Axolotls, with their cute smiling faces and seemingly playful personalities, may look like they would make great pets that love to interact with humans. But are these unique salamanders truly as friendly and sociable as they appear?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Axolotls tend to be quite shy and passive creatures that do not seek out human interaction. While captive bred axolotls can become accustomed to their owners, they do not show behaviors indicating they enjoy petting, handling, or playing.

In this nearly 3000 word guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to better understand axolotl behavior and their potential to bond with humans, including key information on their natural habitat and instincts, how they behave toward humans in captivity, and tips for the best way to interact with these fascinating creatures if you choose to keep them as pets.

The Natural Behavior of Axolotls

Habitat and Lifestyle

Axolotls are a unique type of salamander that spend their entire lives in water. In the wild, they are only found in a single lake complex in Mexico called Lake Xochimilco. Here, axolotls live in reedy wetlands and side channels off the main lakes.

They enjoy still or slow-moving waters with lots of plants to hide among.

Axolotls tend to lead solitary lifestyles and are largely nocturnal creatures. During the day, they hide among plants and rocks. At night, they emerge to hunt small prey along the lake bottom. Axolotls can actually determine day length and seem to have an internal clock guiding their daily rhythms.

Reproduction and Lifespan

In the wild, axolotls typically live around 10-12 years. Males reach sexual maturity at 1-2 years old, while females mature at 2-4 years old. The breeding season lasts from March-June when water temperatures get warmer.

To reproduce, a male axolotl deposits spermatophores that a female will take into her cloaca. She will then lay hundreds of eggs on aquatic plants. Axolotl parents show no further care for the offspring, which hatch after 2-3 weeks.

Less than 1% of eggs survive to adulthood due to predation and food competition.

Diet and Hunting Instincts

Axolotls are carnivorous predators, feeding on anything they can swallow like worms, insect larvae, crustaceans, small fish, and even other axolotls! They detect prey by sensing movement through the water. When close enough, they quickly suck prey into their large mouths with vacuum-like force.

Their jaws contain over 700 teeth made for gripping food, though they swallow food whole rather than chewing. An axolotl’s diet in captivity should include night crawlers, bloodworms, pellets, and the occasional treat like shrimp.

Interaction With Other Aquatic Creatures

Due to their predatory instincts, axolotls are not ideal tankmates for small fish, snails, or shrimp. The rule of thumb is not to house axolotls with any aquatic life small enough to fit in the axolotl’s mouth!

That said, some aquarists have success keeping full-grown goldfish, koi, or catfish with larger axolotls. The fish do nip at the axolotl’s feathery external gills. Overall though, axolotls tend to ignore other tankmates rather than show overt aggression.

Observed Axolotl Behavior Around Humans

Initial Curiosity But Lack of Playfulness

When first introduced to humans, axolotls often exhibit curious behaviors like approaching the front of their tank or following movement outside the glass (1). However, they do not play with humans in the same way as dogs or cats. Axolotls lack the play drive and energy levels of mammals.

While curious, axolotls are solitary creatures that prefer minimal handling.

Signs of Stress From Handling

Excessive handling can stress axolotls. Signs of stress include:

  • Curling up tightly
  • Thrashing movements to escape
  • Refusing food
  • Sitting motionless at the bottom of the tank
  • These behaviors indicate the axolotl feels threatened and should be left alone to destress.

    Gentle and infrequent handling is best for these sensitive amphibians.

    Potential Nipping When Provoked

    Though not outwardly aggressive, axolotls may nip if continuously provoked. Their teeth are small but sharp enough to break skin. Nipping usually occurs when axolotls feel threatened by handling they perceive as rough or invasive. The nips are not malicious attacks but rather defensive reactions.

    Respecting the axolotl’s space and limits for handling can prevent nipping behavior.

    Tips For Safely Interacting With Pet Axolotls

    Let Them Adjust Slowly to Captivity

    Bringing home a new pet axolotl can be exciting, but it’s important to let them acclimate to their new environment gradually. Sudden changes are very stressful for axolotls. When you first get your axolotl home, place their tank in a quiet room without too much foot traffic.

    Try to maintain stable water parameters and avoid rearranging their habitat for the first week or two. It’s also best not to start handling or hand feeding them right away. Give your new friend some time to settle in before initiating contact.

    Use Hand Feeding to Build Trust

    Once your axolotl has adjusted to their new home, hand feeding can help build a bond between pet and owner. Axolotls have poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell, so they will learn to associate your hand with food. Hold some blood worms or pellets in your cupped palm just under the water’s surface.

    Remain still and let your axolotl come to you. With patience and repetition, they will become comfortable taking food from you. This positive reinforcement helps establish trust. Just be sure to wash hands thoroughly before and after to avoid transmitting pathogens.

    Pet Gently With Soft Nets or Hands

    Axolotls have very delicate skin and feathery external gills that are easily damaged. When petting your axolotl, always use a soft aquarium net or your bare hands – never scrub brushes or other abrasive materials.

    Gently run the net over their back and sides or allow them to swim through your open hands. Stroke them in the direction their scales lay, not against. Avoid touching their feathery gills. Their limbs are also fragile, so pet with care.

    Frequent gentle handling helps axolotls become accustomed to their owners.

    Give Them Plenty of Hideouts

    Despite their seemingly stoic nature, axolotls are very sensitive animals that startle and stress easily. Having sufficient hideouts and retreats in their habitat is crucial for them to feel secure. Include several caves, tunnels, live plants and other decor they can duck into or underneath.

    Never grab or force your axolotl out of hiding – allow them to emerge on their own terms. Remaining hidden is their natural defense mechanism. Forcing interaction will only make them more fearful and prone to nipping.

    Let your pet take refuge when needed and they’ll be more likely to come out to interact.

    Providing an Enriched Habitat For Captive Axolotls

    Ideal Tank Size and Setup

    Axolotls need a large tank to thrive. A good minimum size is a 20 gallon long tank for one axolotl. More axolotls will need an even bigger tank. Axolotls have heavy bodies and weak legs, so height is less important than floor space. Aim for a tank that is wide and shallow.

    Sand or very fine gravel that is smooth and won’t hurt their sensitive bellies makes a good substrate. Place hiding spots like logs or rocks around the tank so they have places to explore and feel secure.

    Places to Hide and Explore

    Axolotls love to have hiding spots and things to climb on in their tank. This gives them enrichment and exercise. Good options are:

    • Caves – Ceramic caves or tunnels are easy to clean and sturdy.
    • Logs – Cholla wood or resin logs work well. Be sure they have smooth surfaces.
    • Live or silk plants – Provide areas to explore and hide in. Make sure they don’t have sharp edges.
    • Rocks and driftwood – Give them obstacles to climb over and under.

    The more places an axolotl has to hide and climb on, the happier it will be!

    Appropriate Tank Mates If Any

    Axolotls do best on their own as they can be aggressive towards tank mates. Their powerful jaws can easily crush and swallow small fish and shrimp. According to Aqualife, the only appropriate tank mates are other axolotls, as long as each has adequate space.

    Even then, they may nip at each other, so provide plenty of hiding spots and closely monitor any aggression.

    Mistakes to avoid are putting small fish, shrimp, or snails in an axolotl tank. The axolotl will likely view them as prey. Their best chance for a healthy life is in a tank alone.

    Signs Your Axolotl is Stressed or Frightened

    Hiding and Burrowing Behaviors

    Axolotls are normally active and out swimming in their tank. However, if an axolotl starts hiding more than usual, burrowing in the substrate, or wedging itself under decorations, this can be a sign of stress or fear.

    Axolotls feel most secure when they have places to hide, but spending too much time hiding is not normal behavior.

    Some potential reasons for increased hiding and burrowing include:

    • Poor water quality – Ammonia burns their gills and skin, causing discomfort.
    • New tank mates added – Unfamiliar axolotls or fish make them feel insecure.
    • Tank placement changed – If their environment changes, they feel unsure.
    • Bright tank lighting – Axolotls prefer low, ambient lighting.
    • Loud noises – Axolotls have sensitive hearing and can be startled by sounds.
    • Insufficient hiding spots – They feel exposed without enough plants and caves.

    To reduce hiding, improve tank conditions and give your axolotl time to adjust to any changes. Providing additional plants, caves, and other decor can also help it feel more secure.

    Lack of Movement or Eating

    Healthy axolotls are fairly active and have a strong appetite. When an axolotl stops moving around, lays still for long periods, or loses interest in food, it could mean something is wrong.

    Possible causes include:

    • Illness – Bacterial or fungal infections sap their energy.
    • Poor water quality – Makes breathing difficult and reduces appetite.
    • Cold temperatures – Axolotls become lethargic in cold water.
    • Stress – Change or new tank mates may cause them to hide.

    Lack of movement or eating for more than a day or two requires attention. Test and improve water parameters if needed. Consider an antibiotic bath or anti-fungal treatment if illness could be the cause. Warming the water a few degrees may also help.

    Aggression Toward Tank Mates

    Axolotls are normally peaceful and get along with tank mates. But if one starts displaying aggression, such as nipping fins or attacking others, it likely feels threatened or territorial.

    Causes of aggression include:

    • Overcrowding – Too many axolotls in a tank increases stress.
    • New additions – Existing axolotls may view new ones as intruders.
    • Breeding season – Some aggression is natural as they compete for mates.
    • Size difference – Larger axolotls may pick on smaller tank mates.
    • Insufficient resources – Competition for food, hiding spots, etc.

    To curb aggressive behavior, provide more space, sight barriers, and resources. Rearranging decor can also help. Removing aggressive axolotls may be necessary if aggression persists and threatens the safety of tank mates.


    While axolotls may not be the most snuggly or interactive pets, they have cute, intriguing personalities all their own. By providing a habitat that caters to their natural shy instincts, axolotl owners can still enjoy quietly observing their unusual behaviors and adaptations.

    With time and care not to disturb them, even captive axolotls may display some curiosity and acceptance of their human caretakers.

    If you respect their need for peace and seclusion, axolotls can make rewarding, low maintenance animal companions. Just don’t expect them to ever become playful or affectionate pets that will bond strongly with you or crave your attention.

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