Keeping Catfish with Cichlids


By Greg Ure


There are many reasons to keep catfish together with cichlids. Some catfish eat algae and in nature live in the same habitat as small omnivore cichlids. Some catfish will eat from the bottom of the aquarium and will search for food amongst the gravel. Some catfish need cichlids to breed and can be worth more than the cichlids they are housed with. Catfish can also be part of a community aquarium. You have to select the catfish that go with the cichlids you are keeping and visa-versa.

Habitat, Biology and Care

Catfish are found on all the continents that cichlids are found on as well as Europe and Australia. Generally where you find cichlids there are catfish of some type. Catfish size varies from the small 35mm Corydoras pygmaus from the Amazon to the giants of the catfish world such as, Clarius gariepinus from southern Africa at 1.4 metres, Paulicea lutkeni from the amazon at 1.5 metres plus, Pangasianodon gigas from the Mekong river at 2.5 metres and from Europe the Wels catfish Silurus glanis at 3.3-5.0 metres (Burgess 1989, Skelton 1993). Where cichlids all belong to one family Cichlidae, Catfish belong to over 30 famalies all belonging to the order Siluriformes. Some catfish are very hardy and can even have air-breathing apparatus, other catfish can be delicate if not given the correct food and environment. Many catfish have sharp spines and should be handled very carefully. A few of them can inject their own poison into the wound made by the spine. As most catfish live on the bottom and many have smooth skin the ideal aquarium substrate is 2-5ml rounded gravel or for some very course sand. On top of this can be larger round stones for the catfish to swim around and for riverine catfish driftwood. Many catfish are nocturnal and the aquarium needs to have as many hiding spots as there are number of fish (both catfish and cichlids). Hiding spots can include crevices between driftwood, gaps between round rocks, rock piles, clay pots, clay ornaments, PVC pipes, glass jars and plastic containers or pots (with a small rock inside them if they want to float). Certain open water Catfish can act as dither fish and encourage shy cichlids to come out from their caves. While most catfish are very adaptable and will tolerate varied pH and hardness; they can need specific water conditions for breeding. Also as most catfish are sedentary for part of the day, aquarium heaters should be in protective sleeves in case the catfish decide to rest on them.

Small Tropical Riverine Catfish

Most small riverine catfish come from South America. They include the over 140 species of Corydoras and related genera and several genera of small algae eating or omnivore armoured catfish. Corydoras catfish KILL cichlids. They get stuck in the cichlidís throat. Many people have tried to keep large catfish and Corydoras. When the large cichlid tries to swallow the Corydoras, the Corydoras locks out its pectoral fins, which then stick through the sides of the cichlidís mouth or throat. This stops the cichlid both swallowing the catfish and spitting it back out. If you catch it early enough you might try to open the cichlids mouth and pull or cut the catfish out. Corydoras catfish swallowed by very large cichlids have also killed by spiking the cichlids abdomen (Fenner 2002). Corydoras catfish and the related genera of Brochis and Aspidorus are good inhabitants of dwarf South American cichlid communities (Apistogramma, Microgeophagus, Nannacara and Laetocara species) and Angel (Pterophyllum sp.) tanks. As they are open water schooling catfish, Corydoras do not go into the cichlids caves. The temperature of many Discus aquariums is too high for Corydoras species. Corydoras species vary in size from 30 to 75mm SL with the most commonly available ones being Corydoras aeneus and Corydoras paleatus. Members of the related genus of Brochis average 60-100 mm. Ones of the best catfish to house with dwarf cichlids are Otocinclus catfish. They are small elongated algae eating 50mm armoured catfish. In a study they were considered the best algae eater being more efficient than many other including bristlenose (Castro 1996). The next commonly available catfish are called Bristlenose. They are members of the genus Ancistrus with the larger males growing to 150mm. This is an algae eater which also like lettuce leaves, zucchini and algae based prepared foods. While they will live in many water conditions they like a little wood to be in their aquarium. It is used both as something to hide amongst and something to have a little chew on. From Asia is the Glass Catfish (Kryptopterus bicirrhis). This inoffensive catfish grows to about 75 mm SL and is a good companion for many cichlids as it is active during the day and swims midwater above bottom dwelling cichlids.

Armoured Medium Catfish

These vary in size from 100 to 600 mm and are mostly elongated. Some of the mildest available species are twig catfish (Farlowella gracilis, 200mm), Whiptail Catfish (Rineloricaria lima 180mm) and Royal Whiptal catfish (Sturisoma aureum 300mm). They are suitable companions for angels and discus but can be out-competed for food by even medium size cichlids. The next largest readily available armoured catfish is Megalechis thoracata the Hoplo Catfish. It grows to 110mm Sl and differs from many other catfish by being a bubblenest breeder. Members of the largest group of armoured catfish are commonly known as plecos or pleco catfish. They include members of the genera Acanthicus, Glyptoperichthys, Hypostomus, Panaque and Pseudoacanthus. Their 150mm to 500mm armoured bodies protect them from most attacks from large cichlids. They should be given a cave to hide in and some wood to chew on. Large pieces of driftwood can serve both purposes. A diet of algae, lettuce, zucchini, algae pellets/discs and the occasional prawn or mussel suits most of these fish Some individuals will add to their diet the eggs that cichlids have layed on rocks. Their armour protecting them from the attacking cichlids. Most of these will not bother cichlids over two centimetres but are too boisterous for dwarf cichlids.

African Lake Catfish

A number of catfish are found in the great lakes of Africa. The most commonly available of these is Synodontis multifasciatus from Lake Tanganyika. This remarkable fish is a cuckoo breeder with the pair spawning in the midst of mouth-brooding cichlid spawning runs and allow the female cichlid to pick up both species eggs. While in nature they have never met a Malawi cichlid; these are used in the aquarium, as they are easier to breed than Tanganyikan cichlids such as Tropheous. Most people use peacocks (Aulonocara sp), Pseudotropheus lombardoi and Placidochromis electra as the brooding cuckoo species. The cichlids start to realise what is happening after a few spawns and then it is time to swap them with ones that have never met Synodontis multifasciatus. Food for Lake Tanganyikan cichlids includes pellets, small earthworms and aquarium snails. As Synodontis multifasciatus grow to 200mm they should be kept with similarly sized cichlids as thew grow.

Medium to Large Predatory Catfish

Some catfish are mistaken by cichlids as food but are protected by their armour. Some catfish do the opposite and want to eat every other fish in the tank. Medium sized predatory catfish include most Synodontis species, woodcats (Parauchenipterus and Auchenipterichthys species), Pimelodus species, Sorubim lima, Bumblebee catfish (Leiocassis siamensis) black lancers (Bagrichthys hyselpterus), Mystus species, Pangasius sutchi and most australian native catfish both the Salmon-tail group (Arius species) and the Eel tails (Neosilurus species, Tandanus species and Anodontoglanis dahli). All these fish are not to be trusted with fish less than half their size. Some of them grow very large and while as small babies they may be cute, as they grow there appetites get more and more voracious. Most of these catfish will eat sinking pellets, earthworms, mealworms, filleted fish flesh, crustaceans and of course small fish. They are gross feeders and thus gross polluters. The filter system for the aquarium to house them and your large cichlids must itself be robust. The input and outlet pipes should be solidly supported or held with rocks or wood so that the fish do not push them out of the tank.

This is a brief guide to keeping catfish and cichlids. More information is available in many catfish books especially An Atlas of Freshwater and Marine catfishes by Dr Warren E. Burgess (Burgess 1989).

Foot notes

Burgess, Warren E. 1989, An Atlas Of Freshwater And Marine Catfish, TFH Publications Inc, Neptune City NJ USA

Castro, Alfred D. 1996. Algae al fresco: Exactly which algae eater really likes to chomp down on this stuff? AFM 12/96.

Skelton Paul H. 1993, A Complete Guide To The Freshwater Fish Of Southern Africa, Tutorial Press, Harare Zimbabwe

Fenner Robert 2002, The Armored Catfishes of the Family Callichthyidae

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Page last updated:  08 November, 2006