For the sake of simplicity, this page will be describing very general behaviours of common small freshwater aquarium catfish so for more specific information you should also check out the individual pages on whichever catfish species you are interested in keeping. Catfish are generally fairly low maintenance fish, but they're a few things you will need to consider to ensure they stay happy and healthy.
It is a rare sight to find a home aquarium with no catfish species inhabiting it. Perhaps the most popular fish among both beginners and experienced aquarists, cleaner catfish are commonly employed to help keep tanks free of algae and substrate and-sand filtered for waste and debris. Of course, this does not mean that tanks housing cleaner species can be left unattended, regular cleaning is still an absolute must. This just means that the time between cleaning and maintenance gets a little helping fin.
Generally quite hardy and placid fish, most small catfish play well with others and enjoy caves and ledges in which to hang out during the day. Popular varieties include the pictus , bristlenose , sucking and otocinclus catfish.
Catfish are found commonly in every continent except Antarctica. The various species enjoy a wide range of water conditions and movements in the wild.
Behavior/Compatibility for Catfish
While large catfish species are commonly incredibly aggressive and will eat anything that moves, most small catfish are very passive creatures. Their behaviour varies between species, but most are bottom dwellers that enjoy feeding on algae and sifting through substrate. A notable exception to this is the glass catfish which prefer midwater swimming in schools of five or more. Many are nocturnal feeders, so it’s always a good idea to include caves, clean PVC piping or driftwood in your aquarium to provide shelter during the day. Small catfish tend to be solitary fishes, eschewing socialisation in favour of just getting down to work cleaning up after others. Very few species will have any problems with catfish, but some of the best tank buddies are guppies, danios, mollies, swordtails and barbs, all of which are available through our online fish shop.
Housing Catfish and Aquarium Fish Tank Set-up Tips
Tank sizes will depend on the catfish varieties you are interested in housing, but as a general rule, we would recommend nothing less than a 55 litre (15 gallons) for almost all catfish. Species that reach lengths of 4 inches or more, such as the bristlenose catfish are particularly unsuited for tank sizes less than 68 litres (18 gallons). Large species such as tandanus (eel tailed) catfish than can reach sizes of 80cm (30”) are unsuitable for all but extremely large tanks in the ranges of 3000 litres (800 gallons). Being primarily bottom feeders, lower height tanks are preferable but not mandatory. The chart below is based on breeding pairs of the average-sized (max 11 cm or 4-5”) freshwater catfish species such as the pictus or bristlenose, but be sure to check each individual species’ needs before purchase. To keep the water quality good and ensure you have a low maintenance fish tank that doesn't need excessive water changes, we recommend using a 2.5cm (1”) to 7.5 litres (2 gallons) rule when stocking your tank.
Recommended Max Fish Count Tank Volume 2 Catfish 68 Litres (18 gallons) 4 Catfish 75 Litres (20 gallons) 6 Catfish 94 Litres (25 gallons) 8 Catfish 125 Litres (33 gallons) 10 Catfish 191 Litres (50 gallons)
As a general rule soft sand substrate are better for most catfish. As they dig through the substrate and-sand looking for scraps they may damage their barbels on harder substrate and-sands such as pebbles. However, sucker species like sucking catfish and bristlenose catfish will prefer to feed from surfaces like driftwood, so harder substrate shouldn’t be a problem.
Relatively dense plant life is favoured by most catfish varieties, but driftwood is an absolute must for all species. Some love this for the cover it provides, while others depend on it for sustenance from the algae that naturally grows on it. It is also recommended to provide some kind of shelter for each breeding pair of catfish in your aquarium. As most species are more active at night and prefer a safe cave to hide in during the day, aquarium supplies such as heavily pitted rocks are ideal.
Water temperature and conditioning will vary depending on the catfish variety you prefer, though are quite adaptable to a wide array of water temperatures. Most prefer temperatures between 18 and 24 C (64.4 – 75.2 F). Depending on your local climate, you may need to install a water heater to ensure the temperature stays within this range.
Most enjoy a pH of around 6 to 8 and a hardness of 5-15 dH. To ensure your pH and hardness are suitable you should invest in a testing kit . A slow to moderate water flow suits them well, and the water should be aerated with a fish tank pump.
Always ensure your water is properly filtered, and regularly change the water (10% weekly or 25% every other week). You should also filter the substrate regularly and adjust the chemistry of any tap water you use to top your tank. You may do this with one of our many water conditioning products.
As always, be sure to check the individual needs of your preferred species of catfish to ensure they will be compatible with your tank setup.
Feeding and Care
Although you may be tempted to allow your catfish to subsist on algae, waste and forgotten scraps, this is by no means their entire diet. In the wild catfish get most of their nutrients from worms, insects and small molluscs found within the sand, so you will need to subsidise their diets with something similar in a home aquarium. That said, they are not picky eaters and will happily take most anything offered to them. Their diets will vary between species, though all but glass catfish and upside-down catfishprefer sinking foods. Pellets and fresh, live or frozen Daphnia, bloodworms and blackworms are suitable for most catfish. Please see our wide selection of fish food options to find something suitable for your preferred species.
Great reasons to keep Catfish in your tropical fish tanks
- They are an exciting and energetic fish when digging for food among the substrate.
- They assist in keeping your aquarium clean and healthy by vacuuming up scraps, algae and dead plant matter.
- They generally don’t hassle or stress out other fish species, instead preferring to pay attention to the task of cleaning up after them.
Pick which catfish variety will be the best fit for you keep as pet fish in your tank from our available stock now, and we'll get them shipped right to your door!