Dwarf shrimp are one of the most interest and entertaining species in the aquaria hobby. That being said, most aquarium owners assume that shrimp would be difficult to keep because of their small and delicate nature – this is simply not true!
In this guide, we will discuss everything you need to know about setting up and maintaining a freshwater shrimp tank. This will most likely be a lengthy article, so feel free to use the quick links below to skip around if necessary.
- 1 Gathering the Necessary Equipment
- 2 Setting up Your Shrimp Tank
- 3 Choosing a Species: Common Types of Freshwater Aquarium Shrimp
- 4 Suitable Shrimp Tank Mates
- 5 Feeding Your Shrimp the Proper Diet
- 6 Maintaining a Freshwater Shrimp Tank
- 7 Common Problems (And Solutions)
Gathering the Necessary Equipment
Here is everything you will need to set up a freshwater shrimp tank:
A key phrase in fishkeeping is ‘bigger is better’, and this applies to shrimp keeping even more strongly than to many other parts of the hobby. Bigger is not just better because we simply like to own large aquariums; there’s more to it.
The smallest and hardiest species of dwarf shrimp, like cherry shrimp from the Neocaridina genus, can technically survive in very small tanks. Is it easy to keep your shrimp in tiny set-ups, though? Unfortunately, it’s not. Fluctuations in water quality are a real risk in small tanks, which doesn’t come in very handy when you’re trying to keep such fragile creatures.
As an added bonus, the price difference is usually marginal! If you’re not looking to grow any high-light live plants, an aquarium with a built in light will work just fine.
Every aquarium needs a filter – and shrimp tanks are no different. The filter doesn’t just clean up floating debris, it also harbors crucial beneficial bacteria that allow your tank to cycle and become a healthy eco-system (more about that later).
There are various types of aquarium filters out there and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. In the end, which type you go for depends largely on your own preferences. The most important thing is that the filter is shrimp-safe. This usually is not difficult to achieve, even with powerful filters that have the capacity to suck up any shrimp that comes too close. You can purchase a filter guard in the form of a sponge that covers the intake for most filters.
Some of the commonly used filters for shrimp tanks are:
- Sponge filter – Most professional shrimp breeders’ favorite option, so definitely something to consider. Sponge filters are extremely gentle and 100% shrimp safe. They are air powered and can be run using an air pump. If your aquarium is larger than 15-20 gallons you might need to choose another type, though.
- Internal filter – The most popular filtration option for general fishkeeping. These work just fine for shrimp tanks, but it might be a good idea to find one designed especially for this purpose. This ensures it won’t become an accidental shrimp trap.
- Hang on back (HOB) – The handy HOB is perfect if you don’t want an ugly filter sitting inside your tank: as the name suggests, you hang it on the back. It sucks up water through an inlet pipe, runs it through the filter chamber and then releases it back into the tank using a waterfall system. You’ll need a filter guard if you want to use one of these, or the intake will act as a shrimp vacuum.
- Canister filter – Canisters are great if you really care about water quality, as they are relatively large and have plenty of room for filter material. Although there are nano canister filters out there, this filter type is most popular for larger aquariums of 20 gallons and up. Again, probably not best suited for shrimp tank!
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If you’ve done some prior research into setting up your shrimp aquarium, you’ve probably seen plenty of discussion on substrate. So why is simple gravel such a big thing for shrimp keepers? It’s mostly because there are so many types out there, all with their own advantages.
- Sand vs. Gravel – Ahh, the endless dispute! Some fishkeepers swear by gravel, as they feel it allows plants to root more easily and doesn’t become compacted. Others strictly use (preferably large-grained) sand, which doesn’t trap pieces of food and poop and is therefore much easier to clean. Whichever you end up picking, most shrimp keepers agree that black is the best color. It makes the shrimp and plants stand out more than white or natural colored substrate.
- Buffering or non-buffering – There are substrates out there, such as ADA Aquasoil Amazonia, that are used by shrimp keepers for their ‘buffering’ capacities. The short version of what that means is that they help maintain the low pH and soft water that is appreciated by many shrimp species, especially the more fussy types. They also boost plant growth, as they’re very nutrient rich.
So should you be using a buffering substrate then? If you’re a beginner just getting started in the shrimp hobby and your water values aren’t too extreme, the answer is likely no. These soil types are best used in combination with RO (reverse osmosis) water and a remineralizer, or they’ll quickly lose their buffering capacities. This can result in pH swings, which are very dangerous to your shrimp.
Although most shrimp species will do just fine at room temperature, you likely still need a heater to keep yours healthy. This is because most rooms go through temperature changes throughout the day (day/night differences, leaving the door open, etc.). These swings also influence the temperature in your aquarium, which can result in problems if the difference is too extreme. After all, shrimp don’t respond well to sudden changes in their environment at all.
A thermostat heater is designed to power on as soon as the temperature drops below a certain point, so it keeps the aquarium stable. Unless the room temperature is very steady at all times, a heater is therefore a must. Be sure to get a high quality model: cheap heaters can occasionally malfunction and the resulting temperature swings can result in problems with these sensitive invertebrates.
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You’ve probably guessed it: in order to keep the temperature in your shrimp tank as stable as possible, you’ll need to be able to actually know where it’s at. A thermometer is an unmissable piece of equipment for any shrimp keeper. We prefer the Zacro LCD aquarium thermometer, as they’re easy to read and very accurate.
If you’ve kept fish before you probably know this, but we’ll mention it again. Your test kit should be your aquarium bible and this especially applies if you keep shrimp! These little critters can be very sensitive to bad water quality so it’s extremely important for you to know exactly what’s going on in your tank.
The most important thing to keep in mind while choosing your aquarium water test kit is that test strips are a no-go. While they seem cheap and handy, they’re unfortunately quite inaccurate and will actually be more expensive in the long run.
Instead, get a liquid test kit. These give you a better picture of your actual water quality and should last for a long time. For shrimp keeping, your test kit should at least be able to test Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, pH, gH and kH. The API Master Test Kit is a great choice.
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This is a piece of equipment that many ‘regular’ aquarists have never even heard of, while shrimp keepers swear by it. A TDS meter allows you to test the Total Dissolved Solids in your aquarium water, which is important as an amount that’s too high or low can cause problems in your shrimp.
This small device offers a large amount of insight into the consistency of your aquarium water – so although it may not be absolutely mandatory, it’s a good idea to pick one up if you’re going to be serious about your shrimp setup.
Setting up Your Shrimp Tank
Now that you’ve got all the necessary equipment and supplies it’s time to actually set up the tank for your pet shrimp! Follow these basic steps:
Setting up an Aquarium: The Basics
Once you’ve gathered everything you need, you’re ready to set up your brand new shrimp tank. We’ll briefly explain the basic steps here. If you’ve kept fish before you can probably skip this subheading, as you likely already know how this works.
- Getting started – Place your aquarium in the desired spot (make sure it can hold the weight!) and ensure it’s level. Wash your substrate and place a layer on the bottom of the tank. This is a good moment to place any live plants, décor and equipment as well.
- Fill it up – Carefully fill up the aquarium without disturbing the substrate too much. If there’s chlorine in your tap water, be sure to use a water conditioner. You can now turn on equipment like your heater, filter and lamp.
- Start the cycling process – Cycling your aquarium before adding any livestock is absolutely crucial. If you skip this step your shrimp won’t make it long. Essentially, cycling an aquarium means ensuring the development of beneficial bacteria in your filter and substrate that possess the ability to turn toxic wastes into a less harmful end product that can be removed with weekly maintenance. The only things you need to cycle your tank are a water test kit, a source of pure ammonia and plenty of patience. Not sure how to go about this? Be sure to check out our complete cycling guide before you get started.
Shrimp Tank Decorations
Although some shrimp breeders prefer to keep their shrimp tanks relatively bare in order to be able to see their shrimp easily, you’ll probably want some décor in your set-up. Your shrimp will appreciate this as well: they’re prey animals that love to have plenty of places to hide. This especially applies when they have recently molted, as this leaves them vulnerable and wanting to retreat until their new exoskeleton has hardened.
Our favorite way to combine decoration with functionality is by using plenty of live plants. Greenery makes great shrimp hides and has multiple other added benefits. Biofilm grows on the textured leaves, making plants a prime foraging spot for shrimp.
Additionally, plants help stabilize your water quality by absorbing harmful wastes and turn your aquarium into a wonderful green centerpiece.
For for information about keeping live plants, check out our list of 25 beginner friendly aquarium plants.
In addition to plants, there is a variety of shrimp hides available. You can try ceramic tubes, shrimp flats or some pieces of cholla wood, which also serve as a permanent shrimp buffet.
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Choosing a Species: Common Types of Freshwater Aquarium Shrimp
Now that your shrimp setup is cycling away you’re left with a few weeks of waiting. Why not use this time to pick the shrimp species you’d like to keep in there if you haven’t already?
With the various genera of shrimp that contain dozens of species available in the aquarium trade out there, choosing a favorite might be a little challenging. Although we don’t have nearly enough space to discuss every shrimp out there, or even just the most popular ones, we might be able to help you choose a general direction.
- Neocaridina shrimp – If you’re a beginner and this is your first tank, Neocaridina dwarf shrimp like the massively popular Red Cherry Shrimp might be your absolute best option. They are easy to keep, available in a rainbow of different colors and will breed quickly.
- Caridina cf. cantonensis – Been in the shrimp hobby for a bit longer (or just up for a challenge)? Caridina cf. cantonensis has been selectively bred into a wide range of colors and patterns, including the popular Crystal Red Shrimp, that will really make your tank pop. The catch? They’re definitely a bit more fussy than Neocaridinas.
- Caridina cf. babaulti. Also available in tons of colors, Caridina cf. babaulti is easier to keep than cf. cantonensis and a good option for beginners. You might have to search a little harder for them, though; they’re not always easy to find.
- Sulawesi shrimp – These extremely colorful and fascinating critters from the Indonesian Sulawesi lakes, such as the cardinal shrimp, are bound to catch anyone’s attention. Unfortunately they are by no means beginner proof, so avoid them unless you’ve got plenty of aquarium and shrimp experience.
- Amano shrimp – A little larger than dwarf shrimp but still entirely peaceful, this avid algae eater is a great addition to your cleaning crew. It doesn’t breed in freshwater, which can be seen as an advantage or a downside.
- Ghost shrimp – These are often sold as feeders but actually make fun pets as well. They grow a bit larger and can be quite feisty. Just be sure to get a variety that thrives in freshwater – some prefer brackish.
As you can probably imagine, this short list of popular ‘shrimp categories’ doesn’t even scratch the surface. If you want to go for something unusual, why not look into the gentle giant bamboo shrimp, the aggressive Macrobrachium, or one of the small and uncommon Paracaridina species?
Buying Your Shrimp
Once you’ve picked your preferred shrimp, it’s time to find a seller. If you’ve decided to go for a popular species like Red Cherry Shrimp this shouldn’t be much of a problem. Almost all aquarium stores carry some common shrimp types.
Can’t find the species you’re looking for at the local fish store? You can try asking them to order a batch for you, and if that’s not an option either then there are still some other possibilities. Shrimp ship quite well and there are many online stores and independent sellers that usually carry a much wider range of shrimp species than physical stores. The Internet also harbors a wealth of shrimp keeping groups and forums where members that own and sell rare species might reside.
There are a few things to keep in mind while buying shrimp to make sure you get healthy stock for the best price.
- Import vs home bred – Shrimp that were mass bred in large (often Asian) facilities are almost always cheaper than home bred shrimp. Seems like an easy choice, but keep in mind that imports might carry parasites or diseases that are difficult to deal with. You should always have a very close look at your shrimp before introducing them to your tank and this especially applies to imports. Not sure if the shrimp you’re looking at were imported? Just ask the seller.
- Healthy shrimp – If you have the chance to see your future shrimp with your own eyes before buying them, be sure to study them closely. They should be actively foraging. Any strange coloration, spots, blemishes or even worm-like bits and pieces are a sure sign of trouble.
- Aquarium store vs online – As mentioned above, there are many online shrimp sellers out there. That means if you want to get the best price, it’s a good idea to shop around a little! Have a look at the stock at your local pet store and compare it to what online sellers have to offer. Although you pay shipping costs when you order online, you might still end up with a better deal and healthier shrimp as pet store shrimp are often (though by no means always) pricy imports.
Suitable Shrimp Tank Mates
Tankmates are still a bit of a discussion point in the shrimp hobby. Most serious hobbyists who keep and breed dwarf shrimp skip them (almost) completely and keep most of their tanks shrimp-only. Unsurprising, because they often keep very expensive stock and there are very few species out there that won’t eat a young shrimp if given the chance.
If you’re willing to take a bit of a risk or choose your shrimp tankmates from a very limited selection, there are some options. Alternatively, you could choose one of the larger shrimp species such as Amano shrimp, which are less vulnerable due to their size.
- Possibly shrimp safe – Peaceful fish like small schooling species. You should only try this if you’re willing to lose a few shrimp fry here and there, as even the most peaceful fish will almost always snag any baby they can find. Not a problem if you’ve got a thriving colony and plenty of hiding places, though.
- Most likely shrimp safe – There is a very small number of fish species that will leave dwarf shrimp alone in almost all cases. These include Pygmy Corydoras and Otocinclus catfish, which make a good choice if you’re able to provide the set-up they need.
- 100% shrimp safe – If you really want to be absolutely sure your valuable stock won’t be harmed, the only tankmates that will work are invertebrates. Snails like Nerites are a great shrimp-safe addition to your aquarium cleaning crew. Additionally, you could consider combining different shrimp species. Just make sure they don’t interbreed!
Feeding Your Shrimp the Proper Diet
An important part of keeping any pet happy and healthy is a varied, suitable diet adapted to its needs. Despite their tiny size, this is no different for shrimp!
What Do Aquarium Shrimp Eat?
In order to understand what you should feed your aquarium shrimp, it’s a good idea to keep in mind their natural diet. Wild shrimp spend pretty much all day foraging and will consume anything edible they come across.
Biofilm, algae, decaying plant bits and any dead animals will all be eaten by these small omnivores and supply the nutrients needed for them to grow and molt successfully.
Recommended Shrimp Foods
In the aquarium, offering your shrimp a varied mix of mostly vegetarian foods and the occasional ‘meaty’ snack works best. A good way to go about this is to invest a little money in a high-quality staple food designed especially for shrimp and then regularly change things up using any of the very wide variety of possible shrimp snacks.
- Staple food – When choosing a daily food for your shrimp, don’t just settle for the first brand you find. There are tons of very high quality foods out there, so have a good look at the ingredient list and skip it if it has any unnecessary fillers or seemingly low quality ingredients. (NOTE: I use a mixture of Fluval Shrimp Granules and algae wafers)
- Shrimp snacks – As we mentioned earlier, shrimp are omnivores. This means they’ll end up eating almost anything you serve them (which comes in handy when you’re trying to keep their diets varied). Possible shrimp snacks include blanched veggies (such as peas), leaf litter (such as Indian almond leaves), thawed frozen foods (such as bloodworms), algae pellets, and any of a wide range of commercial foods like ‘snowflake’ (soybean shells). You can even leave one panel of your aquarium covered in algae so the shrimp always have something to snack on.
Feeding Frequency & Tips
When feeding your shrimp, just keep in mind that any most foods should be removed within a few hours to prevent water quality problems. “Permanent” foods that cannot decay such as leaf litter and cholla wood can be left indefinitely.
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to feeding frequency and amount and this is something you’ll likely have to figure out for yourself based on your experience with your own shrimp tank. We like to start out by feeding once per day. If the shrimp regularly leave food, we lessen the amount. If they flock to it extremely enthusiastically and the food disappears very quickly we’ll feed a little more. Easy!
Maintaining a Freshwater Shrimp Tank
Even though this article is about setting up your shrimp tank, we also want to pay a bit of attention to maintenance. Many an aquarist has forgotten about the importance of keeping up the hard work after the initial set-up, which can eventually result in a phenomenon called ‘old tank syndrome’ due to all the built up wastes. With fragile stock like shrimp this water quality problem is a recipe for disaster, so don’t skip tank maintenance day.
Although clean window panes and well-trimmed plants definitely enhance the look of your tank, the main reason for doing regular maintenance is keeping your water quality in check. Shrimp are very sensitive to ammonia and nitrite, which are almost always deadly. To prevent the presence of these, we cycle our tanks before adding livestock and remove uneaten foods before they start to decay.
Because shrimp are also sensitive to the end product of the nitrogen cycle, nitrate, as well as excess minerals that build up over time, we do regular water changes and aquarium cleaning. Using a vacuum to suck up any dead plant bits and other decaying organic debris as well as carefully cleaning the filter are part of this process. We’ll briefly outline the most important weekly and monthly tasks below.
Weekly Shrimp Tank Maintenance
Pick one day of the week to perform your regular shrimp tank maintenance tasks. These consist of the most important chore, water changes, and any additional cleaning and trimming you want to do.
There is no set guideline for how much water you should change weekly. The exact amount depends on your water quality, which means it’s a good idea to do a water test before each water change to determine the current state of your aquarium. Ideally, you should be bringing the nitrates down to < 5. After a while you’ll likely start to get a feel for it and won’t have to test as often, though it’s still a good idea to do it regularly. You can use the process of removing the water to vacuum the bottom of the tank to remove any debris.
Always fill the aquarium back up using dechlorinated water with matching temperature and water values, because as we’ve explained earlier shrimp don’t react well to fluctuations at all. Add the new water slowly.
Monthly Shrimp Tank Maintenance
In addition to the regular weekly tasks you’ll also have to do some extra maintenance on your shrimp aquarium around once a month: filter cleaning. Now, as you should know by now your filter is a crucial part of keeping your aquarium healthy as it contains the beneficial bacteria that maintain the cycle. So you’ll have to be careful with those sponges to prevent problems!
You can clean your filter while doing a water change. After removing a bucket of water from the tank, gently squeeze the filter sponges in there until debris stops coming out. That’s it. Put the filter back together and turn it back on as soon as possible.
If you’re finding your filter losing power eventually, the sponge has likely trapped too much debris to deal with during regular cleanings. It’s time to replace it, but be sure not to change out all of it at once. Consider replacing half of the sponge now and the other half in a month or two for maximum safety and stability.
Common Problems (And Solutions)
Although it’s possible to run into issues with any aquarium (cycle crash, sick fish, plants not growing, etc.), there are some problems that are shrimp tank specific. Hopefully you won’t encounter any of these during your shrimp keeping career, but the unfortunate truth is that incidents do often happen sooner or later. Just be prepared and do plenty of research so you can respond quickly to any issues.
Sometimes it just happens: your pet shrimp pass away one by one. As you can imagine there are dozens of explanations that might be behind these mystery deaths, so it can be quite the challenge to figure out what is going on. Some shrimp keepers eventually give up on a specific aquarium entirely because they feel it is simply cursed!
If you’re trying to pinpoint what is causing mystery shrimp deaths, start with your water values. Test as extensively as you can: traces of ammonia or nitrite are deadly, as are high nitrates. Don’t skip the pH, gH, kH and TDS either, as these can also greatly influence shrimp health. Test multiple times a day for a few days to make sure there are no sudden fluctuations.
If your water quality seems fine and your shrimp don’t appear to be infected with a parasite or other disease (a magnifying glass helps with inspection), our tip is to join a few shrimp forums and groups and present your problem there. The members often have years of knowledge and can help you figure things out. Just don’t believe everything you read right away and always look for a second opinion if someone suggests drastic measures.
A common invertebrate-specific problem is molting. Shrimp continuously renew their exoskeleton, although the frequency does slow once they’re mature. Producing a new exoskeleton is clearly not an easy task and it requires plenty of nutrients. If your shrimp seem to be having trouble molting, are getting stuck in their molts or not surviving the post-molt phase, review their diet.
A proper shrimp diet should be varied and contain plenty of minerals as well as some iodine. Most staple foods work for this. Avoid feeding too much calcium or protein, as this can also cause issues. Adding mineral balls or montmorillonite clay can help if your shrimp seem to have difficulty developing a new exoskeleton.
As discussed earlier you should always check your new shrimp for parasites, but with them being so tiny it’s easy for nasty bugs to go unnoticed. If you’re seeing an unusual amount of deaths in your shrimp or think there’s something attached to them that shouldn’t be there, whip out the magnifying glass.
There are multiple types of shrimp parasites and we can’t discuss all of them here, but the most common ones are Scutariella (manifesting in a ‘crown’ of tiny worms on the head) and Ellobiopsidae (manifesting in green fungus-like growth between the swimmerettes). The degree to which parasites are curable varies and there is still much discussion on the best treatments.