Content Warning; Graphic images of injury to axolotl. The axolotl is now fine.
I’m not sure when the first time I ever saw an axolotl was, but I do know that from that very first moment, I wanted one.
I was fascinated and enamored with the strange little creatures, and being a lover of both oddities and animals, the idea of obtaining one as a pet seemed like a no brainer. I did plenty of research, as one must do before taking on the responsibility of a new animal, especially one that you have never cared for before. Having had good experiences with my two fishtanks, one of wich contained an African Clawed Frog, I always kept the idea of an axolotl in the back of my mind, waiting for the opportunity to present itself.
Though they are one of the more common types of salamanders kept as pets, most pet stores do not sell axolotls. They are typically purchased through collectors and breeders, as although an adult axolotl is a rather easy creature to care for, babies are not. Caring for hatchlings is extremely challenging and time consuming due in most part to their specific food requirements. Young axies have to be kept seperate from any axies larger than them, including parents and siblings, as they will quite happily swallow each other just as readily as food.
That is the first and most important thing to know about an axolotl;
If it can fit in their mouth, they will eat it.
This behavior likely suited them well in the dark murky waters of the lakes in Mexico that they originated from, as axolotls are not known for their hunting prowess. When food presents itself, such as a fish that mistakenly gets a bit too close, it would behoove the wild axolotl to take the opportunity presented as it may not come again.
However, in a captive environment where an axie is not at the mercy of luck and an incredibly aggressive gulp, this hungry hippo attitude can often lead to disaster.
Many an axolotl keeper has learned the hard way that though an axie cannot digest aquarium stones, that certainly will not deter them from eating them. This can lead to impaction, and ultimately death. It is recommened that axolotl tanks are bare bottom or that the substrate is fine sand (as I use) which can pass through them without issue if accidentally swallowed.
As you may have guessed, axolotls will eat pretty much anything, but a responsible pet owner should feed them a balanced diet. I currently feed mine special pellets and worms (both earthworms and red wigglers).
I discovered my opportunity to become a proud axolotl owner a couple years ago, when I saw an ad on craigslist. Someone in Cambridge was selling baby axolotls after his adults had mated. I ended up taking two, as the consensus was that two adults could be housed in a 20 gallon tank.
Initially the youngsters were kept in a simple tupperware of fresh water which was changed daily, and fed a diet of frozen bloodworms.
They grew fast, and soon I was set up and ready to introduce them to their new tank home (which I had spent entirely too much money furnishing). They seemed content and for a while all was well.
It is impossible to tell visually what sex an axolotl is until it reaches sexual maturity, and as has often happened to me with raising strange creatures in the past (see: Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches) I of course was ‘blessed’ to have one male and one female, which I told myself surely would not become a problem later on.
Once they reached maturity, within no time at all there were slimy eggs coating every surface of the tank. Axolotls can lay HUNDREDS of eggs, likely because the young are so small that most in the wild are likely to be eaten pretty early on (including as you recall, by each other). Knowing full well I was not equipped to care for any number of baby axolotls, I carefully removed every egg and froze them before they could hatch.
Crisis mostly averted, I considered whether I should seperate the two, as repeated egg laying can be taxing on a female axolotl and to be quite honest the whole ordeal had been a pretty big pain in the butt for me as well.
Before I came to a final decision, the next issue arose.
Axolotls that are kept with enough food and space rarely interract with each other. They are not territorial and usually just…don’t even really notice each other.
But, sometimes, one may drift too close to the other, and we all know what happens when something bite sized dangles in front of an axolotls mouth.
I had noticed minor injuries on both axies at different points: mostly missing toes here or there. Though this would be alarming for most pet owners, one must remember that axolotls are NOT like most pets.
Axolotls, for starters, are essentially gooey blobs with little soft bones inside. When you take an axolotl out of the water it looks more like a booger than an animal (see also; blobfish) because they are designed to be fully aquatic. Furthermore, axolotls are what sciensts call ‘neotenic’.
Most amphibians begin life in the water, and then gradually evolve to leave it. Axolotls essentially just…decided not to leave the water. They were chill with just living the tadpole lifestyle. The frilly bits on their head are actually their gills, which they use to extract oxygen from the water.
Scientists believe that their neotenic biology is connected to their most fascinating ability; regeneration.
If an axolotl didnt already seem like a bizarre Harry Potter creature to you, then let me tell you about the axolotls ability to regenerate, which I now have intimate knowledge of.
Axolotls are one of the only vertebrate animals on earth capable of regrowing entire lost limbs, organs, and even sometimes brain tissue. Though pretty much all animals are capable of healing injuries, the axolotl is one of the few that can regrow body parts throughout its life and nearly perfectly matched with the original.
Because of this incredible ability, axolotls are being studied in labs all over the world, as scientists try to use the knowledge obtained from them to further the study into possible human limb regeneration.
I hadn’t expected my bedroom to ultimately become a laboratory, but exotic pets often have a way of throwing you for a loop.
Because lost toes grew back speedily, the two didn’t seem to be fighting, and no more eggs had been laid, I still had not seperated my axolotls. Then one day I peered into the tank and saw that yet another ‘incident’ had occurred. My female axolotl was injured, her leg mangled and tail scratched up. I was shocked at the extent of the injury, as neither had ever been maimed anything close to this previously. I quickly took her out and put her carefully into a hospital tank (a fancy name for clean tupperware) and assessed the situation.
Her tail seemed intact, though it seemed it had been partially degloved, but the bigger concern to me was her leg. Most of the flesh was mangled if not gone altogether, right down to the bone. Luckily axolotls don’t bleed much (fantastic clotting abilities go hand in hand with regenerating abilities) and even more luckily, my girl did not seem to be exhibiting any of the possible signs of an axolotl in ‘pain’. (These can include tail curling, gill flaring, and head bobbing.)
Little is known about the way axolotls experience pain. They do have a nervous system so can certainly feel, but it seems their pain threshold is incredibly high in comparison with other creatures. In fact, she honestly wasnt acting any different than she normally did (though for a couple of days she did not eat).
I put her on a strict regiment immediately to try to save her. She was my pet, my responsibility, and I was more than willing to do anything to help her. Obviously not too many vets treat axolotls, and furthermore there isnt much treatment to be done besides things I could do at home. I gave her twice daily 100% water changes with fresh spring water, carefully monitoring the temperature as I did.
Axolotls, unlike many aquatic pets, like their water cold. I made sure her water was approximately 65 degrees at all times, using frozen water bottles. I kept Indian almond leaves in her water, changing those about every other day, and I also gave her several brief salt baths (I didnt do this often as this was one of the few times where she did seem noticeably stressed, and though it was to clean the wound, It didnt feel worth it if it was causing her more pain and stress). I kept her in the dark at pretty much all times to further reduce stress (axolotls do not have eyelids and prefer dark environments). I used no medicines or chemicals, as most are for fish and axolotls are far more sensitive to such chemicals and can even die from them.
Almost immediately I began noticing a fluffy white fungus growing over the wounds. After some research I was relieved to find that the fungus was NOT the deadly Columnaris fungus, but more likely a type called Saprolegnia, which often grows in a blanket over amphibian wounds. The fungus did not spread to undamaged areas, which was a relief, but I still kept a weary eye on it.
It turns out that this fungus actually likes low water temperatures, meaning the best way to fight it is to raise the water temperatures. Obviously, this was not an option. My first priority in helping my axie heal was keeping her stress as low as possible, which meant cold, dark water. I focused instead on keeping her environment as clean as possible. The biggest danger of Saprolegnia is from it enabling the introduction of a secondary, more dangerous infection to wounds. As long as I prevented further infection, my axie was stable.
The trouble was, her leg was not looking good. It was clear to me after only a short time that the leg was completely dead, and it was so overrun with fungus I worried that waiting for it to fall off on its own was putting her at a greater risk for infection as the limb decayed. I made the difficult and frankly terrifying decision to amputate.
The idea might sound extreme or even unthinkable to most pet owners, but as stated previously, axolotls are not like most pets. And unusual pets call for unusual solutions to unusual problems. I used a pair of standard scissors and lined them up carefully, holding my breath, preparing to be traumatized forever.
It was actually shockingly easy. A simple snip and the leg was off. The bone had cut easily, and the axolotl didnt even flinch. It seemed she honestly hadn’t even noticed the amputation.
Reassured that the quick and dirty surgery had affected me more than her, I removed the mangled leg and flushed it, then gave her clean water.
I kept up the routine but all I could really do now was wait, and hope she healed on her own.
For a short time I was truly worried. Though her leg stump seemed to be stable, her tail was getting worse and worse. Furthermore, it was thick enough that I did not feel comfortable trying to amputate this as well. I simply had to wait for it to fall off.
In the meantime, I ordered something that I should have ordered much sooner; a tank divider. I installed the clear plastic divider as directed, giving both axolotls an equal amount of space where they could no longer injure each other.
My axolotl’s tail got to a stage where I could tell it was finally healing. The edges connected to the dead bits were showing new growth, and the dead bit was starting to seperate. So, with a hope and a prayer, I returned her to the tank.
She spent much of her time once in the tank under her hide, which was understandable. However she still gladly ate whenever I dangled worms in to her, and to be fair axolotls arent exactly active creatures even when at 100%.
Finally, the tail came off. Both stumps were now fungus free, and healing. She looked a little awkward, but with the removal of her dead tail, some of her confidence seemed to return.
She was out of the woods, and I was elated.
A few weeks later, and I was overjoyed to see the most incredible little nub I had ever seen. A miniature leg had sprouted like a bud from her stump, complete with perfect little toes.
Now, many months later, you would never know that she had had such a traumatic injury. Her leg and tail look perfectly normal, as if they’d been there all along, and she has suffered no lasting effects of the ordeal. Her and her brother/lover remain seperated, for their health, and my sanity.
While it was certainly disturbing on a psychological level to cut off the leg of a creature I had raised, I can’t help but look back on the process with a strange gratitude. While I obviously don’t like that my axie was injured, I feel I gained an incredible amount of insight, and experienced a once in a lifetime chance to see the amazing science behind axolotl regeneration firsthand. I also gained tons more knowledge about the general care and treatment of axolotls which may come in useful in the future.
Axolotls are fascinating animals. Are they a good pet? I suppose it depends on what youre looking for in a pet. You can’t cuddle or even really touch them. They don’t do much other than sit on the tank bottom, and eat. And I live with the unique feeling that comes with the knowledge that if my axolotls were the size of large dogs, they would absolutely attempt to eat me, not out of any sort of malice, but because that’s just what they do. They hold no affection for me, which I am fine with. In turn, I do not feel the same emotions to them as I do for my cat, or ferrets. But I like them, I feel responsible for them, and I want them to have as good of a life as an aquatic amphibian can. Which it turns out, mostly just means swallowing worms whole.