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  • Writer's pictureSilvia Sordillo

Why to Avoid Purchasing Axolotls from Pet Stores

Updated: Apr 1, 2023


Image of neglected axolotl in pet store being kept on dangerous gravel substrate, taken by u/Skyfighter625.


Although pet stores may be the most easily accessible place to purchase a pet, we recommend purchasing from more ethical and reputable breeders before resorting to this option. Not only do pet stores continue to give customers harmful false information about aquatic animal care, but they more often than not house their animals in poor living conditions, and have animals with problematic genetics due to unethical breeding.


There are several ways axolotls will show signs of stress due to poor living conditions, such as reduced gill stalks and filaments, being very thin, a curled tail tip, and frequent floating (pictured). A healthy axolotl will have an abdomen about the same width as its head and fluffy gill filaments.


Poor Husbandry

Pet stores almost always house their axolotls in poor conditions. Overstocked tanks are fairly common, and the axolotls are usually underfed. As a result, the axolotls will frequently suffer injuries from being nipped by hungry tankmates. It is also common to see axolotls housed on gravel or in other unsafe conditions. Not only that, but pet store tanks rarely have cooling, resulting in the axolotls constantly being subjected to stress-inducing temperatures. Axolotls may also be kept in small containers without filtration, despite their heavy bioloads.


The axolotls you see in pet stores will often have reduced gill stalks and filaments from stress, missing limbs and gill stalks from nipping, be severely underweight, and may have health issues from genetic issues or being housed in poor water quality.



Pet store axolotl with limbs nipped off by a tank mate, due to underfeeding and cohabitation. The axolotl also has diminished gills from poor water quality, and is being housed on an unsafe gravel substrate. Courtesy of Katie Osika.



Genetic Issues

Pet stores most often obtain their axolotls from unethical breeders, wholesalers, or owners whose axolotls have accidentally bred. Unethical breeders will breed axolotls that lack known genetics and lineage, which poses significant risk. Part of knowing genetics is understanding the heterozygous traits (commonly referred to as “hets”) of the axolotls, which is something that any ethical breeder should be able to provide to potential buyers. It is crucial for breeders to only breed axolotls with known hets and documented lineage.


Wholesalers, on the other hand, often source their axolotls from unethical breeders, who do not pay mind to the genetics of the animals being bred, and tend to keep large groups of axolotls together in holding tanks. In these densely packed environments, accidental clutches are commonly produced, causing unknown and/or extremely inbred genetics to be spread.


It is important to note that axolotls should never be bred if their genetics are unknown or if they are from a pet store, since the population of captive axolotls is currently suffering from a great deal of inbreeding and genetic issues. Currently, any two given captive axolotls share about 35% of their DNA (Vance, 2017), meaning that any two given captive axolotls share more genetic similarity than the offspring of two full human siblings, which is an inbreeding coefficient of only 25% (Strohl, 2020).


Some breeders will intentionally inbreed axolotls just to achieve a specific appearance or coloration, and axolotls sold at pet stores are typically more prone to illnesses and may have weaker immune systems due to these poor breeding practices. Furthermore, axolotls with inbred genetics are also at a higher risk of undergoing metamorphosis to become terrestrial salamanders around 5-10 months of age.


The same genetic concerns are present with accidental breeders, or owners whose axolotls laid eggs unexpectedly. These axolotls’ genetics are typically unknown, which ends up adding more detrimental genes to the captive axolotl population. For this reason, axolotl eggs from parents lacking documented lineages and genetics should always be frozen and never raised!


Image showing axolotls in pet store with very diminished gills from toxic water and bitten off limbs from cohabiting and underfeeding. Courtesy of Phantomlink.



Shouldn’t we Buy Axolotls from Pet Stores to Rescue Them?

Even though purchasing an axolotl being housed in poor conditions at a pet store may save that individual axolotl, the profit the store receives then encourages it to be replaced with more axolotls to suffer in the same conditions. When the store knows they are still gaining a profit from selling axolotls, they will continue to sell and house them in these conditions.


The only way we can stop the cycle of animal abuse in pet stores is by refraining from purchasing these animals, and instead support reputable breeders who practice ethical husbandry and track their axolotls’ genetics.


It may sometimes be possible to communicate the axolotl's poor condition with the store's management as to inquire if it is able to be rehomed free of cost, but to reemphasize, profit motivates production. Giving stores money for abused animals will directly encourage the cycle to continue.



This severely mistreated pet store axolotl shows signs of extreme stress, such as bulging eyes, diminished gills, extreme thinness, and a leg injury.



Harmful Care Advice

It is important to remember that a pet store’s goal is ultimately to sell their products and encourage customers to return. This unfortunately does not go hand-in-hand with properly educating customers about the animal they are purchasing and their needs that must be met. Pet stores will almost always give out incorrect care advice for aquatic animals, especially the axolotl, and will suggest owning aquatics is much simpler than it actually is.


Please note that while they do give out incorrect advice, it is not always the fault of these employees, as they are not required to be properly educated on the store’s animals. They often have no choice but to distribute the incorrect information that their superiors tell them to, in order for the store to make more profit per company protocol.


Common Misconceptions

The following section details the most common misconceptions perpetuated by pet store employees that often land axolotls and other aquatic pets in dire conditions. The most detrimental of the incorrect information given out revolves around aquarium cycling.



Misconception: Aquarium Cycling Techniques

In order to make more money, pet stores will always make it seem simple and quick to prepare your aquarium for your new pet. Cycling an aquarium refers to allowing the nitrogen cycle to establish in your tank before adding any animal to it. This is a process that can take anywhere from 4-8 weeks to complete, and consists of dosing a tank with ammonia to stimulate beneficial bacteria growth in the filter media. Only once enough beneficial bacteria has grown in the aquarium filter, then it will be “cycled” and safe to house aquatic animals. For specific details, please see our Aquarium Cycling Guide for a step-by-step explanation!



Image depicting the process of the aquarium nitrogen cycle.



Misconception: Instant Cycling

One of the most common claims spread by pet stores is that cycling your aquarium is a quick process that can be done only using bottled bacteria products. It is also often claimed that “cycling” merely means allowing your filter to run for a few days. In reality, the nitrogen cycle takes 4-8 weeks on average to establish in a new aquarium, and shelf-sat bottled bacteria products typically do not do much to aid with the cycling process.


Refrigerated bottled bacteria, such as Fritz Turbo Start 700, have the possibility to help with cycling, but only alongside the mandatory dosing an ammonia source, such as Dr. Tim’s Ammonium Chloride. Most bottled bacteria that are kept on the shelves in pet stores are dead before even leaving the bottle, and they can actually hamper your cycle if they are added after the start of the process. This is because the special inhibitors used to retain the bacteria in spore form and keep it shelf-safe will kill your aerobic, non-spore forming bacteria that are already growing in your tank.


Using these products in a tank that is mid-cycle would actually end up with a loss of bacteria, and it can set cycling back by killing your non-spore-forming, true nitrifying bacteria. In place of these shelved bottled bacteria products, we would recommend a product like Fritz TurboStart 700, which is refrigerated.



Misconception: Fish-in Cycling

“Fish-in cycling” is the act of adding your fish or axolotl to your new aquarium and allowing the nitrogen cycle to be established from the waste they create. This method of cycling is often recommended by pet stores, even though it is extremely inhumane. This method forces the fish to constantly live in their own waste, ammonia, and nitrite, which are toxic compounds. This means that the fish will be constantly stressed from being subjected to toxic conditions, and they will often die during the process. This method also takes longer to fully cycle a tank, due to all the disruptive water changes needed.


Fish-in cycling can be very easily avoided by using a source of pure ammonia, such as Dr. Tim’s Ammonium Chloride. This solution can be dosed in the aquarium to simulate the waste produced by the fish, and will likely cycle the aquarium even faster, due to not needing to perform frequent water changes for fish.



Misconception: Bloodworm Diet

It is very common for pet stores to recommend frozen bloodworms as a staple diet for axolotls. Bloodworms are low in nutritional value, and should only be fed as an occasional treat. Feeder fish are also not an acceptable diet due to the potential for parasites, vitamin deficiencies, choking, and impaction. Live earthworms are the healthiest staple diet, and can be fed to axolotls over 7.5 cm (3 inches) long. Offering a varied diet of earthworms, carnivore pellets, and occasional treats like bloodworms, brine shrimp, and Repashy Grub Pie is ideal for an axolotl’s nutrition!



In Conclusion

In our community, we are constantly experiencing an endless stream of owners seeking help because their axolotls have fallen ill or are dying after following the advice of their local pet store. We have heard countless stories of poor advice given to owners from pet stores, and we have seen the consequences for their pets.


The poor breeding practices linked with pet stores continue to produce axolotls with harmful genetic traits that get spread to the rest of the captive axolotl population. Axolotls and animals alike continue to have health issues due to this inaccurate advice, poor breeding practices, and stressful conditions that they are kept in that are kept in at pet stores. We hope that this article can help raise awareness on why not to support these stores and help end the cycle of animal mistreatment.



Reference

Vance, E. (2017). Biology's beloved amphibian--the axolotl--is racing towards extinction. Nature, 551(7680), 286-290.

Strohl, L. (2020). Inbreeding Coefficient. https://www.facebook.com/strohlsherps/posts/inbreeding-coefficientyou-may-have-heard-or-read-that-axolotls-have-an-inbreedin/2932391556861333/


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