Shane's World Right Arrow CatfishologyRight Arrow The Catfish Basics Series, Part 1 • Choosing and Housing Your Catfish

Article © Julian Dignall, uploaded January 01, 2002.

Questions we frequently are asked at Planet Catfish are "Can you recommend a good catfish for eating algae that won't grow too large?", "Can you recommend a good catfish for eating snails" and questions along the lines of "I've set-up my first community tank and would like a catfish for it what would you recommend".

We also get quite a few questions like what catfish would you recommend that I keep with my large cichlids (or other large fish) or my catfish fish hide all the time. The first of these topics is dealt with in their own articles and can be found here (large fish) and hiding, at least during daylight hours, is normal behaviour for most catfishes - just make sure your fish isn't one of those that needs to be kept in shoals. Feed a little food after lights out if you can't see your catfish eating. If, once it's settled in for a few months, your catfish still hides even during regular feeding time, then you need to research that species and check what you are feeding it is suitable. Beyond that, you've either got one of the few catfishes that never comes out during the day or the catfish is being bullied at least during the day and maybe at night too.

If you have ever the chance to visit the fish room, hut or garage of a catfish nut then often you will find rows of fish tanks devoid of any visible life. Sometimes even plants are deemed unnecessary. Leaving the pros and cons of that to one side, it is safe to say that these set-ups are far removed from a typical "first aquarium".

In talking about a typical first aquarium we assume the aquarist has set-up their tank and has begun to lightly stock it with a few hardy fish (as any good retailer or book would have you do). Maybe this is the case, or maybe you made a few mistakes on the way and are now left with a lightly stocked tank of hardy fish. Either way, it's the size of the existing fish that should primarily direct your catfish selection decisions.

If there is one important point to get across in this article, it is this: There are well over two thousand species of catfishes, you'll likely find a hundred or more over the period of several months of regular visits to an average local fish shop - they are not all the same! Not even close, in fact, I often find myself saying that, for all the variation you find among all freshwater tropical fish, there's an equivalent amount within just the catfishes themselves.

Often tank size is expressed in gallons (particularly in the USA); this isn't so helpful for us and we want to talk about surface area or, from most catfishes point of view, substrate area. We also want to think about the average full-grown size of the fish in your aquarium. Consider the table below:

Average Size /
Substrate Area
<1" 1" 2" 3" 6" 12"
18" x 10" A A B C    
24" x 12" A B B C    
36" x 12" A B C D E  
48" x 12" A C C D E  
48" x 18" A C C E F  
72" x 24" B C C E F G

Category C for example would be catfish suitable for community fish of an average full-grown size of between 1" and 3". With this sort of generalisation and the extreme diversity found in the catfish family people will always find ways to pick holes in the fish suggested by the above, but in terms of a guide for aquarists new to the Catfish hobby - it can really help.

Second point here is definition of community fish. This would mean that a fish that, by and large, will coexist with other fish in the same environment. Again this is subject to the broadest generalisation. While you shouldn't keep fancy goldfish with discus, it is possible (and too often demonstrated). Fish that are perfectly peaceful but require specialist food or water conditions also cannot be considered true community fish as they do not coexist with other fish in the same environment. We have to look at all the fish sharing the same environment NOT catfish that will accept the conditions of specialist fish. If that is your aim then find out what catfish live in the same conditions as your specialist fish, research their wild habitat, 9 times out of 10 the fish that live with them in the wild will be the best additions (albeit often hard to acquire).

What we are saying here is that given a fish is a certain size and a community fish, we can use the following categories to help you choose a selection of your fish catfish. Click here (A | B | C | D | E | F | G ) for a shortcut link to that category.

Category A
General Description Examples Notes
Pygmy Corydoras Corydoras pygmaeus, C. hastatus, C. habrosus. These fish should be kept in shoals of at very least 4, preferably 6 or more. They mix especially well with smaller tetras or cyprinids such as neon tetras or harlequin rasboras.
Otos, Pygmy Suckers Otocinclus spp., Zebra oto. Parotocinlcus spp. Again a shoaling fish that should be kept in a group minimum of 5 or 6, an effective algae eater. Find out more about acclimatizing these to your tank here. Require algae or vegetables to eat. Parotocinclus are not as shoal orientated but do prefer to be kept in trios or more.
Shadow Catfish Hyalobagrus flavus, Chandrama chandrama Also a shoaling fish, but very much mid water occupants. Prefer a planted tank but are not vegetarian.
Butterfly Cats Hara hara, Hara jerdoni These tiny cats will bother no one and can be kept as groups or singly. A really good weird catfish starter.
Category B
General Description Examples Notes
Round or bullet nosed Corydoras (Bronze, Peppered, Albino, Bandit, Elegant etc etc etc) Corydoras aeneus, C. paleatus, C. metae, C. trilineatus, C. elegans). These fish should be kept in at least trios. Two trios are good but why not keep 6 of the same species and really watch them interact. Many of these fish will spawn in a community set-up. There are 30 or 40 commonly imported Corydoras that fit this mid-range category in terms of size.
Dwarf Bristlenoses, Clown Plecos, Zebra Plecos Ancistrus claro, Panaque maccus, Hypancistrus zebra Ancistrus should be kept in pairs and be supplemented with vegetable food. Clown Plecos or Zebra plecos can be kept singly but better in groups, 1 per 12 square inches of surface area, more if the tank is heavily decorated which breaks up territories. Hypancistrus zebra may not be truly a community fish because of it prefers high temperatures and strong water current, but so many ask about it I include it here.
Talking or Raphael Agamyxis pectinifrons The smallest commonly available Raphael - although this fish can grow really quite large it does slow slowly and without malice to other fish. Just make sure you give it a suitably sized refuge. You will not see this fish except after lights out or during feeding time.
African Striped or Asian Glass Cats. Eutropiellus spp. or Kryptopterus minor. Both are shoaling mid water fish but differ greatly in terms of habit. The Africans are much bolder and current loving. The Asian glass cats will find the best piece of foliage and attempt to become invisible. Keep both in groups of at least 4 fish.
South American Bumblebee Catfish Microglanis spp. Take care you are not purchasing either bumblebee gobies or Asian bumblebee or giant bumblebee cats sometimes know as Zungaro or Jelly Cats) all are not good news but this little guys are. They will hide most of the time and make darting sorties towards sunken food when available.
Category C
General Description Examples Notes
Long nosed Corydoras and Brochis Corydoras vittatus, C. narcissus, C. barbatus. Brochis spp. Male long nosed Corydoras can be aggressive to one and another hence the preference towards a larger tank size. C. barbatus should be kept with fish that prefer cooler temperatures. Brochis are shoaling fish and only show their truly beautiful colours when kept as such. They are much bigger than Corys, hence their inclusion here. All fish in these categories are entirely peaceful to other fish.
Porthole Catfish Dianema spp. Keep in pairs or more. Very peaceful and seem to appreciate a little plant cover.
Common Bristlenoses, Peckoltia, Whiptails, Ancistrus spp., Peckoltia spp., Rineloricaria spp. All these plecos can be kept singly or in groups. With so many it is very hard to accurately generalise. Make sure you know if the fish is a vegetarian, omnivore or more of a carnivore and its full grown size before purchase.
Upside down catfish Synodontis nigriventris Make sure you are buying the true USD cat - many similar “fakes” grow much larger. To get the best out this fish you need to keep a group of 6. Such a group make make up a considerable proportion of your fish stocking levels.
Humbug Raphael, Hancocks Raphael. Platydoras costatus, Amblydoras hancocki These tiny cats will bother no one and can be kept as groups or singly. All really good starter weird catfish.
Banjo Catfish Bunocephalus spp. Quirky oddities that can be added singly or in groups - ideal conversation fish. Younger fish may perch in dense vegetation, but adults prefer a sandy substrate they can bury in.
Category D
General Description Examples Notes
Medium sized Synodontis Synodontis flavitaneauts, S. eupterus, S. nigrita Depending on tank size this fish should be kept singly or in groups. For the larger fish within this group, keep singly.
Medium sized Plecos - Butterfly Plecos, L66, Vampire or Galaxy Plecos Dekeyseria spp., Hypancistrus spp. Leproacanthicus spp. and many others. Being medium sized plecos care needs to be taken that you do not purchase too many - one or two in the case of this category. Again, with so many to choose from it is very hard to accurately generalise. Make sure you know if the fish is a vegetarian, omnivore or more of a carnivore and its full grown size before purchase. Some of these fish will outgrow a 36 x 12 but only after a few years.
Two spot cats, Pearl Catfish. Mystus bimaculatus, Since many of the larger (and behaviorally challenged) catfish that previously belonged to this group have been moved into Hemibagrus we can now state that most Mystus are good community catfish. Take care when buying though because many dealers will not be as up-to-date as you are and might be selling the larger fish.
Small to medium sized Wood cats Centromochlus and Tatia Rare sightings during the day may put some people off, but these fish have real character and are super hardy.
Category E
General Description Examples Notes
Smaller Synodontis Synodontis flavitaneauts, S. nigrita, S. eupterus Depending on tank size this fish should be kept singly or in groups. For the larger fish within this group, keep singly.
Twig catfish. Medium sized Plecos - Butterfly Plecos, L066, Vampire or Galaxy Plecos. Farlowella spp., Dekeyseria spp., Hypancistrus spp. Leproacanthicus spp. and many others. Twig cats are best suitable to a more gentile community set-up than the other plecos listed here. Being medium sized plecos care needs to be taken that you do not purchase too many. In a larger "category E" tank most of these fish can hold their own but, again, with so many to choose from it is very hard to accurately generalise (or stop buying!). Make sure you know if the fish is a vegetarian, omnivore or more of a carnivore and its full grown size before purchase. Some of these fish will outgrow a 36 x 12 but only after a few years.
Asian Bumblebee Catfish and others Pseudomystus spp. Although capable of eating very small fish, these cats are otherwise sociable and interesting additions from Asia.
Category F
General Description Examples Notes
Medium Synodontis Synodontis angelicus, S. schoutedeniS. alberti. Depending on tank size this fish should be kept singly or in groups. For the larger fish within this group, keep singly. Care should be taken when selecting
Medium sized Plecos - Gold nugget plecos, Royal Whiptails, Spade cats. Baryancistrus spp, Sturisoma, Pseudohemiodon Gold nuggets and other species of Baryancistrus are in here because they get quite big (9” SL albeit slowly) and are increasingly territorial with age. The larger whiptails because they are great community fish but need space.
Armoured or Hoplo Cats Megalechis thoractum, M. personata, Hoplosternum littorale. Also a shoaling fish, but very much mid water occupants. Prefer a planed tank but are not vegetarians. Gregarious fish suited to a boisterous, lively tank.
Black Lancer Bagrichthys macracanthus A large fish but shy catfish with a small mouth and as such could probably be kept with even smaller fish than in this category but we’re playing it very conservatively here.
Jaguar Catfish Liosomadoras spp. You’ll NEVER see them but they are beautiful!
Category G
General Description Examples Notes
Large Synodontis and similar Synodontis decorus, Hemisynodontis membranaceus. Depending on tank size this fish should be kept singly or in groups. For the larger fish within this group, keep singly. These are good fish for mixing with aggressive fish such as cichlids.
Large Plecos - Common, Sail fin, Goldie (L14), Royal Pleco (L27, L90, L191 etc), Cactus plecos Liposarcus pardalis, Hypostomus spp., Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus, P. gibbiceps. Scobinancistrus aureatus, Panaque nigrolineatus, Pseudacanthicus spp. These plecos are easier to generalise. They all grow big! Some require special diets and the main difference between them is growth rates. A sail fin pleco can reach 12” in under two years, L14 isn't quite so rapid and Royal plecos grow very slowly indeed unless you have a virtually constant supply of vegetables for them. All these plecos produce large quantities of solid waste - make sure you filter (preferably filters) is up to it. Give 3 square feet of substrate area for a 12” pleco more for larger ones especially highly territorial types like Pseudacanthicus.
Pim pictus, Ornate Pim etc. Lima Shovelnose Cat. Pimelodus pictus, P. ornatus, P. maculatus. Sorubim lima. Many, many of these fish are sold into much smaller fish tanks holding much smaller fish - often the smaller fish don't make it past the first night of these catfishes nocturnal predatory prowling. These are social, gregarious fish that need swimming space and will reward the owner of a larger tank for investing in a group of 5 or as many as you can fit in! Other pims that are slightly larger such as the ornate or spotted pims can be kept singly. Lima shovelnose cats can be kept in groups in larger tanks, they do like vertical reed-like structures.
Sun Cats Horabagrus brachysoma Unusual, reasonably social catfish that grow quickly and don't hide when they are hungry
Large Woodcats Trachelyopterus galeatus, Trachelyopterichthys  taeniatus Included here rather than in the previous category because of their super boisterous behaviour at night or when food is offered - not fish for the gentile discus tank.
Walking Catfish Clarias batrachus A very bold fish that will eat you out of house and home while attempting to leave your aquarium at every given opportunity. A fun, useful workhorse addition for the big cichlid tank.

So that's it. I have tried to include most catfish (or something similar) you can find in reasonably well-stocked dealers tanks. If it's not on this list then it will probably be the Cat-eLog. If it isn't in that then beg, steal or borrow a few digital pictures of it and send them to us for more information - but it is unlikely to be a beginner's fish.

You will commonly encounter Shark Catfish (Arius spp.) at your local dealer - while these are worthy additions for the brackish water community and youngsters of certain species will withstand 100% freshwater, this is not really a community fish.

Catfish you will not find listed here but may commonly find out your local dealer are species such as iridescent or dolphin sharks (Pangasius spp.), red-tail or shovelnose catfish (Phractocephalus or Pseudoplatystoma spp.) and various other ultimately super large imports. Many of these fish are simply too large to ethically house in a home aquarium. Sure some are farm raised and imports don't affect wild populations, sure you can keep some of them for some time, but in the end you are a freethinking person and it's your conscience. Even if you don't buy the politically correct viewpoint - how many dealers tanks could be housing cool new imports but are used up by housing large fish in badly cramped quarters that will not make the dealer much profit compared to a tank full of glittering tetras or plecos.

In summary, and at the risk of sounding somewhat airy, the primary art of community tank fish keeping lies in creating the illusion that a fragment of river, lake or stream in exists in your home or office. If this is true from both you and your fishes point of view then you're off to a good start. If your fish selection fits a particular biotope or they reproduce within this set-up then so much the better - these things are signs of an intermediate aquarist. After that you'll soon be eyeing up the spare room, garage or vegetable patch.

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