THE MOST POPULAR CATFISH FOR FRESHWATER TANKS

The Most Popular Catfish for Freshwater Tanks
Updated July 11, 2018
Catfish are an extremely diverse group of fishes and many of them fare well in the home aquarium. Keep reading to learn about the most popular catfish for freshwater tanks.
When you think of catfish, you probably picture the big river fish you fry up and serve with a side of cornbread. When it comes to aquarium catfish, however, there are many different species. In fact, catfish can be found in almost every ecological niche around the world (except Antarctica). Some catfish live in oceans but, of the more than 2,400 varieties, most of them are freshwater fish.

If you’re looking for a bottom-dwelling species to add to your tank, catfish might be a good option. Keep in mind that because there are so many species, they come in different sizes and have different preferences for tank parameters.
Keep reading to learn about the most popular species of freshwater catfish and how to care for them.

What Makes Catfish Such a Popular Choice?

There are many reasons to love catfish in the freshwater aquarium. For one thing, they are an extremely diverse group of fishes with many unique colors and patterns. Catfish also tend to be very hardy and, for the most part, easy to keep in the home aquarium. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but most of the popular species are peaceful fish that get along well in community tanks.

Catfish belong to the order Siluriformes which is a varied group of ray-finned fish. Most catfish have barbels on their faces which look similar to a cat’s whiskers. Because catfish have very small eyes, they rely on these barbels to navigate and to find food – they also have chemoreceptors all over their bodies which essentially “taste” the water around them. In terms of feeding habits, catfish range from herbivores (plant-eaters) to detrivores (fish that scavenge on decaying matter). There are also predatory catfish, but they generally aren’t recommended for the home aquarium.


Most catfish have cylindrical bodies with flattened bellies so they can swim easily along the bottom of the tank. They generally have large heads and wide, toothless mouths. Rather than biting or cutting through food, most catfish feed through suction – they essentially filter their food up through the substrate at the bottom of the tank.

In terms of size, catfish can vary quite a bit. Some of the smallest catfish you’ll find in the freshwater aquarium are Otocinclus Catfish, some species of which grow to no more than an inch long. On the other side of the spectrum, one of the largest species of catfish is the Mekong Giant Catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) which grows up to 10.5 feet long. Most freshwater aquarium catfish stay under 12 inches at maturity but, again, there are always exceptions to the rule.

Tips for Keeping Catfish in Your Aquarium

For the most part, catfish are not dangerous to humans – especially the species you would keep in your home aquarium. There are, however, some challenges you may encounter in keeping catfish in your tank. One thing many aquarium hobbyists fail to realize is that some species of catfish are nocturnal – they only feed at night. This means that they’ll be shy during the day and will need a place to hide. If your tank is too brightly lit, your catfish may not be active and may not thrive.

Something else to keep in mind is that while some catfish are considered armored with thick scales (such as Corydoras Catfish), others have no scales at all. This makes them particularly susceptible to changes in water chemistry. You’ll need to maintain very high water quality in your catfish tank and you should check your tank parameters often to ensure that they’re within the proper range. Invest in a good water test kit and keep track of your measurements so you can spot a problem quickly and make the necessary adjustments before your catfish suffer.

The Top 10 Most Popular Freshwater Catfish Species

Now that you know a little more about freshwater aquarium catfish and what makes them a good choice, you may be wondering which species are the best to keep. Here is an overview of the top 10 most popular catfish for freshwater tanks:

1. Bristlenose Pleco (Ancistrus cirrhosus) – Also known as the bushy-nose catfish, this species has a neutral brown coloration with lighter colored spots that enables him to blend well with his surroundings. These fish have been known to sit motionless for hours but they are still capable of doing quiet an efficient job with clearing your tank of algae. Bristlenose Plecos will eat most types of algae from any surface in the tank – they've even been known to worm their way into filters.

These fish grow to about 3 ½ inches in length and they have a peaceful temperament which makes them a good choice for community tanks. While juveniles are a bit sensitive to changes in pH, adult Bristlenose Plecos are fairly hardy which makes them a good choice for novice aquarium hobbyists. Though they will feed on algae, they don’t tend to harm aquarium plants and they will appreciate a supplemental diet of fresh vegetables and spirulina tablets or wafers.

2. Gold Nugget Pleco (Baryancistrus sp.) – One of the most colorful catfish on this list, the Gold Nugget Pleco has a dark brown or black body with bright yellow spots and yellow edging on the dorsal and caudal fins. This species is peaceful by nature so they do well in a community tank. They are also easy to feed due to their omnivorous diet and the fact that they aren’t very finicky. In addition to feeding on algae in the tank, they’ll also eat fresh veggies, algae wafers, and various meat-based sinking foods.

The Gold Nugget Pleco can grow fairly large (up to 10 inches), so you should keep that in mind. They require at least a 50-gallon tank and they are moderately easy to care for. Just make an effort to keep the water quality in your tank high and ensure that your Gold Nugget Pleco gets a widely varied diet to meet his nutritional needs.


3. Corydoras Catfish – A wonderful group of fishes, Corydoras Catfish are a delight to keep in the home aquarium. These bottom-feeders are very peaceful and most species don’t grow to more than 2 or 3 inches long. Corydoras Catfish, also known as Cory Cats, are best kept in schools of 6 or more and they come in a wide range of colors and patterns – there are even albino Corydoras. Some popular species of Corydoras Catfish include the following:

  • Peppered Corydoras (Corydoras paleatus)
  • Sterba’s Corydoras (Corydoras sterbai)
  • Emerald Corydoras (Corydoras splendens)
  • Panda Corydoras (Corydoras panda)
  • Adolfoi Corydoras (Corydoras aldolfoi)
  • Skunk Corydoras (Corydoras arcuatus)
  • Schartzi’s Corydoras (Corydoras schartzi)
One thing to keep in mind with Cories is that they spend most of their time on the substrate sifting for food. This means you’ll want to choose softer substrate that won’t scratch their soft underbellies or damage their barbels – sand is usually the best option. You’ll also want to keep the tank parameters as steady as possible and feed your Cories a varied diet of plant- and meat-based foods.

4. Upside Down Catfish (Synodontis nigriventris) – Aptly named, Upside Down Catfish actually swim upside down. Though they are capable of swimming normally, these catfish typically swim and graze upside down. These catfish are similar in body shape and size to Corydoras Catfish and they too prefer to be kept in small schools with 5 or 6 of their kind. This species prefers planted tanks (particularly broad-leafed plants) and they’ll help control algae growth.

In terms of their care level, Upside Down Catfish are relatively easy. They are also very peaceful fish that do well in a community tank. One thing to keep in mind with this species is that they are omnivorous – they won’t thrive if all they have to feed on is algae. This species needs a mixture of plant- and meat-based foods, so throw in some algae wafers and meat-based sinking pellets or wafers.

5. Glass Catfish (Kryptopterus vitreolus) – These fish look very different from the typical catfish. Not only are their bodies laterally compressed, but their bodies are completely transparent. Also sometimes known as Ghost Catfish, these fish make an excellent addition to the community tank as long as you have room for a small school of 5 or 6. If you keep these fish alone, they will become reclusive and may succumb to stress.

Glass Catfish are also unique in that they require low to moderate lighting – bright lighting will stress them out. This means that these catfish may not be a good choice for planted tanks that require a lot of lighting unless they have plenty of places to hide. Glass Catfish are also very sensitive to changing water conditions, so maintain stable water chemistry in your tank and keep the temperature fairly high (in the high 70s is best). This species is omnivorous and requires a varied diet.


6. Pictus Catfish (Pimelodus pictus) – This species of catfish is easy to identify by its long antennas as well as its light silver coloration. Pictus catfish are peaceful fish by nature and can therefore get along well in a community tank – just keep in mind that they are omnivorous and may eat the occasional fish if it is small enough to fit in its mouth. Generally speaking, Pictus Catfish enjoy a varied diet of flake foods and freeze-dried meat-based foods.

The Pictus Catfish is one of the larger species on this list, growing up to 5 inches long. These fish prefer to be kept in schools of 4 or 5, so make sure your tank is large enough to accommodate that need if you choose this species. Pictus Catfish can also become somewhat aggressive as they grow, so keep an eye out for that if you keep a whole school of them – make sure your other fish have plenty of places to hide, if they need to.

7. Otocinclus Catfish – Technically a genus of catfish, otocinclus are native to South America and they tend to stay very small. The smallest species, Otocinclus taprirape, tops out at 2.4cm while the largest species, Otocinclus flexilis, grows up to a maximum of 5.5cm. These catfish may be small, but they have a big appetite for stubborn algae and their size enables them to fit into even the tiniest cracks and crevices. This species is particularly recommended for planted tanks because they won’t damage plants – they do, however, like having algae wafers and fresh veggies to snack on.

In addition to being small enough for beginner tanks, Otocinclus Catfish are also relatively easy to care for. They do require high water quality and plenty of flow, but they can tolerate small fluctuations in tank parameters. These fish are very peaceful and will get along with other species just fine as long as they are not predatory fish. Just make sure your Otos have places to hide when they want to.

8. Clown Plecostomus (Panaqolus maccus) – The Clown Pleco is one of the smaller species of catfish on this list, growing only 3 to 4 inches at most. Because they feed on algae, however, they still need plenty of tank surface area. Keep in mind that this species prefers to feed on driftwood, so make sure you include that in your tank décor. In addition to driftwood, these catfish will appreciate having fresh vegetables and algae wafers in their supplemental diet.

Clown Plecos are peaceful fish that can get along in a community tank quite well. They are moderately easy to care for – it is really just their feeding habits that can be a challenge. Because their diet is widely varied, you can’t rely on your Clown Pleco to completely clean your tank of algae – you may want to add another species or some kind of community-friendly algae eater to your tank as well.


9. Bumblebee Catfish (Microlanis iheringi) – Native to South America, the Bumblebee Catfish is known (and named) for its yellow and black markings. These fish remain fairly small, growing no more than 3 inches in length. They are generally very peaceful, but they are an omnivorous species that has been known to eat small tankmates. These catfish require supplemental feeding with sinking pellets and meaty foods like brine shrimp or bloodworms.

Bumblebee Catfish are easy to care for as long as their dietary needs are met, and you keep them with other fish equal to or larger in size. These fish can be kept in planted tanks and they enjoy having places to hide such as rock caves and piles of driftwood. They can be kept with other peaceful catfish including Corydoras Catfish and they prefer warmer tank temperatures in the mid- to high-70s.

10. Whiptail Catfish (Dasyloricaria filamentosa) – This fish look like a flattened version of the Common Pleco with a longer tail. They are black or tan in coloration so they blend well with their surroundings and they grow fairly large, up to 6 inches in length. Whiptail Catfish are peaceful and can be kept in community tanks, though they do require a neutral pH so make sure the other fish you keep have similar requirements for tank parameters.
Whiptail Catfish are omnivorous, so they’ll need supplemental feeding with algae wafers and meaty foods in addition to feeding on tank algae. These fish have been known to breed in the home aquarium, as long as they have rocks and broad-leafed plants on which to lay their eggs. This species does require high water quality with plenty of aeration and they do particularly well in planted tanks. They also require hiding places so they don’t become stressed.

A Word of Warning

Though many catfish species do well in the freshwater aquarium, there are certain species that are more trouble than they’re worth. Unfortunately, many novice aquarium hobbyists make the mistake of adding these fish to their tank without doing their research first. Here are three common catfish species you should definitely think twice about before adding to your tank:

1. Common Plecostomus (Hypostomus Plecostomus) – This particular species isn’t necessarily a bad addition to the home aquarium, but they do come with certain challenges. While they may eat algae when they are young, many Common Plecos become lazy as they get older and they stop doing their jobs. The main problem, however, is their size – these fish can grow to over 2 feet long. Don’t fall for the myth that a fish will only grow as big as his environment – Common Plecos can quickly outgrow a small freshwater aquarium. If you want a pleco, choose a Clown Pleco or Bristlenose Pleco instead.

2. Red Tailed Catfish (Phractocephalus hemiolipterus) – These catfish are very attractive with their red and yellow coloration, but they come from the Amazon River which should be a clue about what their biggest problem is – their size. This species of catfish can grow to nearly 5 feet in length which is way more than even the most experienced aquarium hobbyists can handle. Unfortunately, these catfish are commonly sold in pet stores and sold to unsuspecting aquarium hobbyists. If you’re looking for color, try an albino pleco or a Bumblebee Catfish.

3. Tiger Shovelnose Catfish (Phseudoplatystoma faciatium) – This species of catfish is very unique in appearance because it has tiger stripes and a long, tapered nose. What many aquarium hobbyists do not realize is that not only can they grow over 40 inches long, but they are also a predatory species of fish. Tiger Shovelnose Catfish can grow very quickly depending how often they are fed and they will likely eat any other fish in the tank small enough to fit in their mouth.

With so many species to choose from, you can easily find a catfish that will work well in your freshwater aquarium. Before you buy, just be sure to do your research to ensure that the species you pick won’t outgrow your tank and that it won’t cause trouble for your other tank inhabitants. The information provided in this article should be more than enough to get you started. Good luck!

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PROPERLY AERATING YOUR AQUARIUM
Learn the basics of aeration and how to properly aerate your aquarium.
Choosing the Right Filtration System for Your Aquarium
CHOOSING THE RIGHT FILTRATION SYSTEM FOR YOUR AQUARIUM
Learn about the different types of filters for your freshwater aquarium.
Nutrition and Feeding (7)
The Top Commercial Foods for Freshwater Fish
THE TOP COMMERCIAL FOODS FOR FRESHWATER FISH
The food you feed your freshwater fish will determine their health and vitality.
Will Algae Wafers Make my Tank Water Cloudy?
WILL ALGAE WAFERS MAKE MY TANK WATER CLOUDY?
If plan to keep bottom feeders or algae eaters in your tank you may need to supplement their diet with algae wafers.
How to Culture Infusoria for Baby Fish
HOW TO CULTURE INFUSORIA FOR BABY FISH
To raise baby fish successfully you will need to use the right food.
Constipation/Indigestion in Aquarium Fish
CONSTIPATION/INDIGESTION IN AQUARIUM FISH
You may not realize that your fish can suffer from constipation.
How to Interpret Fish Food Labels
HOW TO INTERPRET FISH FOOD LABELS
If you want to select a high-quality commercial food for your aquarium fish you should understand how to interpret a fish food label.
The Pros and Cons of Live Food for Fish
THE PROS AND CONS OF LIVE FOOD FOR FISH
The type of food you choose to feed your aquarium fish will have a major impact on their health.
The Nutritional Needs of Freshwater Fish
THE NUTRITIONAL NEEDS OF FRESHWATER FISH
The key to keeping your aquarium fish healthy is to offer them a well-balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs.
Freshwater Fish Diseases (8)
How to Deal with the Top Betta Fish Diseases
HOW TO DEAL WITH THE TOP BETTA FISH DISEASES
Betta fish are some of the most colorful and vibrant freshwater aquarium fish around.
Addressing the Shimmies in Live Bearers
ADDRESSING THE SHIMMIES IN LIVE BEARERS
Dealing with aquarium fish disease is a fact of life in the aquarium hobby.
Improving Color in Aquarium Fish
IMPROVING COLOR IN AQUARIUM FISH
The best part of keeping a freshwater aquarium is watching your tank inhabitants thrive and grow.
Identifying and Treating the Most Common Cichlid Diseases
IDENTIFYING AND TREATING THE MOST COMMON CICHLID DISEASES
Cichlids are one of the largest families of freshwater fishes and they are prone to developing several aquarium fish diseases.
What is Dropsy and How Do I Treat it?
WHAT IS DROPSY AND HOW DO I TREAT IT?
When cultivating an aquarium, you are likely to run into a variety of freshwater aquarium fish diseases and conditions including dropsy.
Behavioral Changes and Problems in Aquarium Fish
BEHAVIORAL CHANGES AND PROBLEMS IN AQUARIUM FISH
Unexpected behavioral changes are often a symptom of disease in aquarium fish.
You can't prevent your fish from falling ill but setting up a hospital tank can prevent the spread of disease.
HOW TO SET UP A HOSPITAL TANK
No matter how careful you are, your fish are likely to get sick at some point during your time as an aquarium hobbyist.
Common Freshwater Tropical Fish Diseases
COMMON FRESHWATER TROPICAL FISH DISEASES
Learn about common fish illnesses and how to effectively treat them.
Aquarium Maintenance (18)
Tips for Protecting Your Aquarium Against High Summer Temperatures
TIPS FOR PROTECTING YOUR AQUARIUM AGAINST HIGH SUMMER TEMPERATURES
During the summer months, it may become more of a challenge to keep your aquarium temperature stable.
Can a Routine Water Change Kill Your Fish?
CAN A ROUTINE WATER CHANGE KILL YOUR FISH?
We've all seen it - fish die unexpectedly after a water change.
Tips for Cleaning and Maintaining Your Tank Filter
TIPS FOR CLEANING AND MAINTAINING YOUR TANK FILTER
Your tank filter is perhaps the most important piece of equipment you have, so be sure to keep it clean as part of your routine maintenance schedule.
Summer Precautions for Freshwater Tanks - Keeping Your Tank from Overheating
SUMMER PRECAUTIONS FOR FRESHWATER TANKS - KEEPING YOUR TANK FROM OVERHEATING
Keeping the temperature in your tank is extremely important for the health of your fish but it can be a challenge during the hot summer months.
Using a Gravel Vacuum in the Home Aquarium
USING A GRAVEL VACUUM IN THE HOME AQUARIUM
Cleaning your tank is one of the most important parts of home aquarium maintenance.
Fish Tank Maintenance and Cleaning
FISH TANK MAINTENANCE AND CLEANING
In order to keep your tank clean and healthy for your fish, you will need to perform some basic daily and weekly maintenance tasks.
Aquarium Water Test Kits
AQUARIUM WATER TEST KITS
The key to keeping your aquarium fish happy and healthy is to maintain high water quality.
The Process of Cycling a Fish Tank
THE PROCESS OF CYCLING A FISH TANK
What is "cycling" your fish tank?
How to Make Your Own Tank Divider
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN TANK DIVIDER
There may come a time during your career as an aquarium hobbyist that you need to divide your tank.
Cleaning Algae off Tank Glass Properly
CLEANING ALGAE OFF TANK GLASS PROPERLY
Algae is a fact of life in the freshwater tank.
How to Fix Cloudy Tank Water
HOW TO FIX CLOUDY TANK WATER
Cloudy tank water is a common problem in the freshwater aquarium.
A few snails may not harm your tank but an infestation can become detrimental.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT AQUARIUM SNAIL INFESTATIONS
Though they may look harmless, one aquarium snail can quickly turn into dozens or even hundreds.
Preparing an Aquarium for Your Vacation
PREPARING AN AQUARIUM FOR YOUR VACATION
Learn how to prepare your aquarium for your upcoming on vacation.
Choosing and Conditioning the Water in Your Aquarium
CHOOSING AND CONDITIONING THE WATER IN YOUR AQUARIUM
Learn about how to properly choose and condition the water you use in your freshwater aquarium.
Properly Maintaining the pH in a Freshwater Aquarium
PROPERLY MAINTAINING THE PH IN A FRESHWATER AQUARIUM
Learn how about pH and how to properly maintain it in a freshwater aquarium.
Freshwater Fishless Cycling
FRESHWATER FISHLESS CYCLING
Learn about new methods for cycling your freshwater aquarium without fish.
Controlling Algae Growth
CONTROLLING ALGAE GROWTH
Algae growth is an incredibly common problem with freshwater tanks.
Water Testing in Your Freshwater Aquarium
WATER TESTING IN YOUR FRESHWATER AQUARIUM
How to test your aquarium's water, and what to look for.
Aquarium Decorations (5)
Using Driftwood and Live Plants in the Freshwater Tank
USING DRIFTWOOD AND LIVE PLANTS IN THE FRESHWATER TANK
One of the most attractive ways you can decorate an aquarium involves a combination of driftwood and live plants.
Selecting a Background for your Freshwater Tank
SELECTING A BACKGROUND FOR YOUR FRESHWATER TANK
The way you decorate your tank makes a big difference in its appearance.
Aquarium Decorations
AQUARIUM DECORATIONS
Types of decorations.
Adding Rocks and Wood to Your Freshwater Aquarium
ADDING ROCKS AND WOOD TO YOUR FRESHWATER AQUARIUM
Adding wood and rocks to your aquarium can enhance its appearance and make it a better environment for your fish -- learn how in this article.
Choosing a Freshwater Aquarium Substrate
CHOOSING A FRESHWATER AQUARIUM SUBSTRATE
Learn about the factors you should consider when choosing a substrate for your freshwater aquarium.
Breeding (10)
Tips for Breeding Gouramis in the Home Aquarium
TIPS FOR BREEDING GOURAMIS IN THE HOME AQUARIUM
Gouramis are some of the best community fish around because they are peaceful, hardy, and lovely to boot.
The Basics of Breeding Bala Sharks
THE BASICS OF BREEDING BALA SHARKS
Bala sharks are a very popular species of aquarium fish.
Tips for Breeding Silver Dollar Fish
TIPS FOR BREEDING SILVER DOLLAR FISH
Silver dollar fish are a great addition to the community tank and breeding them can be a fun challenge.
How to Raise Cichlid Fry to Maturity
HOW TO RAISE CICHLID FRY TO MATURITY
Breeding freshwater aquarium fish can be a rewarding but challenging experience.
Caring for Freshwater Angelfish Eggs
CARING FOR FRESHWATER ANGELFISH EGGS
Breeding freshwater angelfish can be a rewarding experience but raising the eggs to maturity may be a challenge.
Breeding and Rearing Live-bearing Species of Fish
BREEDING AND REARING LIVE-BEARING SPECIES OF FISH
Live-bearing species of fish like guppies and swordtails are notorious for breeding in the community tank.
Tips for Breeding Discus Fish
TIPS FOR BREEDING DISCUS FISH
Discus fish are one of the most colorful species of freshwater aquarium fish and they can be a joy to breed.
Breeding betta fish can be both an enjoyable and educational experience.
BREEDING THE TWO KINDS OF BETTA FISH
You may be aware that there are over 30 species of betta fish in existence but did you know that these species can be divided by their breeding habits?
Breeding Mouth Brooding African Cichlids
BREEDING MOUTH BROODING AFRICAN CICHLIDS
Learn how to succesfully breed mouth brooding African Cichlids.
Breeding Freshwater Fish
BREEDING FRESHWATER FISH
Learn how to succesfully breed freshwater fish.