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Red Tail Catfish Care Guide: Feeding, Setup, Tank Mates & More

Red tail catfish are a favorite of aquarists in love with monster fish. They start out small and cute but grow to be absolutely massive.

Red Tail Catfish

Can you deal with a 4 foot long predator that needs hundreds to thousands of gallons of space? Let’s take a closer look at the large and in-charge red tail catfish!

Getting to Know the Red Tail Catfish

Red tail catfish are some of the largest fish that are commonly found in the aquarium trade. Native to South America, they are found mostly in Venezuela, where they go by the local name of cajaro, and Brazil, where they are known as pirarara.

Red tail catfish are members of the family Pimelodidae, which is a group of small to large catfish that are predominantly fish-eating predators. Others in the group include the much smaller Pictus Catfish and the equally long but much more slender Tiger Shovelnose Catfish.

All in all, these fish aren’t especially difficult to care for. Red tail catfish are exceptionally hardy and eager eaters. The main issue is that they require aquariums of 500 gallons or more as they mature, something well out of reach of the average aquarist. That said, if you’re ready to take on such a challenge, you’ll have an impressive pet that will live for up to 15 years!

  • Scientific Name: Phractocephalus hemioliopterus
  • Origin: South America
  • Length: 3 to 5 feet
  • Aquarium Size: 500+ gallons
  • Temperament: Semi-aggressive; Predatory
  • Ease of Care: Moderate

Red Tail Catfish Care

Keeping red tail catfish is both easy and difficult. Easy because they are hard, fast growers, and eager eaters. And difficult because they grow absolutely massive and will eat most of their tank mates if you aren’t careful!

Red Tail Catfish Care

Aquarium Size

A baby red tail catfish can be less than two inches long and looks adorable, with its black, white, and red patterns. But there’s no getting around the main difficulty to keeping red tail catfish: they grow fast and massive. 3 feet is on the smaller end for them, with 4 feet being a solid average. And in the unlimited confines of their home Orinoco and Amazonian River systems they can reach 5 feet long.

Worse, that growth is incredibly quick. A baby red tail catfish just a few inches long will double its length in 2-3 months. In a year it will be fairly massive and by the next you’ll need a yardstick to measure its length

That means these pet catfish will eventually need a tank that’s at the very least 500 gallons in size. Probably larger, given the need for your fish to be able to turn around comfortably. Many red tail catfish keepers place theirs in ponds – though you’d need to either be living in a tropical region or have an indoor heated pond to do so successfully.

Water Parameters for Red Tail Catfish

Water Parameters for Red Tail Catfish

When it comes to water parameters red tail cats prefer conditions close to their native South American waters. That means soft conditions with moderate to low dissolved hardness (GH & KH), and moderate acidity (pH 5.5-7.0). That said, they are not picky and will continue to thrive even in the hard, alkaline water found in most tap water systems.

Temperatures, on the other hand, need to remain elevated. 74-82℉ is an ideal range for them; avoid cooling them below this point. Like all fish, red tail catfish are endothermic, meaning their bodily systems are regulated by the outside temperature. Cold water can slow down their digestion so much that food begins to rot within, causing bloating disorders that can easily be fatal.

The main thing to watch out for are ammonia levels. Red tail catfish are massive predators with an equally massive appetite. You will be shocked by how much these fish can put away – and how much comes out the other end. This means that they continually produce large amounts of nitrogenous waste which means you’ll need a substantial filtration system to keep it all under control.

Canister filters are the only real option; even the largest power filter won’t be able to process enough water to keep ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels at a healthy level. 

Aquascaping for Red Tail Catfish

When designing a tank for a red tail catfish space will always be the most important quality. When fully grown they will be able to knock over just about any decorations except for a large rock or piece of driftwood. You can try keeping them with live plants but they are too likely to simply be uprooted accidentally over time. So it’s better to stick with plastic or silk plants, which have the added advantage of not needing specialized full spectrum plant lighting.

Sand is the best substrate for red tail catfish of all sizes. While they don’t do much digging, gravel can sometimes get swallowed alongside a live fish meal that gets pinned to the bottom. Once eaten these gravel grains can potentially block the intestinal tract, which is almost always fatal. Sand grains are small enough that, if eaten, they will be passed safely.

Another option that many red tail catfish keepers opt for is to do away entirely with a substrate. Bare bottom aquariums have a major advantage: they are extremely quick to clean! A few quick passes with the siphon hose are all that’s needed to remove the obvious feces left behind. The main drawback is that it doesn’t look nearly as nice as a tank with a substrate, though.

There is another reason why bare bottomed tanks and ponds are so common besides ease of cleaning. By keeping things simple you won’t need to redo your aquascape every few weeks when the catfish knocks things over. So be sure to take some extra time thinking about the substrate you have in mind!

Red Tail Catfish Tank Mates

Choosing tank mates for red tail catfish needs to be done very, very carefully. Because these fish have wide mouths, giant appetites, and are active at night when most of their tank mates will be sleeping. Even fast moving tank mates may end up disappearing, swallowed in their sleep by a hungry catfish.

When small they can be kept with wide-bodied fish of equal size. Tiger Barbs, Silver Dollars, Gouramis, and Angelfish are excellent tank mates until the red tail catfish outgrows them. But their rate of growth makes any peace very short lived; you’ll need to be proactive about moving them to larger quarters and/or removing their edible tank mates every few months.

If you don’t want tank mates that will need to be moved lest they be eaten then choose fish that grow equally fast and large. Potential options include larger cichlids like Oscars and Peacock Bass. Arowanas and Stingrays are other popular tank mates that are unlikely to be eaten.

While they are voracious, red tail catfish aren’t really aggressive. They get along just fine with the above and even other bottom dwellers; ignoring most of their tank mates unless it’s time to eat. 

Some aquarists do report that their red tail catfish have more “personality” than most, however. That’s not uncommon for large fish, which are more intelligent and tend to recognize their owners and have strong personality quirks.

Many pimelodid catfish are outright vicious, including the well-named Black Devil Catfish (Hemibagrus wyckii). But red tails do fine with anything they can’t outright eat.

Good Tank Mates for Red Tail Catfish:

  • Oscars, Peacock Bass, Umbees, and other Large Cichlids
  • Arowanas, Pacu, adult Plecostomus, Stingrays, and other Large Fish

Poor Tank Mates for Red Tail Catfish

  • Most freshwater Community Fish

Feeding Red Tail Catfish

As you might expect, feeding a red tail catfish is as easy as it gets. These catfish will eat just about anything that hits the water so long as it has some meat in it! Most aquarists use a prepared pellet formula, which is a great base for their diet.

But take the time to carefully read the ingredients label because many, if not most, brands use a lot of grain and starch-based fillers, like potato and corn meal. Red tail catfish are predators and can’t digest all of that ground-up plant filler. You want to see fish meal, shrimp meal, and other animal protein sources as the first few ingredients.

You absolutely should offer your baby red tail catfish animal flesh as well. When small you can start out with thawed frozen brine shrimp, bloodworms, and tubifex worm masses. But as they grow insanely fast, these won’t be enough in just a few month’s time.

Many aquarists then start offering feeder goldfish, rosy reds, and guppies from their local store. While live fish are a natural food source for them, I don’t recommend taking this approach. The problem with feeder fish is that they are kept in absolutely filthy conditions where parasites, bacteria, and fungal infections are the norm. And when your red tail catfish eats one of these feeders they are potentially going to catch those same diseases. Unless you raise your own then don’t offer diseased food to your fish…

Instead, you can offer fresh meaty items like shrimp, scallop, and white fish. Stay away from chicken, pork, or beef, which are much too fatty. Stick to lean seafood!

Breeding Red Tail Catfish

Unfortunately, there are few to no examples of red tail catfish breeding in a home aquarium. These fish get too large to keep multiple side by side in anything but the very largest tanks. And their sexual characteristics are entirely unknown. It’s likely that the red tail catfish can tell male from female using subtle behavioral cues and hormonal releases they pick up with their sensitive whiskers. But to us they appear identical; they aren’t sexually dimorphic fish.

The breeding habits in the wild are also unknown. Many large Amazonian catfish nest in mud holes along the river bank. The male will dig a nest using his tail for the female to deposit thousands of eggs within. The pair will then guard the eggs and often the fry once they’ve hatched for a few days or weeks until they grow large enough to fend for themselves.

For these reasons nearly all red tail catfish are wild-caught. Though if anyone were to breed them in captivity, it will likely be done using the methods being pioneered currently in Southeast Asia: large outdoor ponds in year-round tropical conditions. Sometimes hormonal injections are also used to stimulate egg and sperm production in adult fish. Since the demand for baby red tail catfish isn’t all that large there are no known captive breeding programs at present.

Are Red Tail Catfish Right For Me?

Are Red Tail Catfish Right For Me?

Finally, we come to the last question: are red tail catfish right for me? Lovers of monster fish like Umbees, Pacus, and Oscars likely already know the answer – and have the space and resources required to successfully care for these megafish.

But for the average aquarist, you should think long and hard before buying that cute baby red tail catfish from your local pet store. You may think you’ll eventually upgrade to a larger tank. But that upgrade will come a lot sooner than you think. Remember, a young red tail catfish can put on 1-2 inches of length per month

Unless you’re absolutely certain you’re ready for a 15-year commitment with a 4 foot predator, you shouldn’t give into the impulse. Sometimes people think that they can simply take the red tail catfish to a pet store or public aquarium once it outgrows their tank. But sadly, they are often mistaken. Pet stores and public aquariums get calls from people looking to rehome large fish on a weekly basis. They may not even have the space or resources to take on a large animal like a red tail catfish.

And letting it loose in the wild is by far the worst thing you could do. Non-native species like red tail catfish can do massive amounts of harm, driving local species to extinction and introducing captive diseases to the population. Though they are unlikely to survive in all but the warmest of countries. Condemning your poor catfish to freeze during the winter is also unkind and irresponsible.

So think carefully; and if everything sounds good, then get ready for a fun time with a catfish that’s more like an aquatic dog than any other fish!

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