Axolotls Home Alone

Planning for a vacation or making a necessary trip can be a difficult task, especially if we have to leave our beloved pets behind at home. This is much more so for an axolotl owner. Unlike our dogs and cats, very few if any professional boarding facilities exist that would cater to exotics. Options are limited and not many people are adept at taking on the guardian role. This often leaves the axolotl owner in a state of dilemma. The following is a checklist of what one can do to ease the transition of leaving axolotls home alone.

Factors to consider

1 - Duration of trip and distance from home

The longer the trip, the more arrangements would be necessary to cater for the axolotls. Distance would then determine if the owner can rush back in time in the event of emergency.

If your trip is forecasted to be of significantly extended nature such as several months to years, rehoming the axolotls could be a much more responsible and practical avenue. You may like to find them suitable homes with responsible owners months before the scheduled departure.

Despite the best of intentions, even the most devoted and knowledgeable pet-sitter would not be able to give the best all-around-the clock care for the axolotls, especially when they are not his or her own, over a long period. Needless to say, this would also be unfair to all parties and the axolotls.

2 - Status of axolotls

The younger the axolotl, the more care it requires. Larvae and juveniles require daily attention with multiple feeding times as opposed to an adult axolotl that need be fed only twice a week.

There are many variables to consider when determining how long an axolotl can go without food safely without reaching a critical terminal starvation point. This point is defined as the state at which food deprivation has caused permanent damage to the axolotl's system such that even with the re-introduction of food, the body condition may still continue to deteriorate.

Variables include the health, nutritional and breeding status, the age, and the initial body condition of the axolotls. The body condition refers to how much stored body reserve the axolotl has. A plump axolotl can go without food for a longer period compared to a slimmer one.

Water temperature and chemistry as well as environmental factors such as water currents, presence of hiding spots and tank mates, and the size of the aquarium can all play a part as well. Ensuring optimal tank conditions will reduce stress, improve immunity, and allow your axolotl to be 'unminded' safely for a longer duration.

Assuming that you have a well-established cycled tank that is set up with filtration and aeration, and that you have healthy axolotls of a reasonable body condition, you can safely leave adult axolotls unfed for up to one and a half weeks without any harm. Healthy juvenile axolotls that have fully developed hind legs can be left unattended in a well established tank for up to a week. Axolotl larvae would require daily care and should never be left unattended for any duration.

3 - Current tank setup

How complete and automated is your current tank setup? Do you have an external canister filter and a marine chiller unit? The less equipment invested in your setup, the more attention, such as water changes, will be required in maintaining your tank.

You should also consider some of the other potential disasters that can occur, such as power failures, breakdown of aquarium equipment, and malfunctioning of the air-conditioner or fan that you use to cool your tank.

If you have spare aquarium equipment, fan, filter, or other apparatus, do let your pet- sitter know where they are kept and where the operational instruction manual are. A standby power generator can also potentially avert a disaster. Equipment and appliance replacements on standby and a fund set aside for repairs would come in useful in emergencies. Arrange for your pet sitter to drop in daily to have a quick check to ensure that everything is in running order.

You can also do your part in minimising chances of equipment failure by regular equipment checks, maintenance, and repair, as well as taking safety precautions with electrical connections.

To make things easier for the pet-sitter, the tank set-up can also be made simpler, especially if you can spend a month in advance of your trip to put the reworks into effect. A bare-bottomed tank would be easier to clean compared to one with sand substrate. You can also consider replacing ornate decorative caves and tunnels with easy access hiding spots like terracotta pots and plastic pipes. This would eliminate the chances of wastes and uneaten food being hidden between the nooks and crannies and thus fouling the water. Plastic plants have the advantage over live plants by not needing to worry of them dying and decomposing.

Choosing a guardian

Once you have defined the above-mentioned three factors, you can next begin looking for a reliable guardian for your axolotl in your absence. A reliable guardian needs to come by once a day to check on your axolotl. What are your options?

1 - Another experienced axolotl owner/breeder/ family member

This would be the ideal scenario. If you know someone who has experience in keeping axolotls, this may be the best arrangement. You can discuss whether you would like to have this person come over to your home regularly to maintain the tank and feed your axolotls or board your axolotl in a separate tank at their home. Her/his experience in axolotl care would come in handy as she/he would be accomplished in at least basic husbandry and management.

2 - Veterinary facility

Some specialised veterinary clinics or hospitals may provide boarding facilities for exotics. There will be trained staff that can ensure your axolotl is well taken care of. However, it would be prudent to still ask the pertinent questions to ensure the best care would be given to your axolotls. Ask about their husbandry protocols and inspect the premises to see if the animals are housed in a clean and cool, temperature regulated environment. Ideally, you should also meet the staff who would be caring for your axolotls. This gives you the opportunity to ask more questions and give specific instructions for your axolotl's care.

3 - Aquarium facility

Some aquarium shops, especially those specialising in exotics and axolotls may provide pet sitting services. However, be very discerning and look around the premises to have an idea of how competent they are. Pay particular attention to the welfare and health of animals on the premises. Ask the necessary questions to ensure your axolotls are in safe hands.

4 - Schools and colleges

Some school and colleges may already have axolotls of their own and arrangements can be made to pet sit yours. Again, observe and base your judgement on the welfare and health of the animals present on the premises. If the keepers appear competent and reliable, this may be another option for you.

5 - Commercial pet sitter services

Axolotl pet sitter services are extremely rare to come by. However, if one presents, you can make the necessary enquiries and arrangements if it suits you.

6 - Your neighbour or family member with no experience with axolotl care

Sometimes, the only option is to rely on your neighbour or family member whose close proximity and easy access to your tank mean that he or she can visit your home regularly. Although he or she may not have any experience with axolotl care, you can take some steps to make this task much easier

The preparations

One of the most common and unfortunate mishaps that axolotl owners often face is coming home to a tank suffocating with uneaten food, foul water, and dead or sick animals. Overfeeding kills.

Inexperienced pet-sitters can sometimes do more harm than good, erring with good intentions by feeding in excess. This is further compounded by inadequate cleaning up of wastes and uneaten food. The resultant build up of nitrogenous wastes like ammonia and nitrites can quickly tip the balance and cause problems with water parameters. Toxicity can result and lead to illness and death of the axolotls. It is therefore essential to give clear instructions and train your pet-sitter beforehand.

1 - Written instructions

What I would recommend is to type out a page of instructions for your pet-sitter regarding the care of your axolotl. Do not overwhelm him or her with excessive descriptions but list simple, clear, and necessary instructions. Be sure to make two copies of the instructions, one to have in your home and another for the petsitter to have in their home.

Although your list and mine might differ, there are common and necessary things to include such as the following:

Things I would NOT recommend you to ask your pet-sitter to do unless she/he is very familiar with and adept at axolotl care:

2 - Reference Material

If you have good literature about axolotl care, you might like to make them available to your friend for reference. Place the articles or books around shelves near the tank for quick access.

3 - Money

Set aside a sum of money as reserve for things like purchasing new food or vet fees. Request that your friend note down essential purchases or services in a little note book that you can place together with this sum of cash (such as in a petty cash box) and get a receipt for each.

4 - Automate your aquarium equipment in advance

If you have invested in aquarium equipment like a marine chiller, canister filter, aquarium lighting, and such, you have already made axolotl care much easier. You may like to have a timer switch for your aquarium lighting (6 hours per day will suffice) if you have live plants in your tank. You can also set your chiller to a lower temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius (60F). The cooler temperature would slow down the axolotl’s metabolism and reduce its appetite. Well-fed adult axolotls kept at around 15 degrees Celsius can be left for a slightly extended period of up to 2 weeks without food quite safely. You can also take this opportunity to check and clean your filter before you depart so that your filter can run more efficiently.

5 - Set up a small quarantine or isolation tank

You can set up a separate tank for the purpose of isolation or quarantine in the event that your axolotl falls ill. Keep the tank simple and placed in a suitable location in the house. A minimalistic tank, even a plastic box or bucket will suffice. There is no need for substrate. Just provide some form of aeration such as a small waterfall type filter and 2 hiding places.

6 - Training sessions

Organise several training sessions with your pet-sitter at your home. Have him or her familiarised with where things are kept, where the switches are and such. Go over basic care routines like testing water chemistry, performing water changes, siphoning out detritus and uneaten food and feeding. It may also be necessary to teach your pet-sitter how to feed other food types, other than pellets, such as earthworms and black worms if the trip is going to be longer.

If you are keeping very juvenile larvae, you would also have to teach your pet-sitter in advance on how to feed daphnia and how to care for the daphnia. It is emphasized not to leave larvae unattended for any duration of time as they require a lot of daily attention. Avoid going away if you have to take care of larvae. Leaving larvae to pet-sitters is highly discouraged. Have your pet-sitter demonstrate the care routine procedures to you to ensure that they are competent with the tasks.

In addition, you may like to train your pet-sitter in some advanced care procedures, such as methods to cool your tank during warm days, catching an axolotl or putting an ill axolotl in the fridge. You can also type out a separate sheet of instructions for each of these procedures. I do not recommend having your pet-sitter perform salt or tea baths as these procedures can do more harm than good if administered inappropriately or incorrectly. Remember to give clear instructions not to use over-the-counter medications to treat ill animals.

Lastly, go over with your pet-sitter on how to perform a quick check on the smooth running of all the aquarium related equipment and apparatus.

7 - Pre-departure work up

Perform a 20% water change a day or two before your departure. You can also offer nutritious food like bloodworms and earthworms. If you have planned your trip well in advance, there will be sufficient time to quarantine feeder fish for a month (30 days) as stand-by food source in your axolotl tank. Remember to use only suitable feeder fish like guppies and minnows. You have to take into account the additional bioload of the feeder fish and make the necessary adjustments for more frequent water changes. A small population of feeder fish can be safely left unfed for a week. You can also prepare bottles of clean dechlorinated water that your pet-sitter can use to replace or dilute your existing tank water at specific intervals.

8 - Trial run

Assuming you have healthy adult axolotls, the checklist is suitable for trips of moderate length of up to a month or two. Before you pass the keys to your pet-sitter, you may like your pet-sitter to give a final, full demonstration on how to conduct a routine check, basic care routines and advanced care procedures for your axolotls.

Last but not least, determine if you really do require a pet sitter for the length of time you are away. If you have healthy adult axolotls, you can safely go away for up to 10 days with your axolotls 'unminded' and they would be fine. Happy vacation!

© 2009 Dr. Rayson Tan
BVSc, BSc(vet)(Hons 1), CMAVA

All content ©2009 Axolotl Sanctuary and individual copyright holders, as noted.