Since axolotls are critically endangered in the wild, it takes a special permit to import/export them in and out of Canada. Obviously, it’s also illegal to catch them in the wild (assuming there are any left!) But luckily for the survival of the species, there are no laws against breeding them in captivity. Selling, buying and owning axolotls is also legal through most of Canada — the notable exceptions are British Columbia and Prince-Edward-Island, due to BC’s erroneous classification of axolotls as wildlife, and PEI’s blanket prohibition of all amphibians (and erroneous perception of axolotls as tiger salamanders, which are a different genus!) If you live in those areas, I urge you to get involved in local politics! ; )
Aside from this, you should check your city’s regulations before purchasing an axolotl. Some cities have weird pet regulations. Luckily, here in Montréal, all non-poisonous amphibians are allowed. Strangely enough, we need a permit to keep a cat or a dog!
I was at the SAM Super Auction yesterday! It was my first time participating. I had a blast! Raked in quite a nice loot, too. Aquarium societies are a great place to get animals and plants that aren’t sold in stores. I finally got my hands on a live moina culture!
It was really nice to meet so many other hobbyists. I think I might have to squeeze the monthly meetings into my schedule. That means something else is gonna have to come out. Ehh, who needs sleep, am I right?
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.
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)
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
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.
Ammonia poisoning is either due to new tank syndrome or improper husbandry (infrequent water changes,overcrowding,overfeeding, or using inadequate filtration).
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
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)
Whitening, curling, atrophy of gill stalk tips
Loss of gill filaments
Erosion and/or deformation of the caudal fin
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).
Uncycled aquarium (lack of nitrifying bacteria in the filter) leading to ammonia poisoning and/or nitrite poisoning.
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.
Very pale gills
Frequent breathing at the water surface
Crowding near the water inlet or air stone
Gills turning brown
Lack of interest in food
Gill damage, gill loss and/or saprolegniosis
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Unusually short limbs and toes
Inability to regenerate missing limbs
Shortened/missing bones and bone joints
Signs of pain and distress (forward gills, mouth hanging open, arched spine, lack of interest in food, lack of movement)
Extreme swelling and bloating
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.
The shortened toes are a sufficient cue.
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.
There are many models of filter, but they all rely on the same principles. There are three types of filtration: mechanical, chemical and biological. Understanding what these do will help you choose the right filter, save money on expensive filter media, and keep your aquatic pets safe from new tank syndrome.
Most filter models rely on some type of mechanical filtration. Mechanical filtration is the process of physically trapping debris that are floating in the water, so that you can remove it by hand. This is done by forcing the water through an absorbant, porous material such as a sponge, filter pad or floss. Any particles too big to fit through the pores will stick to the material, which will eventually clog and need to be rinsed out or replaced.
Materials will large pores will last longer without clogging, but will let many small particles through. We often refer to those materials as pre-filters, because they are typically used as the first step of any multi-step filtration system. By removing the largest chunks, it allows the rest of the system to do a better job without clogging right away.
Materials with small pores will trap fine particles, but this also means they will saturate easily and need to be replaced often. We tend to refer to these materials as water polishers, since they help to make the water look much clearer. These are typically used as the last step of any multi-step system.
This type of filtration relies the chemical properties of carbon or other materials with high affinity for the types of molecules that we want to remove from the water (ammonia, heavy metals, etc.) As water flows through the substance, those molecules bind to the carbon atoms (or whatever the chemically attractive substance is). Once saturated, the material needs to be replaced or recharged.
Because we often use carbon cartridges to filter our own drinking water, chemical filtration is what most people think about when they think of water filtration. You might be surprised to know that this type of filtration, while useful, is not actually essential in an aquarium. Unless you are trying to remove leftover medication from the water, or you are dealing with a major ammonia crisis, it’s perfectly fine to omit it.
In fact, chemical filtration can sometimes cause more harm than good. Some of the most commonly used substances, such as carbon, begin to leech harmful substances back into the water once it reaches its saturation point. For this reason, it absolutely must be changed once a month. If you’re as lazy as I am when it comes to filter maintenance, you’ll probably want to look into different options. Carbon use has also been linked to hole in the head disease (HITH, or head and lateral line erosion, HLLE) in certain species of fish.
This type of filtration is absolutely essential to the survival of your aquatic pets. A healthy aquarium isn’t just a glass box filled with water — it’s a whole ecosystem, full of living organisms with important roles to play. The term “biological filtration” refers specifically to the most crucial of these organisms: two groups of bacteria that, together, process harmful nitrogenous waste into a much less toxic form. You can read more about this process here: Introduction to the Nitrogen Cycle (or, Why You Killed That Goldfish When You Were Little). For now, let me just say that without these little guys, we wouldn’t be able to keep aquatic pets alive in our homes. Hobbyists call these little magic helpers BBs (short for beneficial bacteria).
To be able to perform their important job, BBs need to make a cozy home for themselves inside your filter. They inhabit porous materials like sponges, bio-balls and ceramic rings. Collectively, we refer to these substances as bio media. The process of helping the BBs colonize their new homes is called cycling, and it is the most important thing you need to do before bringing any new aquatic animal home. You can read about proper cycling methods here: How to Cycle Your Aquarium.
Keep in mind that bio media should never be replaced. If it’s especially dirty, you can rinse it by swishing it around in a bucket filled with aquarium water. Never rinse your bio media under the tap, as BBs are sensitive to chlorine. Don’t squeeze the sponges, either!
If your filter only accepts disposable cartridges, make sure to always leave an old cartridge behind the newer one to give the bacteria a chance to migrate (or better yet, get a better filter!)
Most first-time fish owners kill their pet within a month of bringing it home. This is because most pet stores fail to educate their employees and customers about the nitrogen cycle, a crucial component of the aquatic ecosystem. This beautiful example of commensalism (a symbiotic relationship that benefits all of the organisms involved) is what makes life sustainable for aquatic animals.
The first thing to understand is that an aquarium is not just a box with water in it: it is a miniature replica of the ecosystem that allows life to flourish in our rivers and oceans. The water is full of microorganisms, and some of them have extremely important roles to play.
Meet the nitrifying bacteria:
In the aquarium, just as in nature, animal waste and decaying organic matter constantly release ammonia (NH3) into the water. Ammonia is highly toxic — even a trace can be harmful to most aquatic species. Luckily, bacteria like nitrosomonas are able to use the oxygen present in water to convert ammonia into a less toxic compound: nitrite (NO2−).
Note that “less toxic” does not mean “harmless”. Animals tolerate nitrites a bit better than ammonia, but as it builds up in the aquarium (or any other body of water), it can still lead to burns, illness and death. Thankfully, that’s when nitrobacters come in to save the day. Using oxygen, these little guys convert nitrites into nitrates (NO3−), which are far less toxic than the other two compounds.
In nature, nitrates don’t really have a chance to build up because plants and algae use them for growth. If you keep plants in your aquarium, they will “eat” some of the nitrates for you. The leftovers will become algae food, which is why you may notice an algae bloom if you haven’t changed the water in a while.
If nitrates keep climbing, the plants and algae may not be able to keep up, and your animals are likely to get sick. This is where you come in! Regardless of the species you are keeping, you should be doing partial water changes at least once a week. It’s a good idea to test for ammonia, nitrites and nitrates once in a while to make sure that your microorganisms are doing their job and keeping your aquarium water safe.
Which brings me to the main point of this post: brand new, clean aquariums are unsafe.
More specifically, the problem lies with the filter. When you first obtain it from the store, the filter is bacteria-free. This means you need to install them yourself and give them time to make themselves at home before you can safely add any animals. We call this process cycling. It takes a while and it’s kind of tricky, so people who don’t understand how important it is tend to skip this step. Then, as ammonia builds up, their animal’s health begins to deteriorate. This is such a common phenomenon that it has been given the name new tank syndrome.
Axolotls are not a social species, so they don’t need a friend to be entertained. That being said, it is perfectly ok to house axolotls together, as long as they are roughly the same size. If one axolotl easily fits into the other’s mouth, chances are it will end up as a snack. Usually, axolotls grow out of their cannibalistic phase once all four limbs are formed, but some unfortunately retain those instincts. If space is very limited, you might see some snapping behavior at feeding time, which can lead to injuries. In addition, if your axolotls are not adequately fed, they may eat each other’s limbs for extra nutrition. Those limbs will grow back, but do your best to limit altercations by feeding them a nutritious diet and keeping them in proper housing conditions.
Keep in mind that if you house a male and a female together, they will most likely end up breeding. The young larvae are not that easy to care for, so make sure you know what you’re getting into before you choose to attempt it!
Axolotls are very easy to care for if you have the right setup. Given proper housing conditions, all you need to do to keep your axolotl happy is to feed it and keep its water clean.
An adult axolotl only needs to eat one live earthworm every other day (the kind used as fishing bait all over the country). The axolotls I sell are also trained to accept pellets. Those are a convenient backup, but I still recommend feeding earthworms if you can, as they don’t get the water dirty the way pellets tend to.
Whatever you choose to feed your axolotl, within a day or so it will all come back out as one big solid poop, which is easily picked up using a turkey baster. I do recommend picking up the poop as soon as you spot it, since axolotls are silly creatures who will put anything in their mouth. If they eat their own poop by mistake, they will do a spit take and scatter bits of poop everywhere!
Whether your axolotl makes poop rain or not, you will need to do weekly water changes. Use a siphon to remove 1/3 to 1/2 of the water, and refill with dechlorinated water (or water from the tap, with some conditioner added).
That’s it! As far as pets go, they are not very demanding at all, but you do need to be consistent about these three things.
Proper housing is the key to keeping your axolotl healthy! Please make sure to read all of this before buying an axolotl.
You will need a minimum of 10 gallons of water per axolotl. Remember, your axolotl will grow to a length of 10″ or more! If possible, get a longer tank rather than a tall one — axolotls spend most of their time at the bottom of the tank. Make sure they always have room to walk around and turn comfortably.
Substrate (or not?)
Axolotls do just fine in a bare-bottom tank. I personally prefer to keep my tanks bare, as it is easiest to clean. If you prefer to use a substrate for esthetic reasons, keep in mind that sand is dangerous for axolotl larvae, and gravel is dangerous for adults. If you want to use rocks, use large, smooth pebbles or river rocks that your axolotl won’t be able to eat. Axolotls are like babies: if it fits in their mouths, it will end up in their mouths!
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.
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 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, especially if they are in a cramped space. If you choose not to use a cover, make sure the water level is low enough to discourage jumping.