What Should I Put on the Bottom of My Axolotl Tank?

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PetAquariums What Should I Put on the Bottom of My Axolotl Tank?

Known as the ‘Mexican walking fish’ Axolotls are cute salamanders and can be fun to raise if you take care of them correctly.

Axolotls: A Complete Pet Owner’s Guide

However, the correct way to take care of an axolotl can be more stringent than most people realize or care to admit.

With this in mind, when setting up my axolotl tank, I wondered at one point, what should I put in the bottom of my axolotl tank?

The first thing you should put in the bottom of your axolotl tank is a substrate of fine sand, flat pieces of rock like slate, or rocks bigger than the head of your axolotl so they can’t eat them. After the substrate, you should put some hiding places for privacy and shade. Only put plants that require low light, colder temps, and are very sturdy.

Okay, this is a very broad statement, but if you don’t get this part right, your axolotl will probably die, so please let me explain.

What Is the Best Substrate for Axolotls?

The only so-called true substrate for an axolotl tank is fine sand. It gets a little weird after that as far as aquarium talk goes. That is because some of the stuff you can use in the bottom of your axolotl tank is not a substrate. So, let’s talk about fine sand first.

Can You Put Sand in An Axolotl Tank?

The reason that fine sand is the only substrate that you can use is that you can’t or shouldn’t use gravel, but we will talk about that in a bit. The reason you should use fine sand is that it is small enough to pass through an axolotl without clogging them up and causing a blockage.

Axolotls are notorious for eating things that they shouldn’t, and they will eat something if it is smaller than their head. So, if you use fine sand, you should be okay. However, sand is hard to clean and axolotls are messy salamanders which leads us to possibly the best substrate available.

Axolotl Bare Bottom Tank

What?! Yeah, you heard me right, nothing. A lot of people just use the bare glass bottom for substrate because axolotls are so messy. Sand makes it worse because you can only use fine sand.

Axolotls poop these little log-shaped, miniature dog-like poops that look like tiny sausages. Axolotls are known as the Mexican walking fish because they live in water but walk along the bottom a lot.

Unfortunately, when they are walking on the bottom, they tend to step on their sausage-shaped poops, and they explode into a cloud of floating poop particles. In addition to this, it can get smeared into the sand and the fine sand also gets disturbed, making it hard to keep the water clean and clear.

This poop problem gets so bad that most axolotl owners keep a turkey baster on hand so whenever they walk by their axolotl tank or every chance they get, they grab the little poop sausages with the turkey baster and drop them in the trash.

The idea is to get as much poop as possible out of the tank before the axolotls step on it, making matters worse. To some people who think an aquarium just doesn’t look right without substrate, they are more than willing to constantly clean the sand, even to the point where they have to change the water more than once per week maybe every 3-4 days. It also is hard to use a gravel vacuum on fine sand because the sand gets sucked up into the gravel vacuum so easily.

Okay, if this sounds crazy to you then you are not alone, which leads us to other things to put in the bottom of your axolotl tank that wouldn’t be considered substrate.

Flat Pieces of Slate or Other Aquarium Safe Flat Rocks

This is rather simple. You can get aquarium-ready flat pieces of slate from your local pet store or order them online. This is what they might look like:

slatestone PetAquariums What Should I Put on the Bottom of My Axolotl Tank?
Natural Slate Stone

You can spread these uneven flat pieces of slate around the bottom of your axolotl tank which I think are great.

One can even use different sizes to try to plug holes so you can’t see the glass bottom at all through the spaces.

The problem with this is somewhat related to sand. It always comes down to cleaning. Even though the flat pieces of slate are somewhat flat there are still going to be spaces where poop and uneaten food can fall through.

I like these pieces of natural stone slate the best for axolotl substrate because you can easily move them around to get to the bottom of your tank with a gravel vacuum and suck up waste, so you don’t have to worry about that.

Aquarium-safe rock is another option as long as the rocks are larger than the axolotl’s head so that your axolotl won’t swallow them.

After you identify that the rock is aquarium safe, you have to make sure there are absolutely no sharp edges.

Axolotl’s bodies and skin are very sensitive in addition to them being clumsy, so smooth edges are a must.

Aquarium Safe Rock Tile

Another idea I found online is to find your aquarium-safe rock in tile form. I found the tile idea here at monsterfishkeepers.com.

You can find this at your local hardware store.

Measure your aquarium base or if it is empty just take your whole aquarium with you. They will cut the tiles accordingly to fit in the bottom of your axolotl tank.

Glue the tiles down with silicone or you can get this aquarium-safe glue at your local pet store or online. Give it enough time to dry before you add water.

Other aquarium-safe rocks that you may be able to use as long as they don’t have sharp edges are:

  • Shale
  • Strata
  • Resin Stone

Round Rocks

If you can find some aquarium-safe round rocks that are bigger than your axolotls head then you can use these to coat the bottom of your tank, but you will have more exposed spaces than if you use the flatter rocks.

These are usually polished or decorative rocks for aquariums. Here is an example:

This is just to give you another option. However, I wouldn’t use these unless you are dying to put something decorative in the bottom of your axolotl tank.

Round rocks look nice but they will be hard to keep clean which could promote bacteria.

The only hope is that they would be easy enough to take out of the tank and rinse off during water changes if you are willing to do the extra work.

What Type of Substrate Is Not Okay for An Axolotl?

We have pretty much covered this already. Gravel is the main aquarium substrate that is not okay for an axolotl. Some people still use it anyways, but there are too many cases of axolotls eating it, getting clogged, and either having health problems or dying.

There is some debate over using gravel because some axolotl enthusiasts believe axolotls use it to help digest their food.

Here is a snippet from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axolotl:

There is some evidence that axolotls might seek out appropriately-sized gravel for use as gastroliths based on experiments conducted at the University of Manitoba axolotl colony.

Some believe that certain creatures like axolotls keep small pieces of gravel or pebbles inside their gastrointestinal tract to help grind food for digestion. The theory is that creatures, like the axolotl, that don’t have teeth specifically to grind food in their mouths need help from these gastroliths.

Sounds crazy right? I know I couldn’t believe it either. It makes sense to me though. However, if you are a worry wart like me you can relax.

It is considered unnecessary to use gravel and it seems kinda freaky. People have been raising axolotls safely for years now without gravel, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

We know gravel, or pretty much anything that an axolotl can swallow, is probably not a good idea. Axolotls are like babies that will put anything into their mouths. So, let’s stick with the bare bottom or flat, aquarium-safe rocks.

Axolotl Tank Hides and Decor

Once you get your substrate figured out, you can choose some aquarium decor for the bottom of your axolotl tank. Keep in mind, your axolotl needs a place to hide and they are clumsy. Make sure your decor doesn’t have any sharp edges that your axolotl could run into as this might cut their skin.

Purchase your décor at your local pet store or make sure it includes aquarium safe in the description if you order it online. You want to make sure it is manufactured for an aquarium so that no chemicals leech into your aquarium water.

Every aquarium creature does better with places to hide in their aquariums and axolotls are no exception. If an axolotl is startled by any kind of movement outside their tank, it can retreat to its hide and feel safe. This helps to relieve stress.

Stress is not good for axolotls. If they don’t have a place to hide then they can’t relieve the stress as fast and this could cause health problems.

Axolotls also need a place to hide if there is too much light in their tank. You shouldn’t have their tank in direct sunlight anyways but sometimes, your axolotl might need to get away from a room light that has been on for a while. Axolotls are sensitive to light and don’t require any aquarium lights.

With these guidelines in mind, you can then decorate your aquarium to your taste. This is one of the fun parts of having your axolotl!

Here are some great examples on Amazon:

Some axolotl owners also use plain pieces of PVC pipe for hides in their aquariums. You can get these from your local hardware store.

Can Axolotls Live with Live Plants

If you are going to put live plants in the bottom of your axolotl tank then they need to meet certain criteria:

  • They need to be able to survive in low light because axolotls need very little if any, light
  • They have to be very sturdy because axolotls are clumsy. They will run into the plants and rest on top of them. Axolotls will also chew on the plants and even eat them just because they fit in their mouths.
  • The live plants need to be able to survive in water with a temperature less than 70 degrees because that is the maximum temp for axolotls
  • Axolotls will uproot the live plants so get some that grow on driftwood or even some that are in little pots.

Here are some of the safest plants to go with axolotls:

  • Java Fern
  • Java Moss
  • Amazon Sword
  • Vallisneria
  • Dwarf Hair Grass
  • Anubias
  • Hornwort

Do Axolotls Need Live Plants?

Every aquarium pet will benefit from live plants.

Live plants help keep nitrites and ammonia down, oxygenate the water, and provide natural hiding places. However, they are difficult to keep alive.

As long as you can keep the water clean axolotls do not need live plants.

It also depends on how much you want to deal with the upkeep.

We do not recommend live plants for axolotls because they can be so destructive, but the decision is up to you.

You can always remove them if they become too much of a problem.

Can You Put Fake Plants in An Axolotl Tank?

With fake plants, you lose the natural benefit that real plants offer of cleaning the water and it is harder for your axolotl to tear up fake plants. Since they are fake you can choose which ones you like.

Just make sure they are anchored down well to the substrate or you can even tie them to your decorations.


Please use this article as a guide to determine what to put on the bottom of your axolotl tank. You can use it based on a budget, how much time you have to take care of your tank, or just the overall appearance.

If you want something that’s less maintenance and cost-effective you can use the bare bottom of the tank with no substrate and buy some of the PVC pieces from your local hardware store for hides. This is absolutely the cheapest substrate and decor. You will still be able to enjoy watching your axolotl.

If you don’t have much time for maintenance, then you should probably go with a bare-bottom tank. This is easier to keep your tank clean and you can still decorate your tank to suit your taste.

You could also go with the cut slate tiles as described above, which is practically the same as a bare bottom tank but more decorative.

If time and budget are of no issue then you can pretty much decorate your aquarium to your taste. Just remember to keep these guidelines in mind as you move forward. You can always change the bottom of your tank at a later time. Most importantly “Enjoy your axolotl!”

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Pet Aquariums

Have you any questions?