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Axolotl Care

Signs of Stress and Illness in Axolotls

Last Updated: July 9, 2021

Introduction

Even in a seemingly ideal environment, axolotls can sometimes develop health issues such as fungus, lack of appetite, curled gills, lesions, and more. If your axolotl is showing signs of stress or illness, the most common reason is that there is something wrong with their aquarium environment.

Poor tank maintenance, improper water changes, and a lack of a healthy Nitrogen Cycle in the water can all cause your aquarium’s water to become unsafe for your pet. If your axolotl appears unwell, the first things you should always do are test your water parameters (see below), and read our guide titled How to Cycle Your Aquarium. Once you have done these two things, continue reading below to learn more about stress and sickness in axolotls.

Checking your aquarium’s water parameters

You should test your aquarium’s water at least once a week to keep track of your parameters. Regular water checks will help prevent your aquarium’s water from becoming unsafe for your axolotl. For this purpose, we recommend using the Freshwater Master Test Kit by API. You can purchase it online or at your nearest Petco, PetSmart, or fish store. Alternatively, you may bring a sample of your water in a clean container to your nearest Petco, PetSmart, or fish store and they will test your water parameters for you. Ideal water parameters are as follows:

pH – Ideal: 7.4-7.6 | Acceptable: 6.5-8.0

Ammonia – 0 parts per million

Nitrates – Less than  40 parts per million

Nitrites – 0 parts per million

Temperature – 65–70°F; no higher than 72°F

Verifying your tank maintenance practices

Adding unconditioned tap water to your tank, performing large water changes (replacing more than 33% of the water in your aquarium at a time), and using tap water to clean your filter equipment and seeded media all may cause your aquarium to crash. If a tank “crashes,” it means the beneficial bacteria in the aquarium are dead, and the Nitrogen Cycle in the water has to restart itself. During this period, ammonia levels in the water can spike, causing the aquarium to be uncomfortable or even harmful to your axolotl. This happens because tap water has chemicals like chlorine and fluoride in it which keep humans safe, but are toxic to the good bacteria that keep your axolotl safe.

If your aquarium is properly cycled, you should perform a 25% water change every week to keep it clean. To do this, read our guide titled Aquarium Water Changes. If you’re unsure if your aquarium is properly cycled, read our guide titled How to Know if Your Aquarium is Cycled. Also, be sure that you remove any uneaten food that your axolotl leaves behind after about fifteen minutes, to prevent decaying food from accumulating and causing ammonia levels in the water to spike and crash the tank.

To prevent your tank from crashing, you should clean all of your decorations and filter equipment in a separate container that has been filled with water from your aquarium. We recommend cleaning your tank supplies once per month, at the same time as your weekly water change.

Examining your tank environment

Be sure you do not have any of the following items in your axolotl’s aquarium:

  • Gravel or small rocks – Axolotls may try to eat these, or simply ingest them accidentally, which can lead to impaction (a blockage) in their bowel and death. To prevent this, we recommend avoiding any rocks or decorations that are smaller than the size of the axolotl’s head. This way, you can be sure your pet doesn’t accidentally consume anything it shouldn’t.
  • Unsafe dyes – These are usually found on sand and decor that owners add to their aquariums. Read the labels! If your product is labeled safe for aquatic pets, it should be okay for your axolotl.
  • Sharp or jagged decorations – Axolotls have very poor eyesight, and may accidentally swim into sharp objects in your aquarium and hurt themselves.
  • Aggressive tank mates – Some types of fish and even other axolotls may try to hurt your axolotl. Fish like tetras and guppies have been known to nip at axolotls’ gills and tails, thinking they’re food. If you are keeping multiple axolotls in the same aquarium, make sure they have plenty of room and are well fed. We recommend keeping no more than one axolotl in a 20 Gallon Long tank, or two axolotls in a 30-40 Gallon Breeder tank, and feeding every two or three days.

Signs of Stress

Most signs of stress in axolotls can be addressed by testing your water parameters. Water quality is the single most common underlying cause of most of the symptoms listed in this guide. If your axolotl appears unhealthy or stressed, always perform a water check and verify that your tank is properly cycled first.

Curled Gills

Curled gills are one of the first and most common signs of a stressed or unhappy axolotl. If your axolotl’s gills appear curved outwards, towards the front of its face, it most likely means that your water parameters are off. Perform a water check and if necessary, a water change as well. If your axolotl’s gills remain curved after verifying good water quality, consult a specialist or contact our team.

Gill Deterioration

Deterioration of axolotls’ gills is almost always caused by high ammonia levels in the water. High nitrate and nitrite levels can also contribute to the issue. Gill deterioration is most often a symptom of poor aquarium maintenance or a lacking Nitrogen Cycle in the environment; however, another cause of gill deterioration can be chemical contamination in the water. If you suspect your water is contaminated, read our guide titled How to Fix a Contaminated Aquarium.

Once you have verified that:

  1. Your axolotl tank has a healthy Nitrogen Cycle
  2. The water parameters are good
  3. You are using the proper protocols to clean and maintain your equipment,

Review your weekly maintenance routine. We recommend performing a 25% water change once per week to reduce ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite levels—a healthy aquarium will have little to no ammonia or nitrites.  If you are doing all of the above and are still having trouble, it might be time to clean your filter. To do this, read our guide titled How To Clean Your Aquarium Filter.

If none of the above seems to help, consult a specialist or reach out to the Axolotl Planet team as soon as possible.

Curled Tail Tip

Curling at the tip of an axolotl’s tail can be a more serious sign that the animal is experiencing great stress or illness. If your axolotl’s tail appears to be curled abnormally, you should check your aquarium’s water parameters and Nitrogen Cycle. If the animal’s environment is okay, then it is possible that your axolotl is very ill. We recommend consulting a specialist, or reaching out to the Axolotl Planet team as soon as possible.

Loss of Appetite

A loss of appetite is one of the first signs of stress in axolotls. This symptom is most often caused by poor water quality or high water temperature (above 72°F) in your aquarium. Perform a water test and make sure that your water temperature is at or below 70°F.

Loss of appetite can also be caused by aggressive tank mates, contaminated water, or an infection. Make sure your pet has plenty of room to move around its habitat, and that it is not being stressed or harassed by another resident of the tank. If you suspect that your tank has been contaminated by chemicals, read our guide titled How to Fix a Contaminated Aquarium.

If your axolotl refuses to eat for longer than a week, reach out to a specialist or consult the Axolotl Planet team as soon as possible.

Frequent Gulps of Air

Axolotls have the ability to breathe in air as well as water, so it is not uncommon to witness them swim to get air from the surface when they need more oxygen.

However, if your axolotl starts doing this frequently, it’s probably a sign that their water is too warm. Check the temperature; it should be between 65–70°F, and never higher than 72°F.

Floating

Most of the time, floating is completely normal for a healthy axolotl. However, there are some circumstances where floating could be an early sign of a more serious issue. If your axolotl is floating upside down, but is still very much alive and otherwise active, it is likely that air has entered its gastric system and is disrupting the animal’s natural buoyancy. If you suspect this has happened to your axolotl, consult a specialist or reach out to the Axolotl Planet team immediately—veterinary care is often required in these situations.

Frantic Swimming 

Frantic swimming generally indicates that something is causing pain for your axolotl. Most commonly, this behavior is seen when ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels in the water are too high. However, it is also seen when the tank water becomes contaminated with tap water or other chemicals.

If your axolotl appears to be swimming frantically, verify your tank’s water is uncontaminated, and perform a water test.

Lack of Responsiveness

When axolotls are stressed, they may sometimes be unphased by interaction, including attempts at feeding.

Loss of Color in Gills and/or Body

Axolotls may lose pigmentation when resting and become either lighter or darker depending on the color of their environment. Under different circumstances, it can be seen as a sign of potential stress or blood loss if seriously injured.

Health Issues and Sickness

Fungus

Fungus is one of the most common problems you will encounter if your aquarium is not set up or maintained properly. It looks like a translucent, white, fuzzy matter that develops around an axolotl’s gills, head, and legs. If an axolotl is wounded, fungus may also grow on and around the affected region.

While fungus is quite easy to treat, it is important to deal with the situation carefully and urgently. Left untreated, a fungal infection will quickly spread and kill an axolotl. Here are some steps you can take to start the treatment and recovery process for an axolotl with a fungal infection:

Tea Baths

Most effective with minor fungal infections, tea baths are an affordable and natural remedy. Black tea contains traces of caffeine, and the leaves have antibacterial, antifungal, and antioxidant properties. When added to an axolotl’s water, the tea helps to tighten the axolotl’s skin and create a reinforced layer of slime to help protect the axolotl. This makes it more difficult for fungi and bacteria to intrude and spread across the animal’s body. However, this method also makes it more difficult for medication and salts to be absorbed by your axolotl in the event it needs more serious treatment.

Before You Start:

If possible, we recommend quarantining your sick axolotl in a separate, cycled aquarium until it has fully recovered. If you take this route, be sure the animal has fully acclimated to the new water before adding the tea.

Black Tea lowers the pH of the water. For this purchase, you can buy a pH buffer online or at your nearest Petco, PetSmart, or fish store to keep the alkalinity in your water balanced. Make sure you are not using carbon filtration in a tea bath, as the carbon will strip essential ingredients of the tea from the water. Having a simple sponge filter or air stone will suffice to keep your water circulated and oxygenated during this process.

You will need a single-serving bag of unflavored black tea per 2.5 gallons of water.

 

Instructions:
  1. Boil 8 oz. (1 cup) of water.
  2. Once the water is boiling, turn off the heat and add a single bag of unflavored black tea.
  3. Allow the tea to steep for 20 minutes.
  4. Remove the bag and refrigerate the tea for 2 hours.
  5. Add the cooled tea to the aquarium with the affected axolotl.
  6. Let the tea bath sit for one week. Feed your animal as little as necessary during this time.
  7. After one week, resume your normal maintenance routine.

If some fungus is still present after the tea bath, maintain optimal water conditions in your aquarium by adhering to a strict maintenance routine and paying close attention to your water parameters to ensure that ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, and pH are all in order!

More serious fungal infections require more intensive treatment. This brings us to our next method of treating fungus on your axolotl:

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Wounds / Physical Damage

Bites, cuts, and missing limbs are common axolotl injuries. Luckily, axolotls are an extremely unique species which have the ability to perfectly regrow almost any part of their body—even their spine! If your axolotl gets injured, don't fret too much. Cuts or abrasions will heal within a couple of weeks, and missing limbs will grow back within a few months. Do your best to protect your axolotl from injury by keeping sharp or jagged items out of the tank, and feeding it often.

Having clean, cycled aquarium water will help your pet heal faster. We also recommend purchasing some Indian almond leaves, which have antibacterial properties, and adding them to your tank water. The leaves will turn the water to a slightly yellow-brown hue, but don’t worry, it doesn’t mean your water is dirty or unsafe! If you’re unsure, perform a water test.

Damaged Gills

Axolotls can lose their gills in a few different ways. The most obvious of these is when another creature bites them off. For this reason, we do not recommend housing axolotls with other animals.

Axolotls can also lose their gills if their water quality is poor. High ammonia levels in the water can actually burn them off. To help an axolotl who has lost its gills heal, you can put some almond leaves in their water, or perform a tea bath with pure, unscented tea. The tannins in the tea or the almond leaves will help relax and heal the axolotl. Don’t worry, it can still breathe without gills!

Damaged Slime Coat

An axolotl's slime coat is a protective layer on the skin that acts as a barrier from dangerous substances and a temperature regulator for the animal. It also helps protect them against harmful bacteria or fungus. So, it is a big red flag if you see any kind of problem with your axolotl’s slime coat.

If your pet’s slime coat is damaged, the affected area will look like a white sheen on their skin. If the slime coat appears white, check and adjust your water parameters. With time, the slime coat should fix itself as long as your pet’s aquarium conditions are correct. If not, seek a specialist, or [contact the Axolotl Planet team] for assistance.

Ammonia/Chemical Burns

This kind of damage only happens when there are extremely high levels of ammonia or other chemical contaminants in the water. High levels of ammonia, nitrate, or nitrite can be lethal to an axolotl in just a couple of days, so it's important to test your water at least once a week, and more frequently if you notice signs of distress.

If your aquarium’s water parameters get out of control, quarantine your axolotl as soon as possible in a container filled with fresh, cool, dechlorinated water. Do not give it a salt bath, as its skin is damaged and the salt would irritate it more. Instead, give your axolotl a tea bath, or place an almond leaf or two in the quarantine water. If you are unable to get your aquarium water parameters under control in a timely fashion, seek a specialist or contact the Axolotl Planet team for assistance.

Bacterial Infections

Poor water quality and/or infected food can lead to skin infections such as Proteus, Pseudomonas, Acinetobacter, Mima, and Alcaligenes. Do your best to prevent them by keeping your tank clean and being attentive towards your axolotl’s health, so you will notice potential illness early and treat it effectively.

Infections like these must be treated by a professional right away. Take your animal to an aquatic veterinarian or axolotl specialist. If this is not possible, fridge your axolotl until you can get help. To do this, read our guide titled How To Fridge Your Axolotl. You can also try using medication like Holtfreter’s solution, which you can purchase online, to treat bacterial infection, but this is no substitute for finding appropriate veterinary care for your sick animal.

Axolotl Planet is the world's largest breeder of the amazing species of neotenic salamander known as the Axolotl! Our focus is to raise the healthiest, strongest, most beautiful axolotls possible and bring them to pet owners across the planet.

Our long-term goal is to preserve and ultimately replenish the critically-endangered wild axolotl population to it's former glory.

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