Guide On Axolotl Gills Problems – Healthy vs Unhealthy (with Pics)

Axolotl gills

Axolotls are a charismatic type of aquatic salamander that is incredibly popular in the aquarium-keeping hobby. These adorable amphibians have many defining characteristics that make them so charming, including their tiny eyes and smiling mouths, but the one feature that really sets them apart is their feathery, oversized axolotl gills.

Axolotl gills can indicate signs of sickness, stress, and all sorts of other maladies, which is why we’ve created this guide on how to treat and prevent gill health problems. 

Axolotl Gills Anatomy

Unlike other water-dwelling animals, axolotl’s don’t have flat gills that are flush to their bodies. Instead, their gills stick out around their heads almost like a partial mane. They appear almost like feathers and are often a bright and noticeable red. 

There are two parts to an axolotl’s gills: the stalks, and the filaments.

  • Gill stalks are the three protrusions that are the same color as the rest of your axolotl, and the filaments are the feathery, wispy parts of the gills that are instantly recognizable.
  • Filaments are usually either a reddish-brown or red color. 

Just like people, different axolotls will have unique appearances. Not all axolotl gills will look the same! Some may have long, flashier gills while others can have shorter gills.

An axolotl’s gills reside on the back portion of their heads, where you might imagine their ears to be. They have 3 stalks with gills on both sides of each stalk, and in a healthy axolotl, the gill stalks will be a little shorter than the length of the axolotl’s head. Naturally colored axolotls will have gills that are a darker reddish-brown, while the pink leucitic captive variety of axolotls will have brighter red gills. 

Strangely enough, an axolotl’s gills can change color, too! When they are less active, their gills will be paler because they are taking in less oxygen, but when they are more active their gills will become darker. Their gills can also become darker, or redder, in low oxygen environments, since their gills are working harder to compensate for the lack of oxygen. 

Axolotl Gills – What Is Healthy vs Unhealthy?

Since we can determine a lot about the health of an axolotl by their gills, it’s important to know the differences between healthy and unhealthy axolotl gills.

Healthy axolotl gills will be:

  • Fluffy and full
  • Straight and not curled 
  • Completely intact; no bald spots or missing filaments
  • Pink in color

Unhealthy axolotl gills will be:

  • Curled or appear to be wilting
  • Short or stunted
  • Missing filaments, or have damaged filaments
  • Disappearing or rotting

Axolotl GillsCommon Owner Questions

Owners often ask what it means if their axolotl gills are:

  • Turning red
  • Turning white
  • Deteriorating
  • Falling off
  • Shrinking
  • Not feathery
  • Curling forward
  • Flicking
  • Too small or too big

Let’s take a closer look at each condition and determine if it’s a cause of concern.  

Axolotl Gills Turning Red?

Axolotl Gills Turning Red
Axolotl Gills Turning Red

As we said before, axolotl gills can change color slightly. Your axolotl gills turning red during activities such as eating, swimming, pooping, interacting etc, it’s nothing to worry about and it’s totally normal. But what about when they turn much redder than normal?

To read more in detail about why axolotl can turn red, head over here Why Is My Axolotl Turning Red? Is Red Axolotl Skin A Concern?

Axolotl gills turning red more than usual can indicate one of two things: stress or ammonia burn.


When an axolotl is stressed because they aren’t getting enough oxygen, their gills will become more red than usual. This is a good indication that the flow or the water is too high in your axolotl’s tank or some other factor is causing their water to not be oxygenated enough.

Ammonia Burn

Axolotl Ammonia Burn

If it’s ammonia that is causing your axolotl’s gills to turn excessively red, the redness will look more like a burn, because that’s essentially what it is. Excess ammonia can burn the skin of the axolotl, and since their gills are the most vulnerable portions of their body, the burns can be seen here first and then spread to other parts of their body.

Too much ammonia in the tank is a sign that the tank isn’t completely cycled (referring to the nitrogen cycle) or that something has crashed your completed cycle and caused ammonia to build up. Excess ammonia in a tank can be a death sentence for the livestock inside, which is why regular testing of the tank water is so important.

Axolotl Gills Turning White?

Red isn’t the only color axolotl gills can become. Sometimes, their normally bright gills can turn completely white. If the axolotls gills are turning white, it’s probably because of inactivity or fungal growth.


Gills becoming white due to inactivity is harmless. This occurs because there is less blood flow to the gills when the axolotl isn’t moving around, and less blood flow means less red coloration.

If your axolotl’s gills are white but color up again once they start moving, then it’s perfectly normal and nothing to be concerned about.

Fungal Growth

axolotl gills fungus
Axolotl Gills Turning White With Fungus

On the other hand, if your axolotl’s gills are white and seem to have a fuzzy texture resembling a cotton ball, they’re probably suffering from a fungal infection of the gills, which can be quite dangerous. The fungus can occur for a number of different reasons, but most commonly it happens when there is some damage to the skin or gills, presenting an opportunity for the fungus to grow.

How To Fix It?

Fungal infections must be treated with certain medications, and need to be taken care of as soon as possible.

There are 3 treatments for fungus on axolotl gills: 

  • Indian almond leaves
  • Salt baths
  • Antifungal medication

Choose your treatment plan based on the severity of the infection, with Indian almond leaves being the most gentle and antifungal medications the most powerful.

Axolotl Gills Deteriorating And Falling Off?

Deteriorating Axolotl Gills
Deteriorating Axolotl Gills

Unlike color changes, which can have benign causes, axolotl gills falling off is always a cause for concern and must be dealt with immediately. There are a number of reasons an axolotl’s gills can fall off, but the reasons we see most often are trauma, infection, poor water quality, and ammonia poisoning. 


Trauma refers to any physical injury to the axolotl’s skin or gills. This can happen when an axolotl hurts itself on something in the tank, is handled too roughly, or during fights with other axolotls.

When the gills are damaged, the tissue will die and fall away. To prevent trauma to the gills, provide axolotl’s plenty of space to avoid each other and prevent fights, always handle them with a gentle mesh net, and avoid any sharp, jagged corners on their tank decorations. 


Bacterial or fungal infection can cause the filaments of an axolotl’s gills to fall off because infections like this kill the tissue. An axolotl with infected gills will have trouble absorbing oxygen from the water, and these infections can spread to other parts of the body, so treat them quickly. 

Poor Water Quality and Ammonia Burn

For a tank to be safe for an axolotl, it must be cycled. An uncycled tank will have an excess of ammonia and nitrites, which are toxic to axolotls. If your tank is cycled but the nitrates are too high, that can also cause problems with their gills. 

If you suspect your axolotl gills are falling off because of poor water quality, test their water and perform a 25% water change once per week to reduce ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite levels. A healthy aquarium will have little to no ammonia or nitrites.

You can use this testing kit to test your axolotl’s tank

Axolotl Gills Shrinking?

shrinking axolotl gills
Shrinking Axolotl Gills

Like most axolotl gill issues, gill shrinkage is often related to the quality of the water or going through metamorphosis. If your water quality is poor, your tank is uncycled, or if there are metals present in your water, this can cause their gills to shrink and wither.

Poor Water Quality

A lot of aquatic plant fertilizers contain metals like copper which can be dangerous to axolotls, so make sure to read the ingredients and research any water additives before putting them in.

Axolotl Metamorphosis

On very rare occasions, an axolotl’s gills make shrink and seem to be absorbed back into their body because they are undergoing metamorphosis into an adult salamander. Axolotls spend their entire lives in the juvenile state, and metamorphosis into the adult state is almost unheard of and can be deadly. 

Metamorphosis occurs when the living conditions of the axolotl are very poor, or due to a genetic defect that causes them to change spontaneously. 

Axolotl Gills Not Feathery?

axolotl gills not feathery
Axolotl gills not feathery

Since axolotls use their gills to absorb oxygen, they often have longer, more feathery gills in low oxygen environments. This means if you get an axolotl with very feathery gills and add it to a well-oxygenated tank, their gills can shrink. This is nothing to worry about and is totally normal!

Other issues like infections and poor water quality can cause girls to shrink and become less feathery too, but these issues must be rectified. Health issues will cause the gills to deteriorate and look stunted, not feathery.

How To Get My Axolotl Gills Fluffy?

To make your axolotl’s gills fluffier and fuller you need to make sure that there is little to no current, the water temperature is no warmer than 56°F, the water chemistry is right and the oxygen in the water is low.

If the living conditions are optimal, your axolotl’s gills will be fluffier and healthy looking. 

Axolotl Gills Curling Forward?

Axolotl Gills Curling Forward
Axolotl Gills Curling Forward

While some axolotls have gills that are naturally curled forward, curling of the gills in an axolotl with previously straight gills can be a problem. Curled axolotl gills are a sign of stress.

Stress can be caused by any number of things, from fighting between other axolotls, nipping from fish, or poor water quality. Find the cause of the stress, fix it, and your axolotl’s gills should go back to normal. 

Axolotl Gills Flicking?

Axolotl gills flicking, even when at rest, is nothing to be worried about. They do this because when underwater, axolotls will take oxygen from the water around them. By moving their gills they bring fresh water that is full of oxygen to their gills so they can absorb it.

In a properly oxygenated environment, axolotls will flick their gills every 3 to 9 seconds. If there is not enough oxygen in their water, they may flick them more often, or even swim through the water instead of moving their gills.

Axolotl Gills Too Small/Too Big?

Axolotls can have slightly different appearances from one other or large differences like different color morphs, but did you know they can also have different gill sizes? Axolotl gills size can be affected by genetics, so even though your axolotl’s gills may appear to be too big or too small, it could just be the way they were born.

On the other hand, if the axolotl gills size has changed, it can be due to environmental factors, the biggest of which is how much oxygen is dissolved in the water that they live in. For instance:

  • Axolotl gills too small? Well, if there is a lot of dissolved oxygen, the axolotl’s gills won’t need to work as hard so they will be smaller. An axie can be healthy with small gills as long as their gills aren’t shrinking. Very small gills tend to be a sign that it was kept in poor conditions, but it’s current conditions are up to a good standard, then it should be fine.
  • Axolotl gills too big? If the water has less dissolved oxygen, the axolotl’s gills will grow larger so that they are able to absorb more oxygen

Axolotl Gills – How To Keep Them Healthy and Prevent Health Issues?

Axolotls are delicate creatures and need certain parameters to keep them and their feathery gills healthy. For healthy axolotl gills, you will need to maintain the correct water temperature, water quality, and diet for them to be at their very best.

  • Water Temperature. Axolotls prefer cooler water, so their tanks should be kept between 60 to 65°F. If their tank is too warm, they can become sluggish or even ill
  • Water Quality. As with all cycled tanks, your axolotl’s tank should have no ammonia and no nitrites. They can tolerate some nitrates, but never let them creep above 50 mg/L. They also prefer a PH between 6.5 and 8. A quality water testing kit should show you all of these levels, so invest in one if you plan on owning an axolotl
  • Diet. Axolotls need a varied diet to be healthy, and sometimes supplements are necessary. They can be fed bloodworms, shrimp, beef hearts, tubifex worms, and specially formulated axolotl pellets. 

Handling With Care – Are Axolotl Gills Sensitive? Should You Touch Them?

Axolotl gills aswell as their skin are extremely sensitive, and therefore should never be touched. Always move your axolotl with a soft mesh net, and if you’re taking them from one tank to another transfer them in a container instead of in the net itself to avoid injuring its gills.

Do Axolotl Gills Grow Back?

The ability of an axolotl to regrow their gills depends on the extend of the damage and the axolotl’s age. If the full gill stalk has been bitten off or the damage is in the gill fronds, the axolotl won’t be able to regenerate those parts.

On the other hand, if the damage is in the gill filaments, the axolotl should be able to regenerate just fine as long as the water conditions are good. It’s also important to note that the younger the axolotl, the better their regenerative capabilities. Some young juveniles can even regenerate their gill stalks even if it’s not always perfect.

However, even if the damage is small and the axolotl is young, if the water quality, their diet and overall care is not optimal, the chances for the gills to recover are slim to none. Therefore, getting the water quality and care up to a good standard should always be your priority.

Final Thoughts

Axolotls are wonderful aquatic pets and are unlike anything else out there. Visually, we all love the look of an axolotl’s feathery gills, but these protuberances are for more than just looks. An axolotl’s gills can warn us of sickness, drops in water quality, and even how happy or stressed they are in their tank.

With proper care and feeding, axolotls will keep us entertained for years to come. Jusst make sure to keep an eye on those gills for any early signs of illness or improper care!

Frequently Asked Questions Q&A

Why Is My Axolotl Floating?

In some cases, your axolotl will be floating because they have swallowed air bubbles. This can cause gas build up and result in your axolotl to float near the surface. In other cases, the floating can be caused by too much ammonia in the tank water. This can be very dangerous and that is why it is recommended to have regular checks of the water quality.

To find even a better answer to the question why is my axolotl floating, head over to this article Why Is My Axolotl Floating? 4 Causes For Floating Axolotl

Why Is My Axolotl’s Throat Swollen?

Normally, axolotl swollen throat is the result of infection, impaction, bloating, obesity or they are just a dwarf type.

Read the full article on axolotl swollen throat here Axolotl Swollen Throat? What’s The Cause And How To Treat



My name is Iliyana and I'm a passionate animal lover and pet owner. As there is significantly less information online about unusual and exotic pets, I decided to found this website and recruit expert writers to help pet owners.

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