Axolotl care

Do You Need to Cycle an Axolotl Tank?

Do You Need to Cycle an Axolotl Tank?

Folks ask this question a lot:

"Do I need to wait for the tank to finish cycling before I get an axolotl?"


The answer isn't always yes, if you know what to do.

Before you freak out at me saying I don't cycle my tanks or use liquid ammonia, hear me out. (I'm VERY pro-cycled filters! I think they are good and very important).

The common answer is that in order for you to properly care for your axolotl, you must go through something called the tank cycling process.

Which begs the question:

What is Cycling?

Cycling a tank is the process of adding a source of ammonia to the water periodically to build up a colony of good bacteria that will consume that ammonia.

If that went over your head, I'm sorry :(

Let me word it another way:

When axolotls go to the bathroom and breathe, they produce ammonia.

Ammonia is a toxic waste product that over time will build up in the water.

The side effects of ammonia exposure in axolotls are caustic burns to the skin and damage to gill tissue.

In severe cases, the axolotl can die.

Most people think of a filter as something that helps purify, like a HEPA filter people use to combat allergens in the air.

Filters in our fish tank exist for that same purpose.

Only the "allergens" are waste byproducts of the axolotl, beginning with ammonia.

A cycled filter - one that has had the time to mature and build up a colony of good bacteria in it - does the legwork of purifying the water.

A brand new filter?

That generally will not do anything other than aerate the water.

So that means the ammonia keeps building up.


It's the bacteria IN the filter that are what reduce ammonia.

Cycling a filter is a process whereby the aquarium owner adds a source of ammonia (usually liquid ammonia, fish food or even live fish) as a means of starting to establish that colony of good bacteria.

These bacteria come from the air and water and are what use ammonia as a food source.

Over time, the number of bacteria multiply, making the filter stronger and stronger - and more capable of processing the ammonia.

Some people during this time will also add liquid products that contain strains of bacteria that are supposed to also consume ammonia, with the hopes of at least jumpstarting if not instantly cycling their aquarium.

(That part isn't required.)

As the bacteria consume the ammonia as food, they create another substance called nitrite.

Nitrite is less toxic than ammonia...

... But still very toxic.

When you see nitrites on your test, you are progressing towards being finished with the cycling process, but not there yet.

By continuing to add ammonia, more bacteria come along that start eating the nitrite.

They then convert the nitrites into something called nitRATE.

Nitrate is much less toxic to axolotls.

Once nitrates start showing up on the test results, it means the tank is cycled.

It can take many weeks to get to that process, generally 4-6, but sometimes more depending on the temperature, because the bacteria that do the nitrogen cycle for us perform more efficiently at warmer temperatures (and in unheated axolotl tanks, it is not uncommon for people to find themselves with tanks that still haven't cycled in months).


So there's the semi-brief synopsis of what the cycling process entails.

There is more to it but that should give you a general idea.

The Purpose of Cycling


I'm not here to bash people who follow the method of cycling the tank using liquid ammonia and waiting for 4-6 weeks for the process to finish.

It definitely works, and it's not a terrible thing to do by any means - it can actually be very good.

And I applaud those who have the patience and willingness to read directions who go that route!

So please don't misunderstand me - I do think it's a good thing.

There are definitely advantages of doing this as opposed to other methods, especially adding live fish or fish food rather than liquid ammonia (please don't do that).

You may have gathered by now...

... That it's a lot of work.

Begging the question:

Why do people bother cycling a filter?

As touched on in the above section, the purpose is to ensure when they get their new axolotl, it has a filter that has a mature biological colony capable of processing the waste products of the axolotl (chiefly ammonia and nitrite).

This means that the owner does not have to do 100% daily water changes, but can immediately add their axolotls and in most cases simply change a reasonable percentage of water once a week.

Why I Avoid Cycling Axolotl Tanks

I'm totally for having cycled filters, believe it or not!

I just think the liquid-ammonia-adding, daily-water-testing cycling process headache can be avoided. ;)

I mean let's face it, this process has some major drawbacks in my mind:

  • The wait: Most people don't want to wait for 2-3 months to get their pet if possible. I know when starting up a new tank, I certainly don't.
  • The tedious process: Most of us live busy lives and would prefer to save time on tedious scientific work. It's work, time and brain cell intensive (for some people, like me anyway). If such a process could be avoided at no expense to the animal's well-being, why wouldn't we seek alternatives?
  • The chemicals: Something that didn't occur to me in earlier years of keeping aquariums, but testing ammonia every day (and eventually nitrite and nitrate) using these liquid reagents exposes us and those around us to some nasty substances. Most people don't follow the warning to wear gloves, facial protection and only use in a well ventilated area. The warnings are pretty scary if you ever take a look at those, but most people don't follow the protective guidelines.

My Top Alternative to Cycling

When starting a new tank, my go-to secret is to get something called a pre-cycled filter.

A pre-cycled filter is a filter that was kept in an established aquarium for a minimum of 3-4 weeks and is capable of processing a large amount of ammonia and nitrite and turning it into nitrate, right off the bat.

Where do you get these?

Well, I get mine online from a company called Angels Plus.

They are an angel fish breeding operation that only keeps their filters with disease-free inhabitants.

Their filters are sponges, and this is a great style of filter for axolotls as they aren't fond of a lot of current.

Basically they ship it to you and in a couple of days you are ready to add fish.

You just have to have an air pump and some airline tubing to get it running, which is not expensive.


You're set.

Instantly cycled tank.

No measuring, no waiting, no testing, no fiddling around.

So now you know ;)


If you don't want to stick with the sponge filter forever, you can run your real uncycled filter at the same time in the background.

This way you can silently cycle your main filter and take out the sponge once it has matured.

Nifty, right?


What if you can't get the incredible Angels Plus pre-cycled filter?

Well, another shortcut is to find a friend with a tank and have them give you some of their filter media.

You probably won't get an instant cycled tank this way (unless they give you a ton of media) but it can put you much further ahead in the game.


You can also cycle the tank in the background, but this is more work.

Basically you add your new filter, add your axolotls and do 50% daily or every other day water changes to keep the water quality good until the filter matures.

It takes longer than fishless cycling, and it is more manual work, but you can add your animals right away.

I also use this method and it can work too.

Just much more work than a pre-cycled filter.


Many people in the axolotl community are not aware of this way to skip past the massive pain of cycling using this sneaky method.

But now that you're in on the secret, I hope you can use this knowledge to further your enjoyment of the aquarium hobby!

Reading next

Can Axolotls and Snails Live Together Okay?
What is the Best Substrate for an Axolotl Tank?

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