
    • Giant danio
    • Giant kuhli loach
    • Glowlight danio
    • Golden zebra loach
    • Goldfish (!!!)
    • Goulding’s piranha
    • Grant’s peacock
    • Green throat mouthbrooder
    • Green tiger loach
    • Greenstripe pencilfish
    • Grizzled loach
    • Half-banded loach
    • Hampala barb
    • Hockeystick pencilfish
    • Hummingbird tetra
    • Imperial flower loach
    • Indonesian tiger perch
    • Java combtail
    • Kennedy’s tetra
    • Kissing gourami
    • Knife livebearer
    • Kuhli loach
    • Lambchop rasbora
    • Laos blackline torpedo loach
    • Laos redtail loach
    • Least pencilfish
    • Leopard bushfish
    • Leopold’s tetra
    • Lesser bleeding heart tetra
    • Lipstick barb
    • Long-finned tetra
    • Loreto tetra
    • Malawi butterfly
    • Manipur baril
    • Marbled headstander
    • Melon barb
    • New yellow regal peacock
    • Northern aulonocara
    • Oiapoque eartheater
    • One-lined pencilfish
    • Orinoco eartheater
    • Ornate paradisefish
    • Ornate tiger sand loach
    • Oscar
    • Panamanian eartheater
    • Panda garra
    • Panda loach
    • Panther danio
    • Paradise fish
    • Payara
    • Pearl cichlid
    • Peruvian tetra
    • Piraya
    • Polka-dot loach
    • Purple pencilfish
    • Purple tetra
    • Pygmy hatchetfish
    • Rainbow shark
    • Red bellied piranha
    • Red-shouldered peacock
    • Red-spotted tetra
    • Red-spotted splashing tetra
    • Red-tailed black shark
    • Red-tailed freshwater barracuda
    • Redfin tiger loach
    • Redflanked bloodfin
    • Redspot cichlid
    • Retail loach
    • Rhino garra
    • Rosy tetra
    • Ruby tetra
    • Saddle cichlid
    • Saddle-back loach
    • Sailfin characin
    • Serpae tetra
    • Sheep pacu
    • Shining pencilfish
    • Silver loach
    • Silver shark
    • Silver tiger perch
    • Skunk loach
    • Slender betta
    • Smudge spot cory
    • Snakehead betta
    • Soda cichlid
    • Sparkling gourami
    • Speckle-tailed loach
    • Splash tetra
    • Splendid killifish
    • Spotscale barb
    • Spotted betta
    • Spotted butterfly loach
    • Spotted hampala barb
    • Spotted metynnis
    • Striped anostomus
    • Striped flying barb
    • Striped pike characin
    • Sucking loach
    • Sulphurhead peacock
    • Sumo loach II
    • Sun loach
    • Sunshine peacock
    • Super convict loach
    • Ternetz’s anostomus
    • Tiger barb
    • Tiger hillstream loach
    • Tinfoil barb
    • Two spot astyanax
    • Three-lined pencilfish
    • Two-stripe pencilfish
    • Two-striped apisto
    • Vaillant’s chocolate gourami
    • Vampire tetra
    • Vietnamese marbled hog-faced loach
    • Violet shark
    • White piranha
    • Yellow-tailed congo tetra
    • Yellowhump eartheater
    • Yoma danio
    • Western mosquitofish
    • X-ray tetra
    • Zipper loach
    • Zodiac loach
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Axolotl breeding, part 1: genetic and health considerations

Selecting a female

Female axolotls can lay up to 1000 eggs at once, which is exhausting for the female. She does not get a break to recover afterwards — her body immediately resumes gamete production, which comes with a high energy cost. For this reason, repeatedly beeding a female can be detrimental to her health. Breeding her too early can also interfere with her growth. Please be mindful of these considerations when choosing a female to breed — choose a female who’s fully grown (at least a year old) and has a healthy appetite and appearance, with a big round belly. Keep in mind that the same female should only be bred a maximum of three times in her lifetime, with a long break in between breedings. Personally, I try to breed females only once, unless they have exceptional characteristics. I also never breed females more than once a year.

Selecting a male

When it comes to choosing a male, the most important thing to consider is genetics. You’ll want to make absolutely sure that your male has no family relation with your female — this would lead to genetic defects in the offspring that can be quite dramatic. Beyond that, it helps to be familiar with how genes combine to create different morphs (phenotypes). Personally, I like to select males with traits that match the female’s best characteristic: for example, my “K” line is all about cute round faces, whereas my “B” line is all about blue gills.

Traits to avoid

You should never, ever breed axolotls with obvious genetic defects, such as:

  • dwarfism [article coming soon!]
  • short toes syndrome
  • “mini” features
  • any physical deformation that isn’t due to regrowth after nipping
  • a tendency to float frequently (especially upside down)
  • other recurrent health issues (e.g. very prone to fungus)

In case of accidental breeding

If you’ve accidentally kept a male and a female together and ended up with eggs, it may seem like the kind choice to keep them and raise them… But in reality, it’s the self-indulgent route that should be avoided in most cases. If the two parents are genetically related (e.g. brother and sister), or if one or both parents have genetic defects, you really wouldn’t be doing the larvae a favor by attempting to raise them. Not only would it compromise their quality of life, but it also poses a risk that the genetic issue will be passed on to future generations if those axolotls also end up getting bred (accidentally or otherwise).

Avoid this rookie mistake!

Another important point to consider is: how many of the eggs can you afford to keep? Raising larvae requires time, effort and space. They are also complicated and expensive to feed, compared to adults. If you are breeding axolotls for the first time, I wouldn’t recommend keeping more than 10. If you keep more than you are able to care for, you will be stretching your resources thin, and the quality of your care will suffer. Trust me — don’t try raising hundreds of axolotls on your first try. You have plenty of time to try your hand at raising more after you’ve brought these first 10 to maturity. You’ll be better prepared to tackle higher numbers once you have a clear idea of the challenges involved.

How to get rid of unwanted axolotl eggs

Freeze them. This will cause the larvae to go into hibernation mode, dulling their sense of pain before vital functions shut down. They will be unconscious before ice crystals begin to form. Once they are frozen solid, you can dispose of the eggs in the compost or trash.

Happy responsible breeding! : )

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Common axolotl myths

Myth #1: Bare bottom tanks cause axolotls to slip and become stressed

If your axolotl is slipping on the glass, your water flow is too strong. Your axolotl should be able to walk along the bottom of the tank without sliding or slipping.

Myth #2: Sand causes impaction in adult axolotls

The use of sand may be risky for axolotl larvae, but there are no documented cases of impaction caused by sand in adult axolotls. However, impaction cases caused by gravel ingestion in adult axolotls are frequent. Which brings us to…

Myth #3: Gravel is a safe substrate for axolotls

Absolutely not! Remember: if it’s smaller than their head, they will ingest it; if it’s larger than their poop, they won’t be able to pass it!

Myth #4: Goldfish are acceptable tankmates for axolotls

Although they both enjoy similar water conditions, these two species are not a good match. Axolotls are not very good at catching fish, but given the chance, they will eat any fish that fits in their mouth. Goldfish aren’t safe for axolotls either, as they tend to nip at their gills. Their bones can also cause impaction due to their size.

Myth #5: You don’t need to feed your axolotl as long as you keep fish in the tank

Again, axolotls are not good hunters. If live fish are the only option on the menu, they will most likely starve.

Myth #6: Frozen bloodworms are an acceptable staple food for axolotls

Bloodworms are a fatty, low-protein snack. Think of them as the french fries of the aquatic world. Axolotls who are fed nothing but bloodworms for an extended period of time become emaciated and tend to bite off their tankmates’ limbs.

Myth #7: Indian almond leaves and black tea work as painkillers for axolotls

Unfortunately, indian almond leaves and black tea have no effect on pain. The tannins they release do have mild antibacterial and antifungal properties, however.

Myth #8: If you see fungus on your axolotl’s gills, you should pull it off or remove it by rubbing it with a Q-tip.

Please don’t do this! By pulling out the fungus, you are literally ripping out living flesh, which is extremely painful. Just allow the fungus-infected gill tissue to necrotize and fall off on its own.

Myth #9: It’s okay to use fish antibiotics on axolotls as long as you use half-doses

First of all, you shouldn’t use antibiotics on an axolotl unless you know which bacteria you are fighting against. If you suspect that your axolotl has a bacterial infection, please ask a veterinarian how you can send in a sample for identification.

Secondly, there is no guarantee that a fish-safe medication will be safe for axolotls. Unless a scientific article or veterinary account confirms that a medication is safe to use on amphibians, please assume that it isn’t!

Finally, by reducing the dose of the antibiotic, you run the risk of creating new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When treating with antibiotics, always follow dosing instructions and administer the treatment for its entire duration, even if the symptoms are gone.

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Axolotl Diseases

This is a quick reference list of common health issues, as well as axolotl-safe treatments. I will add to this article little by little. If you’d like me to talk about one illness in particular, please email me.

Ammonia poisoning

Deformation of the caudal fin and bleeding due to ammonia poisoning.

Early symptoms:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Curling, atrophy of gill filaments
  • Irritated skin (some redness visible on axolotls with pale skin)
  • Veins becoming more visible (also on axolotls with pale skin)

Advanced symptoms:

  • Whitening, curling, atrophy of gill stalk tips
  • Prounounced red patches on the skin (visible on axolotls with pale skin)
  • Loss of gill filaments
  • Deformation of the caudal fin
  • Erosion of the tail tip and fingertips
  • Bleeding
  • Death

How to diagnose:

In the presence of some or all of the above symptoms, test ammonia levels. If any ammonia is detected, the animal is almost certainly suffering from ammonia poisoning.

Causes:

Ammonia poisoning is either due to new tank syndrome or improper husbandry (infrequent water changes, overcrowding, overfeeding, or using inadequate filtration).

Treatment:

If the cause is new tank syndrome, follow the treatment instructions listed below. Otherwise, you will need to find the cause of the problem and fix it. Daily 50% water changes and the addition of conditioner every 24 hours will keep your animals safe until the issue is resolved. Keep testing the water for ammonia every 24 hours until no more ammonia is detected. To prevent the situation from reoccuring in the future, I highly recommend testing ammonia once a week.

New tank syndrome

Early symptoms:

  • Gradual loss of vitality, typically within the first month following the introduction of the axolotl to a new aquarium
  • Red patches on the skin (visible on axolotls with pale skin)
  • Curling, atrophy of gill filaments
  • Lack of appetite or inability to chew or swallow food
  • Change in gill color (paler or more brownish)

Advanced symptoms:

  • Whitening, curling, atrophy of gill stalk tips
  • Loss of gill filaments
  • Erosion and/or deformation of the caudal fin
  • Bleeding
  • Death

How to diagnose:

In the presence of some or all of the above symptoms, test ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels. You can assume that the animal is suffering from new tank syndrome ammonia and/or nitrites are detected and one or more of the following statements are true:

  • Nitrates are absent or very low (~10 ppm or less)
  • The animal has been living in the aquarium for less than two months
  • The filter is brand new, or the filter media has been completely replaced recently
  • The filter stopped running (e.g. during a power outage) for three hours or more
  • You have recently treated the tank with an antibiotic
  • You have been refilling your aquarium with tap water, without adding conditioner

If ammonia and/or nitrites are present but nitrates are also high (>40 ppm) and none of the other conditions apply, a more likely diagnosis is ammonia poisoning and/or nitrite poisoning due to improper husbandry (infrequent water changes, overcrowding, overfeeding, or using inadequate filtration).

Causes:

Uncycled aquarium (lack of nitrifying bacteria in the filter) leading to ammonia poisoning and/or nitrite poisoning.

Treatment:

Daily water changes and addition of conditioner as needed until the aquarium is properly cycled. The addition of seeded filter media or a bacterial additive is strongly recommended.

Nitrite poisoning

Early symptoms:

  • Very pale gills
  • Frequent breathing at the water surface
  • Crowding near the water inlet or air stone

Advanced symptoms:

  • Gills turning brown
  • Uncontrolled floating
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of interest in food
  • Gill damage, gill loss and/or saprolegniosis
  • Eventual death

Diagnosis:

In the presence of some or all of the above symptoms, test nitrite levels. If any are detectable, you can assume that the animal is suffering from nitrite poisoning.

Causes:

Frequently occurs as part of new tank syndrome or as the result of a cycle crash (e.g. after a power failure). May also be due to overstocking, the presence of something rotting in the tank, or infrequent water changes.

Treatment:

Daily water changes and addition of conditioner as needed until the aquarium is properly cycled. The addition of seeded filter media or a bacterial additive is strongly recommended. Make sure the tank isn’t overstocked and that partial water changes are conducted at least once a week.

Saprolegniosis (winter fungus)

Early signs of saprolegnia.

Early symptoms:

  • Raised white or grey lesions that have a soft appearance, like cotton wool. Typically start as small circles on the axolotl’s head or gills, then grow larger and merge as the disease progresses.

Advanced symptoms:

  • A fuzzy growth, reminiscent of a dandelion puff, typically on the axolotl’s gills — may appear white, grey or tan to brown as debris accumulate
  • Partial loss of gill stalks
  • Death, if internal organs are affected

Causes:

Compromised immune system due to stress, reducing the animal’s natural resistance to saprolegnia (a fungus whose spores are naturally present in virtually all water sources). May appear as a secondary infection if the axolotl is already battling another illness.

Diagnosis: 

The visual cues are usually pretty obvious. In the presence of some or all of the above symptoms, your veterinarian may conduct a skin scraping to identify Saprolegnia’s hyphae (a root-like structure) under a microscope.

Treatment:

Eliminate potential stress causes such as improper housing conditions, poor water quality (especially in an uncycled aquarium), high temperatures, aggressive tankmates or strong water flow. If the axolotl is on the verge of laying eggs or recovering after egg-laying, it may help to isolate her and lower the temperature slightly to help her recuperate. The same applies to an axolotl who is in the process of regrowing a limb. In advanced cases, salt baths are recommended.

Short Toes Syndrome

Axolotl suffering from short toes syndrome. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous breeders take advantage of this painful and deadly condition by marketing the afflicted animals as “dwarf axolotls”. Buyers beware! Photo: Amanda Gomes

Early symptoms:

  • Unusually short limbs and toes
  • Inability to regenerate missing limbs
  • Shortened/missing bones and bone joints

Advanced symptoms:

  • Signs of pain and distress (forward gills, mouth hanging open, arched spine, lack of interest in food, lack of movement)
  • Internal bleeding
  • Skin blisters
  • Hemorrhages
  • Extreme swelling and bloating

Causes:

Short toes is caused by a genetic mutation, which results in skeletal, renal and urogenital malformations. The afflicted animals have shortened lifespans, eventually suffering from painful edema and kidney failure.

Diagnosis:

The shortened toes are a sufficient cue.

Treatment:

Unfortunately, not much can be done to alleviate the issues caused by the mutation. Studies suggest Holtfreter’s solution may help for a time, but it may be kinder to euthanize the animal to spare it further suffering. Alternatively, you may consider donating your axolotl to a university, as short toes axolotls are important to limb regeneration research.

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Axolotl housing

Proper housing is the key to keeping your axolotl healthy! Please make sure to read all of this before buying an axolotl ᗒ(◍•ᴗ•◍)ᗕ

Aquarium size
The general rule of thumb is to allow a minimum of 10 gallons of water per axolotl. That being said, the important thing is to offer sufficient floor space for your axolotls to be able to move around comfortably. Axolotls typically reach an adult size of 10 to 12 inches, and spend most of their time walking along the bottom of the tank, rather than swimming. Here are my stocking recommendations for some common aquarium models:

  • 10 gal (~20″ x 10″ x 12″): 2 juveniles, or 1 dwarf/mini axolotl
  • 15 gal (~24″ x 12″ x 12″): 1 to 2 adults
  • 20 gal high (~24 x 12 x 16): 1 to 2 adults
  • 20 gal long (~30″ x 12″ x 12″): 2 to 3 adults
  • 30 gal (~36″ x 12″ x 16″): 2 to 3 adults
  • 40 breeder (~36″ x 18″ x 16″): 4 to 5 adults
  • 55 gal (~48″ x 12″ x 21″): 3 to 4 adults
  • 75 gal (~48″ x 18″ x  21″): 5 to 6 adults
  • 120 gal (~48″ x 24″ x 25″): 7 to 8 adults
  • 180 gal (~72″ x 24″ x 25″): 11 to 12 adults

Filtration
Axolotls prefer very slow-moving water and will become stressed to the point of illness if the water flow is too strong. They are very light and easily pushed around by the current. Signs that your axolotl is stressed by the water flow include forward-curled gills, sliding/slipping, and staying in one spot (particularly in a cave or tank corner.)

To avoid this issue, choose a gentle filter such as the ones advertised in my shop section — they are all tried and true axolotl-safe models! Avoid HOB (hang-on-back/power) filters and canisters without adjustable flow, unless you are prepared to turn them into a DIY project!  Already bought them? See my tips & tricks section for ways to turn them into a super efficient, axolotl-safe system. [Coming soon!]

No matter which filter you choose, you will need to provide a source of biological filtration. Just like fish, axolotls are prone to new tank syndrome, which means proper cycling is absolutely essential. If you’re not sure what any of  this means, please read this: Introduction to the Nitrogen Cycle (Or, Why You Killed That Goldfish When You Were Little).

Substrate (or not?)
Contrary to popular belief, axolotls do just fine in a bare-bottom tank, as long as the water flow is sufficiently gentle. I personally prefer to keep my tanks bare, as I find it easier to clean. If you prefer to use a substrate for esthetic reasons, keep in mind that both sand and gravel are now known to pose an impaction risk [article coming soon!]. If you choose to use sand, make sure the grain is small and smooth, and that the material is non-clumping. Types of sand successfully employed by aquarists include:

  • Caribsea Super Naturals Moonlight Sand (stir weekly or use a thin layer)
  • Caribsea Sunset Gold (stir weekly or use a thin layer)
  • Seachem Meridian (not as smooth, but very small and carbonate-based — recommended as buffer if your water is on the soft/acidic side — stir weekly or use a thin layer)
  • Play sand (available at hardware stores — larger grain, requires heavy rinsing — use with fully grown adults only)
  • Pool filter sand (available at pool supply stores — larger grain, requires heavy rinsing — use with fully grown adults only)

Gravel is unsafe at nearly every stage of the axolotl’s life. Remember, axolotls are like babies: if it fits in their mouths, it will end up in their mouths! If you really want to use rocks, use large, smooth pebbles or river rocks that are significantly larger than your axolotl’s head, to make sure they won’t be ending up as a snack.

Decor
Axolotls like to explore their environment, so it’s a good idea to switch up their decor once in a while to keep them entertained. They like to have objects to climb, floating items to cling to, and places to hide. Pvc pipes, clay pots, caves and driftwood are all appreciated. Make sure all of the decor pieces are smooth, and too large to get accidentally swallowed. Plants are fine (plastic or live). Axolotls are carnivorous, so they have no interest in eating live plants — they just enjoy hiding in them or clinging to them for support. I recommend getting the floating kind, as they also provide shade, and will stay out of your way during water changes.

Lighting (or not?)
Axolotls don’t particularly need lighting, and will shy away from bright lights. They don’t have eyelids, which makes them easily blinded by sudden light changes. Their vision in general is poor, and they hunt largely by following smells and reacting to movements in the water. If you need to use lighting for plant growth or picture-taking, just make sure you provide your axolotl with some shaded spots to hide in.

Temperature
Axolotls are subtropical animals, which means they should never be kept in a heated aquarium. They can handle temperatures between 4 and 22°C, with 15 to 18°C being their preferred range. At 23°C, they start to get uncomfortable and often refuse to eat. At 24°C and above, the stress can cause them to get physically ill, and eventually cause death. If possible, try to keep your aquarium in a cool part of the house. During summer, you may need to cool the room down with air conditioning. A regular desk fan or a small clip-on fan may help lower the aquarium’s temperature by a few degrees. If this isn’t sufficient, you may need to purchase an aquarium fan or chiller.

Cover (or not?)
Axolotls rarely jump out of their aquariums, but it can happen. If you choose not to use a cover, make sure the water level is low enough to discourage jumping.