Picking out fish for your freshwater tank can be tough…
There are thousands of different species – not all of which make the best pets. Catfish are one of the most popular picks among beginners and experienced aquarium owners because of their unique look and interesting personalities. That said, picking the right type of catfish is extremely important.
In this guide, we share our 10 favorite types aquarium catfish for fish-keepers of any skill level (and everything you need to know about keeping them healthy!).
- 1 10 Popular Aquarium Catfish Species
- 2 Aquarium Catfish Species to Avoid
10 Popular Aquarium Catfish Species
Here are a few common types of aquarium catfish that we recommend keeping:
1. Cory Catfish
Corydoras Catfish definitely rank at the top of my list – if you’ve followed this blog at all, you’d know that they’re one of my all-time favorite fish.
A relatively small species of aquarium catfish, Cories generally don’t grow larger than 2 or 3 inches – making them a great choice for those with tanks as small as 20 gallons. In addition to their small size, Cory Catfish are also beginner friendly (although they do have a few specific needs).
Since Cory Catfish are a schooling species, they should always be kept in groups of 6 or more. Keeping a Cory solo will usually cause extreme stress – something you always want to avoid with your fish. Here are a few other important care needs that you should be aware of:
- Always use a sand substrate – Cory Catfish spend 99% of their time on substrate. Rough or sharp substrate such as gravel can damage their barbels and delicate underbellies – pool filter sand usually works well.
- Water Parameters – Although Cories aren’t the most sensitive fish, always try to keep your water parameters as stable as possible.
- Feeding – Cory Catfish are omnivores, meaning they do best on a mixture of plant-based and meat-based food. I’ve had good success with a mixture of Hikari Algae Wafers and Omega One Freeze Dried Blood Worms.
2. Glass Catfish
As you can probably tell, the Glass Catfish is truly a “one of a kind” species. Named after their completely transparent bodies, these interesting aquarium catfish (sometimes referred to as Ghost Catfish) are great community fish that give a unique look to any freshwater tank.
Much like Cories, Glass Catfish are a schooling species. I only recommend keeping them if you have room for 5 or 6 individuals – like many schooling species, they tend to become reclusive and stressed if kept alone.
Another unique aspect of the Glass Catfish is that they’re a low light species, prefering tanks that are somewhat dark. That said, you don’t have to keep them in a pitch black tank 24/7 – they do well in regular community tanks as long as you give them plenty of caves and live plants for cover.
- Make sure they have places to escape from bright lights – rocky caves, live plants, and other similar hiding places work well. Even with plenty of hiding places, they tend to be most active when the lights go out.
- Water Parameters – Sensitive to fluctuations in water conditions – Glass Catfish prefer slightly acidic water with temperates in the high 70’s. That said, they adjust pretty well to other conditions.
- Feeding – Glass Catfish are an omnivorous species and do best on a mixture of high quality flakes and freeze dried blood worms.
3. Pictus Catfish
The Pictus Catfish is a popular species of aquarium catfish made famous for their long antennas and classic silver coloration. Although generally considered a peaceful community species, Pictus Catfish shouldn’t be kept with fish small enough to become easy prey – avoid anything that looks small enough to fit in their mouth (such as Neon Tetras).
Pictus Catfish are strong eaters and will generally devour any type of food offered. That being said, they’re omnivorous by nature and should be fed a mixture of plant-based and meat-based foods – high quality flake foods and freeze dried blood worms/frozen brine shrimp tend to work well.
Pictus Catfish usually stay under 5 inches, relatively small for catfish standards. When young (2-3″), they prefer to be kept in schools of 4 or 5 individuals. As Pictus Catfish grow, though, aggression can start to arise. If you plan to keep a small school, make sure to watch for aggression as your fish age.
- Pictus Catfish aren’t small tank friendly – If you plan to keep this species (especially more than one), you should plan on setting up a tank of at least 70-80 gallons. There are plenty of small-tank friendly catfish, but Pictus Catfish definitely don’t fall into that category!
- Temperament – Peaceful and community friendly, but shouldn’t be kept with small fish
- Feeding – Pictus Catfish are omnivorous and do well on a mixture of flake food and freeze dried blood worms
4. Upside Down Catfish
If you’re looking for something that will really turn heads, look no further that the Upside Down Catfish. As their name suggests, these amazing little aquarium catfish spend most of their time swimming around and grazing the surface completely upside down. That said, don’t be surprised if they swim normally as well – a lot of Upside Down Catfish, especially young ones, swim right-side up when scouring the tank bottom for food.
The Upside Down Catfish is very similar to the Cory Catfish in size, appearance, and temperament. Much like Cories, they prefer to be kept in smalls schools of 5 or 6 individuals – for a school of this size, a 30-40 gallon tank should be adequate. In addition, Upside Down Catfish appreciate well planted aquariums with broad leaf plants (such as Anubias).
Like most of the other species on our list, Upside Down Catfish are omnivores and do best on a mixture of flake food and meat based foods (such as frozen brine shrimp or freeze dried bloodworms).
- Care Level – Relatively easy, though they do prefer well planted aquariums
- Temperament – Peaceful
- Feeding – Upside Down Catfish are omnivores and do best on a mixture of plant-based and meat-based foods.
5. Otocinclus Catfish
I could go on for hours about how amazing Otocinclus Catfish are…they’re mild tempered, interesting to watch, and have huge appetites for pesky algae. In fact, Oto Catfish were the fish of choice of Takashi Amano (often regarded as the “father of modern aquascaping” and one of the all-time greatest aquarists).
Because of their gentle demeanor and insaciable appetite for algae, Otocinclus Catfish make an excellent choice for anyone considering setting up a planted aquarium – especially if you want to get into aquascaping. They have a knack for ridding tank glass and plant leaves of algae without damaging the plants themselves (which we can’t always say for Plecos).
Oto Catfish prefer heavily planted tanks – but that’s not all they need. To help keep your Otos as stress-free as possible, make sure to supply them with plenty of driftwood to use as cover. In addition, Oto Catfish prefer tanks with a little bit of water flow.
- Care Level – Relatively easy – Oto Catfish aren’t technically hard to care for, but they do require planted tanks with good water flow. For those that don’t already have a similar setup, putting together this kind of tank can be expensive.
- Temperament – Peaceful – Otos get along with just about any species!
- Feeding – Oto Catfish are herbavores, so they require a plant based diet – most of this comes in the form of algae. I suggest throwing in a few algae wafers once in a while to make sure they’re getting enough food.
6. Bristlenose Pleco
The Bristlenose Pleco is one of the most well-known aquarium catfish in the hobby, and for good reason – they are easy to keep, peaceful, and great algae eaters. In Pleco standards, Bristlenoses stay relatively small at just 4-5″ (compared to common Plecos, which can reach almost 2 feet!). For this reason, the Bristlenose Pleco make a great alternative to other Pleco species.
Bristlenose Plecos are generally easy to keep and can tolerate a wide range of water conditions. In addition, feeding is a breeze with these fish – they will scour the tank bottom relentlessly looking for scraps of leftover food, helping keep your tank clean and clear. That said, uneaten scraps usually aren’t enough to sustain a full grown Pleco. Algae wafers, high quality flakes, or other plant based foods should be fed regularly.
- Care Level – Easy
- Temperament – Peaceful
- Feeding – Will feed on any leftover scraps that fall to the bottom. To keep your Bristlenose happy and healthy, supplemental feedings of algae wafers or flakes should be provided (Zucchini, Cucumber, and Squash also works well!)
7. Clown Pleco
I usually recommend the Bristlenose for those interested in keeping Plecos, but the Clown Pleco definitely shouldn’t be ignored either! At just 3-4 inches, the Clown Pleco is one of the smallest of its species, making it a great choice for those with smaller tanks (though I still recommend 20 gallons at a minimum).
One interesting fact about the Clown Pleco is that they feed mainly on driftwood. For some aquarists, this can pose a little bit of a problem – if you plan to keep this species, driftwood is a must to keep a constant food supply. In addition to driftwood, Clown Plecos are also known to snack on vegetables such as Zucchini, Cucumber, and Squash. Unlike their Bristlenose counterparts, Clown Plecos don’t quite have as large as an appetite for algae (though they will definitely help keep you tank a bit cleaner).
Other than their unique feeding habits, Clown Plecos are easy to care for and make a great choice for anyone looking to keep freshwater catfish.
- Care Level – Moderate – their unique feeding habits can be a bit tough for new fish-keepers
- Temperament – Peaceful
- Feeding – Feed mainly on driftwood, but will also eat Zucchini, Cucumber, and Squash
8. Striped Raphael Catfish
The Striped Raphael Catfish is definitely one of the larger catfish species on our list – growing to 7-10″, this fish is reserved for those with 60+ gallon tanks (many say that you can get away with a 30 gallon, but I don’t recommend it).
Despite its large size, the Raphael Catfish is a peaceful species and thrives in community tanks as well as aggressive predator tanks. Although they are peaceful and relatively gentle themselves, the Raphael Catfish is large enough (and has enough armor) to protect itself from more aggressive species. For this reason, the Raphael catfish is a versatile pick that can do well in a variety of aquarium types.
Like most species on our list, the Raphael Catfish is omnivorous and requires a mix of plant-based and meat-based foods to thrive – high quality pellets and meaty food (such as bloodworms or brine shrimp) makes a great mixture.
- Care Level – Moderate – although they’re pretty easy to care for, they require a slightly larger tank than other species on our list
- Temperament – Peaceful
- Feeding – Omnivorous – does well on a mixture of sinking pellets and bloodworms/brine shrimp
9. Bumblebee Catfish
Originating from South America, the Bumblebee Catfish is a highly sought after species made famous for their unique yellow and black markings. Unlike most species in the Pimelodidae family, the Bumblebee Catfish stays very small, rarely growing over 3 inches (making them great for tanks as small as 20-30 gallons).
Although generally thought of as a peaceful species, the Bumblebee Catfish will sometime go after fish small enough to fit in their mouths. If you decide to keep this species, try to avoid any exceptionally small fish or shrimp. That said, Bumblebees to great with tank mates of equal or larger size.
The Bumblebee Catfish is a strong eater and should be fed a mixture of sinking pellets and meaty foods, such as bloodworms or brine shrimp. As a nocturnal species, they may be more active at night, but will usually adapt to feeding during daytime hours as well.
- Care Level – Easy
- Temperament – Peaceful
- Feeding – Omnivorous – should be fed a mixture of sinking pellets and frozen meaty foods
10. Chinese Algae Eater
Although this species looks a lot like the Otocinclus features above, it couldn’t be more different. Growing up to 10″, this large catfish can actually become quite aggressive as it grows (despite its relatively peaceful appearance).
As its name suggest, the main food source for this species is algae found on tank walls, rocks, and plants. That said, I always recommend supplemental feeding of algae wafers since a well kept tank usually doesn’t have an abundance of algae.
- Care Level – Moderate/Hard – large size and aggressive nature can make them difficult to keep with other species
- Temperament – Semi-Aggressive
- Feeding – Feed mainly on algae, though they will algae scour the bottom for uneaten food
Aquarium Catfish Species to Avoid
Here are a few aquarium catfish species that you should probably avoid:
The Common Pleco isn’t necessarily a “bad” fish – they aren’t aggressive, hard to keep, or picky eaters. Their large size just makes them impossible to keep for most aquarium owners. Unfortunately, Common Plecos are sold every day to unknowing fish-keepers simply as “algae eaters”. Most people are unaware, though, that these fish will grow to over 2 feet!
If you want to keep a Pleco, there are much better options – the Bristlenose Pleco and the Clown Pleco both make great choices and are much more suited for small tanks.
Red Tailed Catfish
This massive Catfish species originates from the Amazon River and can grow to nearly 5 feet! Needless to say, the Red Tailed Catfish does make a good choice unless you have an absolutely massive tank.
Surprisingly, this species is actually found in fish store more often than you would think. If you come across a Red Tailed Catfish when shopping for your next fish, you’re probably best off avoiding it.