The axolotl may not be a very common pet, but it is definitely a unique one. Axolotls are a type of salamander and can be found in a variety of colors, including black, gray, gold, and white. But unlike most salamanders, they do not undergo metamorphosis from larval to adult form where breathing changes from gills to lungs. Instead, they remain aquatic their entire life. Thus, they are not pets you handle, but they can be quite entertaining to watch. They are relatively easy to care for and hardy, which makes them suitable for beginner pet owners. Plus, their dietary needs are fairly straightforward. However, because they live their entire lives in water, you must be able to provide an adequate tank that is kept at the right temperature for this animal to thrive.
Common Names: Axolotl, Mexican walking fish
Scientific Name: Ambystoma mexicanum
Adult Size: Between 6 and 18 inches long, though over 12 inches is rare
Life Expectancy: 10 to 15 years on average
Axolotl Behavior and Temperament
While axolotls are relatively hardy to slight fluctuations in their environment, they also have delicate, soft bodies with permeable skin. In fact, most of their body is made of cartilage rather than bone. That means they should not be handled unless absolutely necessary. And if you do have to move them out of their tank, do so with a fine mesh net that won't entangle any of their body parts.
Once you have their housing setup correct, you generally only have to spend a few hours per week on feeding and cleaning. The rest is simply enjoying them as a quiet, aquatic companion. Axolotls tend to be fairly bold and are perfectly content to move about their tank as they're being watched by their humans. Some will come up to the side of their tank when a person is there observing them.
However, they aren’t particularly social animals and don’t require any tank companions. They should not be kept with other species as axolotls might try to eat pet fish, and the fish sometimes nip at them, as well. You even should be cautious about housing them with other axolotls. Juvenile axolotls can be cannibalistic toward one another, so they are best raised in separate enclosures. Adults can potentially be housed together, but still, watch out for cannibalistic tendencies. If a body part gets bitten off by a tank mate, an axolotl actually can regenerate it over time. However, it's still best to avoid this situation altogether.
Watch Now: Axolotls are Cute, But Do They Make Good Pets?
Housing the Axolotl
At least a 15- to 20-gallon fish tank is recommended for axolotls. Make sure the tank has a secure lid, as it's not uncommon for these animals to try to jump out of their enclosure. A land area is unnecessary in the tank for these fully aquatic animals. At a minimum, the water depth should be slightly more than the length of your axolotl. But adding extra depth will help with water quality and give your animal more room to move.
Keep the tank in a cool room away from bright sunlight with the water temperature between 57 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (14 and 20 degrees Celsius); don't allow it to get above 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius). No special lighting is required for axolotls (unlike many reptiles). In fact, a dark hiding spot, such as a flower pot laid on its side or an aquarium castle, is often appreciated.
Some owners opt to leave the bottom of the tank bare, though others believe this might stress the axolotl if it can't get a foothold on the smooth bottom. If gravel is used on the bottom, it must be coarse gravel that's bigger than the axolotl's head. Fine gravel might be ingested and cause an obstruction.
Tap water treated with an aquarium water conditioner that removes chlorine and chloramines is fine for axolotls. Never use distilled water, and make sure the pH of the water remains between 6.5 and 7.5. (You can find a water test kit to check at most pet stores.) Most owners find a filtered aquarium is easier to maintain because unfiltered water needs frequent changing to remove waste. However, if you choose to have a filter on the tank, the filtration rate should be slow. Powerful filters that create strong currents can stress an axolotl.
For a filtered tank, cleaning typically consists of a 20% water change each week, as well as siphoning waste from the bottom of the tank. If you're not using a filter, you likely will have to do a 20% water change daily or every other day. Never do a full water change, as this can alter the water chemistry too drastically and stress your animal.
Food and Water
In the wild, axolotls feed on snails, worms, crustaceans, small fish, and small amphibians. In captivity, they can be fed a variety of brine shrimp, small strips of beef or liver, earthworms, bloodworms, tubifex worms, other frozen fish foods, and commercial fish pellets. Do not feed any worms or fish you caught yourself, as they can carry parasites. In general, no vitamin or mineral supplements are necessary.
Consult your veterinarian regarding the amount of food to offer, as well as how often to feed your axolotl, as this varies depending on age and size. In general, many adults take two to three feedings per week. One of the best methods to feed is by holding the food in round-nosed forceps in the tank near the animal. You also can simply drop the food in the water as close to the axolotl as possible. If your axolotl isn't interested in eating much during the day, try feeding it in the evening when it's typically more active. Remove any uneaten food from the tank every day to keep the water clean.
Common Health Problems
A notable characteristic of axolotls is their regenerative powers. In the case of injuries that aren’t life-threatening, they’re able to regrow their limbs, tail, and even other body parts, such as heart and eye tissue.
But this remarkable ability doesn't protect them from all health issues. Unsanitary tank conditions can lead to viral or bacterial infections, the signs of which include lethargy and a lack of appetite. Plus, ammonia buildup from waste in the tank can be toxic. If this occurs, it can interfere with the respiratory process causing damage to the gills as well as result in neurological damage.
Moreover, axolotls with gravel in their tank that's small enough to eat are prone to gastrointestinal obstructions. If your axolotl experiences an obstruction, it will likely be sluggish and not want to eat. And if it's not promptly treated, death can occur quickly.
Furthermore, axolotls rarely do undergo metamorphosis into a terrestrial form. The reasons for this are poorly understood, though it might have to do with hormones or water characteristics. The metamorphosis can be extremely stressful for an axolotl, and it can significantly shorten its lifespan. If you notice abnormal changes to your animal's body, such as it starting to grow larger, have a veterinarian who specializes in exotic pets examine it as soon as possible.
Is It Legal to Own a Pet Axolotl?
Axolotls are illegal to own in some states, including California, Maine, New Jersey, and Virginia. In New Mexico, they are legal to own but illegal to import from other states. Check your local exotic pet laws to verify that you may keep one.
Axolotls are native to Mexico and are considered a critically endangered species due to loss of habitat, declining water quality and urbanization. Thus, they should never be taken from the wild for the pet trade. The vast majority of pet axolotls descend from captive-bred animals that were used for scientific research.
Purchasing Your Axolotl
Always acquire an animal from a reputable breeder or rescue group. It's best not to buy an axolotl through the internet or a classified ad unless you've spoken directly with the seller, and they're able to provide you with adequate information on the animal. If they can't give you thorough documentation on its origin and health history, that's a red flag. It's also ideal to speak with people who have acquired animals from that seller to uncover any concerns. Plus, a local exotic veterinarian often can direct you to a good breeder or rescue.
Expect to pay between $20 and $70 on average. Animals with more rare coloring, such as copper, tend to cost more. A healthy axolotl will be active, and it might accept food if you offer it. Its skin shouldn't be flaky, and its body should be somewhat plump (as opposed to underweight), though it shouldn't have any abnormal swelling.
Similar Species to the Axolotl
If you're interested in similar pets, check out:
Otherwise, check out all of our other reptile and amphibian profiles.
Del Valle, Jacquelyn M, and Heather L Eisthen. Treatment of Chytridiomycosis in Laboratory Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum) and Rough-skinned Newts (Taricha granulosa). Comparative medicine vol. 69, no. 3, pp. 204-211, 2019. doi:10.30802/AALAS-CM-18-000090
Loh, R. Water Quality Explained: How It Can Affect Your Axolotl's Health. World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2015.
Monaghan, James R et al. Experimentally induced metamorphosis in axolotls reduces regenerative rate and fidelity. Regeneration (Oxford, England), vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 2-14, 2014. doi:10.1002/reg2.8