Apistogramma and Dwarf Cichlid Aquarium Care

adult male Apistogramma baenschi

Since there are many hundreds of species of dwarf cichlids scattered across South America and Western Africa, it’s important to research for specific advice about any species you keep. However, there are many aspects of their care that we can summarize. These fish are not common in the American hobby and we want to provide them with the best home possible. Here are my opinions on how to go about keeping these fascinating fishes.

This is a rather long article so use the Table of Contents below to jump directly to a section of interest.

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Before you start

There are a lot of possible ways to successfully keep dwarf cichlids in the home aquarium and what I’m sharing here are my opinions about how I keep and breed them. I want to stress that I’m not saying this is the only way and I’m certainly not saying this is the best way. In fact, I’m sure many highly successful hobbyists will disagree with me but this is what works for me after 45 years of keeping and breeding dwarf cichlids. Of course, I’m always seeking better ideas and methods so I might well change my preferences or techniques in the future.

All that said, What follows should be enough information to get you started and that’s all I’m intending to do – get you started. I’ve provided a lot more specific information about aquarium care in each species profile and especially in the Genus profiles. You’ll want to read these pages to learn more but don’t expect me to give you every answer.

Keeping dwarf cichlids isn’t like baking a cake. It’s not a matter of following a recipe step-by-step to guarantee success. Instead, each fish has a unique personality and each tank has its own character. Consequently, blanket statements about them are rarely accurate. If you’re being told “You must”, “You can only”, or “You have to” it’s just someone’s opinion. The key to success with dwarf cichlids is experience and you can only get that by keeping the fish yourself so give them a try; just observe, learn, and enjoy.

What type of tank will you have?

The first thing to consider is what type of aquarium you are envisioning. There are different considerations depending on what you are hoping for. Some of the most common set-ups include:

Single male in community tank – Adding a male dwarf cichlid to a community aquarium can be a great way to add color and interesting behavior. Usually, a single male will not be an aggressor against other types of fish and will fit into the community. They can be inquisitive and will often be right out front in the tank. If you have a compatible community with a single male do not introduce a female, another male, or another species.

Single pair in a breeding tank – This is one of the most common methods of keeping dwarf cichlids and is often the most successful method for spawning. Virtually all dwarf cichlid species will do fine in a pair. While larger size tanks are always better, single pairs can often be kept in smaller-sized aquaria.

Single pair in community tank – There is a lot of variability with this depending on whether the community is designed around the cichlids or if they have to fit into an existing community. If you set up your tank and the community with the cichlids always in mind they might be able to successfully raise a few fry. However, most often the breeding adults will lose the fry to predation within the community tanks. If you are adding the cichlids to a mixed community of random fish they will probably be ok but that will depend on the individual pair and the tankmates you put them with, and how the tank is aquascaped. All dwarf cichlid species are appropriate for a community provided you have realistic expectations for the tank

Harem group in a breeding tank – Many Apistogramma species form a harem with a dominant make serving multiple females. If provided enough floor space, multiple females will establish small territories within the overall larger territory of the male. An appropriate species in a properly designed aquarium can provide a fascinating look into the social dynamics of a group. Since harem tanks are typically larger with sections of dense cover, some number of fry will usually survive in the tank and it’s not uncommon to have young fish from several females and generations all residing in the tank. However, there will only be one dominant male.

Harem group in a community tank – This type of tank can be a joy if properly designed thinking of the cichlids first. Give them the floor of the tank with protected areas where tankmates can’t get at them and you can have success. However, in an open tank with little structure, you won’t experience harem formation. Instead, you’ll usually end up with a dominant female that will terrorize the other females. Harem groups are unique to Apistogramma and most other dwarfs are not. Don’t try to keep West African Dwarfs in trios or harems, it will not end well.

Mixed species community with males only – This is a really unpredictable combination. Success depends on a lot of factors including, the species mix, how many fish total, how the tank is aquascaped, non-cichlid tankmates, and the individual personality of each fish. For the best chance of success Use as many species as possible – the more there are the more targets there are to spread aggression. Add all the fish at once – don’t allow one or more males to establish a territory. Create a complex habitat – make sure to break up the sight lines in the tank so a dominant male can’t see across the tank. I’ve had success with males from as few as two species in a tank but I’ve always had the capacity to quickly move fish if necessary. I’ve also had some great tanks of multiple males of the same species. Here the key is to have enough males so aggression is always spread out – more than 6 is best and 10 is great

Mixed species community with females present – This is a tough one to make work. Sometimes an attempt at pairing and spawning might work out if densities are low and one species is dominant. However, it usually doesn’t work. Depending on all the factors listed above, what will most commonly happen is the females will become drab and withdrawn unless they have a habitat that allows them to claim small territories. There is so much going on in trying to keep a tank like this that I’ll just say you need to give it a try and be prepared to deal with problems.

What size and shape

Of course, bigger is better but what are the considerations for selecting the rightsized aquarium? A primary consideration is that dwarf cichlids are associated with the bottom of the tank. Most species spend their time pecking or sifting through the bottom and they want floor space. Therefore, the best tanks are the ones that maximize floor space. There is no need for tall tanks as the dwarfs will almost always live in the lower 8 – 10 inches. A standard 20-gallon tank has 288 sq inches of floor space (24″ x 12″) and a 20-gallon long has 360 sq inches (30 x 12), an extra 72 sq inches. So, the size of the floor is more important than how many gallons.

Depending on the species, tankmates, and aquascaping you are planning, there are some great choices in tanks that are not the standard rectangular shape. Many bow front tanks actually increase the floor space but octagonal, corner, round, and other shaped tanks can be used, they don’t have much floor space in relation to their height. What follows refers to standard-sized rectangular tanks.

The minimum size aquarium you will need depends on what type of tank you are setting up. A single pair alone in a tank needs less space than a harem in a community tank. So remember anything I suggest is a starting point for your personal consideration. The following discussion assumes that the tank is heavily planted or has other types of visual barriers. I’m not talking about a few plants but thickets that are dense enough that a bullied fish can find a hiding spot in them. If you can’t create this type of complex habitat you will need to move to larger tanks with as much habitat complexity as you can add.

5 Gallon and smaller – These small tanks are generally considered to be too small to be useful for keeping dwarf cichlids. However, I use them extensively and have bred many species of Apistogramma in 5-gallon and smaller tanks. Understand that in order to do this you can’t expect to have a typical aquarium habitat. I use tanks that are densely planted with 70% or so of the tank thick with plants. In this type of setup, a single pair can usually thrive. I know that I will upset a lot of hobbyists with this but it’s true and common in my fishroom. When I began keeping fish 5 and 10-gallon tanks were the biggest that most people used and 15 and 20-gallon tanks were prized. Consequently, I’ve always used small tanks and they are a natural part of my hobby.

This is an 8-gallon tank that I built for housing a single breeding pair of Apistogrammas, in this case, wild A. hongsloi. While this tank has a lot fewer plants than I usually use, I’ve created a lot of complexity by adding a pile of oak leaves which provide shelter for the female when needed. There are two caves in this layout that are very hard to spot. This is really the minimum amount of complexity that I try to maintain in my tanks.

10 Gallon – Most people will consider a 10-gallon tank, measuring 20″ x 10″ x 12″, to be too small for keeping dwarf cichlids. While this might be true for some species, it’s entirely possible to have happy and healthy pairs in a ten-gallon tank. The key is to divide the floor space up so that there are multiple separate areas in the tank. I’ll usually reserve 30 – 40% for very a very dense thicket of plants that reach from floor to the surface that can provide shelter to a fish hiding from even the most aggressive challenger. The rest of the space will be broken into two parts by some sort of sight barrier. Done properly you can create a varied and complex habitat that will work for most species. While this will work, I’m not recommending it unless you have significant experience with dwarfs. I’ve routinely used 10-gallon tanks for spawning ram cichlids Mikrogeophagus ramirezi but they aren’t nearly large enough for rearing the fry. I generally recommend a tank larger than 10 gallons for West African species.

15-gallon and 20-gallon high – both of these tanks have the same floor dimensions of 24″ x 12″ which is large enough to create a complex habitat for most species. It’s probably not enough space to allow for a harem of Apistogrammas but it’s fine for a pair of most species. It’s possible to create some great community aquariums in this size tank but tankmate selection is critical.

20-gallon long & 29-gallon – with a floor space of 30″ x 12″ these tanks only differ in height and many hobbyists consider this to be the best floor size for dwarf cichlids. There is plenty of room for even a rowdy pair provided the tank is aquascaped with a variety of hidden alcoves and hiding places. A small harem of Apistogrammas will usually work in a tank this size as will a group of males only. With the right aquascaping great community tanks can be established in this size tank and bigger.

36″ – 48″ aquariums – Tanks of this size present lots of options for keeping dwarf cichlids. Pairs, harems, and possibly groups are an option. You can create great communities of mid and upper-water level fish carrying on while the dwarfs control the bottom, often successfully rearing their fry (with properly selected tankmates.

Larger Aquariums – There is no limit to how big of a tank you can house your dwarfs in. If you are willing, you can develop an amazing community with Apistos breeding in the lower level of the tank. Again, aquascaping is key. Beware that large tanks are often used for larger fish and there can be compatibility issues. However, if you have a large tank chances are you’re an experienced aquarist accustomed to addressing challenges.


It’s possible to create successful dwarf cichlid aquariums using everything from no filtration to power filters with enhancements. The method you choose will depend on your personal preferences, the tankmates you are using, how crowded the tank will be, and the species of dwarf cichlid you are keeping. The South American species tend to prefer quieter water while some West Africans, especially from the genus Nanochromis prefer a noticeable water current in the tank.

No filter

It’s actually not difficult to keep a pair of dwarf cichlids by themselves in a planted aquarium without a filter. A single pair doesn’t generate much waste and regular water changes will keep the water fine. If you choose to go without a filter I recommend that you find a way to bubble air up from the bottom to the surface. This helps to create slight mixing currents in the tank. A heavily planted without a filter can have significant temperature differences between parts of the tank. If you have more than just a pair in your unfiltered tank keep a close watch to make sure everyone stays healthy.

Sponge and other air-driven filters

I almost only use sponge filters in my tanks and I highly recommend them. There are many different brands but all operate on the same principle. Air is driven to the bottom of a tube where it travels upward and catches water between air bubbles. The air lifts the water creating a constant slow flow. Using various designs, the water is drawn through a sponge material before it enters the lift tube. The sponge will collect physical debris and can easily be cleaned by repeated squeezing in a sink or under a running flow. \In addition to this mechanical filtration, sponge filters work as effective biological filters. The channels and pores in the sponge provide a surface for the beneficial bacteria that break down nitrogenous waste.

When I started keeping fish in the early ’60s all our filters were air-driven. Most of these were round or box-shaped and were placed into the aquarium. In those days we used actual glass fibers (which would get into your skin and itch like crazy) for our filter material. As new options came along we gladly moved to the newer filters. Today, air-driven filters are making a comeback, and new designs and technologies make these an attractive option for many dwarf cichlid aquariums. This nice corner-style filter would work well in many set-ups.

Another type of air-driven filter is the undergravel filter. These were the most popular method of filtering for decades. However, as newer technologies came along they rapidly fell out of favor. Undergravel filters are rarely used today and are probably not the best choice for a dwarf cichlid tank. However, they can be an option in a community tank that has dwarfs in it.

Power Filters

Waterfall or overflow filters are probably the most commonly used power filters for dwarf cichlid tanks. These filters hang on the side or back of the tank with an intake tube sticking down into the water. A motorized pump brings water up the tube and forces it through some sort of filtering material and it then spills out of the filter into the aquarium. There are many different brands of these filters and they come in different sizes with different features. These filters do a good job but there are some considerations.

  • Waterfall filters can create currents – most have adjustable flow rates but they are designed to move a significant quantity of water through them. This means you need to account for the current as a positive or negative depending on the species
  • Power filters have strong suction through their intake – fry and juveniles can be sucked into the filter if they get too close.
  • Power filters are easy to clean – most filters use disposable filter cartridges of some sort. Companies want you to use the filter and throw it away when it gets dirty. This is good for profits but bad for our planet. We really don’t need to create more plastic waste through our hobby. Look for a filter that uses media that can be reused.
  • Waterfall filters can be noisy depending on how the outflow is arranged.
  • Waterfall filters can disrupt feeding. Any slow sinking or floating food could be displaced by the current created. Flake food in particular is unlikely to sink to where your fish are feeding.
  • Power filters use electricity and need to be placed near an outlet.

Besides waterfall filters, there are other types of power filters. Some are contained within the aquarium while others use some sort of external pump and filter container that uses inlet and outlet hoses in the tank. These types of filters present the same considerations as described above.


When possible, I try to match the aquarium conditions to what is found in the native habitat. Unfortunately, that presents a challenge with lighting because of the diversity of the native habitats of dwarf cichlids. Some are found in pools and ponds that are directly exposed to full sun while others are found in jungle so thick that it appears dark at midday. Some inhabit waters that mix deeply shaded areas with bright sunny areas. In short, they are found in all types of light conditions. That said, here are some lighting considerations.

Intensity – I don’t have exact measurements to offer here but my goal is to provide enough light that my plants will thrive without having too much algae or a tank so bright that the fish’s colors fade or the fish looks “washed out”. For decades I had my lighting dialed in and could give exact recommendations. That was when I was using standard T-12 fluorescent tubes and I knew exactly what wattage and spectrum I needed. Today, I’ve switched to all LED lights and I’m struggling to find the proper balances. One big problem is that each company makes its own light strip and the light produced varies dramatically from company to company. Consequently, I’m really not willing to make any detailed or specific suggestions.

Duration – Most dwarf cichlid species are found fairly close to the Equator where day and night are each 12 hours year-round. While some are found north or south of the Equator, none are so far away that they experience significant seasonal changes in day length. Consequently, it’s best to shoot for a day length of 10 – 14 hours in your tank. While you might want to have the tank lights on the entire time you are awake, it’s really best for the fish to give them adequate dark periods. In addition, long day cycles contribute to excessive algae growth. For the best success, I recommend using a timer that turns the lights on and off at the same time each day.

Natural daylight – Locating a tank in a bright room changes the control you have over lighting duration. However, in our short days of winter, you’ll want to add supplemental light. In fact, most tanks that receive natural light benefit from lights on a timer. One reason for this is that it’s often hard to have the kind of lighting you need when you want to observe your fish. natural lighting can produce glare or shadows that make it tough for fish-watching. However, to the exact opposite, when natural light hits the fish properly they glow in a way artificial lighting can never replicate. Natural light can often create algae problems as you have little control over the intensity or duration. Finally, avoid placing the tank in direct sunlight. While this provides some dramatic lighting effects, it can quickly heat the water and usually promotes algae growth.

Preparing the aquarium


How you decide to layout your aquarium has so many factors that I’m not going to make many suggestions about specific layouts. However, I do have a lot of general comments. No matter if you want to use bright purple gravel with a bubbling skull head and a decorative sunken ship or want to have a biotope tank that simulates the natural habitat, these are considerations to keep in mind.

Complexity is your friend. The more complex the environment you create the more likely it will be successful. What do I mean by complexity? it means adding structures within the tank that break the aquarium into smaller spaces. In an open environment fish can see from one end of the tank to the other one dominant fish can claim the entire tank and survey their territory at all times. In a complex habitat, the tank is broken into a series of smaller spaces that are separated by line-of-sight barriers. These smaller areas can range from tiny escape havens to larger clearings.

A heavily planted dwarf cichlid aquarium
This shows one of my typical layouts for a dwarf cichlid aquarium. There is a main open area in the front center which is where most of the action takes place. There are smaller clearings created by rocks, plants, and driftwood. In addition, there are many dense patches of vegetation. This is a very complex habitat that really minimizes aggression. This is a 48″ long tank but each half could easily represent how I’d aquascape a 24″ tank.

Open areas are important. While I stress the need for smaller hiding areas. it’s important to have a main open area to be claimed by the dominant fish. This is especially true with ram cichlids as they spend all of their time in open areas. Depending on the size of the aquarium and the size of the fish I will either offset the main open area to one side to make room for barriers and a secondary open area to the side or I will put the open area right in the middle and aquascape for smaller open areas on each end.


Most dwarf cichlids love to sift through soft-bottom materials to filter out small food items. The native habitats for most dwarfs are sand or detritus-covered bottoms and we can easily replicate that in our aquariums. I used to use natural dark-colored small-grained gravel in my tanks. I made sure that the gravel size was small enough for females to pick it up and move it while preparing a spawning site. This worked fine but the fish were never able to sift through the gravel.

A number of years ago I made the switch to sand and now use it in most of my tanks. It’s cheap and easily available and the fish love it. Unfortunately, most sand is very light-colored and can produce a washed-out-looking tank under bright light. However, with the addition of plants, especially floating plants, the light is filtered and the fish do great. It’s possible to collect your own sand and sterilize it before use but it’s hard to be sure the sand you collect won’t affect water chemistry. I recommend getting swimming pool filter sand which is cheap and generally available from hardware and home improvement stores or you can order it online.

While I mostly use sand, I still use gravel in some of my tanks, especially those with plants that need a deeper substrate. I try to avoid ever having more than 1/2 – 3/4 inch of sand on the bottom. Deep sand can encourage the development of anaerobic areas which I prefer to avoid. For plants that do best in a deeper substrate, I’ll usually use 2 – 3 inches of fine-grained gravel. Alternately, I’ll often plant them in a flower pot or other container that I can put on the sand bottom.

Hardscaping – adding rocks & driftwood

As you work to develop a complex habitat the materials you use fall into two groups; plants and hardscape. Hardscape is the non-living materials, rocks, driftwood, decorative figures, or any other physical items, placed in the tank. Depending on your preferences and the materials available, hardscape can be a major or minor component of the tank design. If you have lots of plants they can be the focus of complexity but if you don’t have lots of plants you will need more hardscape to create a complex habitat.

Piles of rocks large enough to create tunnels between them are one possibility. A sizeable pile will create a lot of different paths and passages and can be effective, especially if combined with a few plants and driftwood pieces that can be combined with rock piles to create line-of-sight barriers. Using just driftwood is possible but usually quite difficult because It’s hard to get dense enough areas of driftwood to create line-of-sight barriers. Driftwood sticks are really cool to have but they don’t supply much cover. Also, driftwood can make it really tough to net fish out of a tank.

If you are not worried about aesthetics, 3/4″ PVC pipe pieces cut into 2″ – 5″ sections can be effective. A pile of these pipes will provide a lot of escape space. You can also find black poly pipes that can serve the same purpose and might blend into your decor better.

A completely different way to add complexity is by adding leaves to the tank. When they get soaked they sink and a couple of handfuls of oak leaves will create an amazing labyrinth of passages and hiding places. Also, oak leaves decompose very slowly and will add tannic compounds to the water which are beneficial to most dwarf cichlids. I use oak leaves in my tanks that I collect from a tree in my yard. However, in the past, I’ve gathered oak leaves in state parks and other no-spray public areas. If you don’t have access to oak leaves, Catappa Indian Almond leaves work great, are inexpensive, and are widely available in different sizes. Another benefit from adding leaves is that they may help lower pH and are reported to have antimicrobial and antifungal properties.

I’m really not aware of what types of in-tank decorations are being made and sold today. It’s possible that there might be decorative items that work to create complexity. However, many are made to be centerpiece items which means you will have large open areas around them. In my experience, it’s tough to create complexity using decorations. Keep this in mind as you plan your tank. If you want a tank with decorations you will need to restrict yourself to a single male or a pair if they are bonded. The tank decor will likely be too sparse for any other combination.

Caves and breeding sites

If you are setting up a community tank you really don’t need to worry about breeding sites. However, if you are hoping to raise a spawn you need to plan breeding sites into your layout. Most dwarf cichlids are cave spawners and will seek out actual coves or very secluded spots if no caves are available. Therefore, you should plan to include several caves as you lay out the tank. For a pair, I try to have two caves adjacent to the main clearing and a third cave in a secluded and protected area. While they love privacy, they most often chose one of the caves on the main clearing. If you are setting up for a harem you need to provide multiple defined areas with spawning caves so each female can claim a small area around her cave.

The best caves are ones with small openings as females generally prefer the security of a nearly-sealed cave entrance. While I’ve used caves that have the entrance toward the top, I really prefer entrances that are right at the bottom. There is no limit to what can be used as a cave. Some popular options include commercial breeding caves, half coconut shells with an entrance hole, broken and whole flower pots, PVC pipe sections, empty pill bottles, or any other item you can think of. It also may be practical to stack rocks to create a cave. I often use caves that have rather large openings but then I cover most of the opening by putting a rock in front of it.

While most dwarf cichlids are cave spawners, some species spawn in the open by depositing their eggs on a flat rock. a plant leaf, or another rigid site. These fish won’t use caves at all so there is no need to add them. Blue Rams and Bolivian Rams are the most common open spawners and you will find full information on setting up a tank for them on their species pages.


I’m a big believer in using live plants in my aquariums and I’ve written a separate Guide to live plants in dwarf cichlid aquariums that I recommend you read. Since I’ve already written a lot about plants there, I’m going to be brief here. When I plan the aquascaping of a dwarf cichlid tank I always plan to use plants to define territories, eliminate line-of-sight areas, provide shelter for bullied fish, and to reduce the light levels in the tank. I’ve raised my plants for decades and always have enough on hand to set up a tank in any way I want. If you are purchasing your plants you might find some of my suggestions to be impractical.

A dense thicket of plants provides shelter, defines territories, and creates a secure environment. Here is a male Apistogramma cacatuoides peering out of a thicket of watersprite and java moss.

I always try to have at least one area that is really dense with plants, so thick that it’s hard for a fish to get through. An area like this can provide shelter to a bullied fish. While this is not a long-term solution, usually the fish will arrive at some sort of different relationship. this type of dense area can be placed to help create divisions of the tank bottom. Give the male a main area and use plants and rocks to create a couple of small areas out of his sight. Java moss grows pretty quickly and can be used to create screens and barriers.

I usually use floating plants to provide the overhead cover that reduces stress on the fish and also reduces the amount of light hitting the tank floor. When I use watersprite as a floating plant it grows extensive root systems that stretch downward and add to the complexity of the habitat. Most floating plants will grow to cover the surface of an aquarium and you’ll need to keep them pruned back to have open water at the surface. Be careful to feed sinking foods if you have a lot of floating plants. Floating food can easily be trapped on plant leaves without becoming available to the fish.

Provide good water

Dwarf cichlids have a reputation for demanding extreme water conditions. While some species may require very soft acid water, most will do nicely in water that is moderately soft and only slightly acidic, or even neutral pH. It’s hard to generalize about water conditions for dwarf cichlids as they come from such diverse habitats. Refer to our species and genus profile pages for more details. While the specifics may vary, almost all dwarfs come from waters that are soft with low mineral content. Many also are mildly to very acidic with pH ranging from below 4.0 to 7.3.

While the specifics vary between species, a starting point for water conditions would be less than 4 dGh with a pH of around 6.0 – 6.5. These conditions can be found in the tap water in some areas but most of us aren’t so lucky and have to make accommodations for our water. If your water has significant carbonate hardness you’ll never be able to achieve a lower pH on a permanent basis just by adding chemicals. While you can temporarily reduce the pH the natural buffers in the water will raise it back up. If you dose with chemicals the pH will drop and slowly rise again. This is not healthy for your fish so you either need to leave the fish in your tap water or change your water source.

I’ve been modifying my water by using reverse osmosis water (commonly called RO) for more than 30 years. RO filters have become quite common and the bottled water dispensed in most grocery store machines is RO filtered. RO water is very pure and of the highest quality. It should contain virtually no hardness and be of neutral pH. While it is certainly possible to fill your tank(s) with water purchased from the store, this isn’t a viable long-term situation for most hobbyists. If you don’t have good water and have more than one or two tanks I strongly recommend the purchase of a home RO unit.

It’s possible to keep and possibly breed many species of dwarf cichlids in harder more alkaline water. However, few species will thrive in these conditions. Most commonly the fish will not grow as well or be as colorful as those raised in softer water. Many hard water spawning attempts fail because the eggs do not become fertilized in hard water. These infertile eggs are quickly eaten by the parent. Attempts at artificial hatching will result in fungused eggs. A few species that are aquarium raised are adaptable to harder water. the tank-raised strains of Apistogramma cacatuoides are known to be more tolerant of water conditions as are some of the West African dwarfs.

Water changes

Whatever kind of water you have, frequent water changes make the difference between fish that do well and fish that excel! In the wild, most of these fish are exposed to a constant flow of clean fresh water. Few hobbyists are equipped with constant flow systems so we must try to provide for our fish the best we can. This means changing the water often. Many general aquarium books recommend changing 20% of the water every two to three weeks. I believe that 50% once a week is the absolute minimum for keeping healthy dwarfs.

 I want to emphasize that I consider this to be a minimum for maintenance. If you are conditioning spawning adults or growing out youngsters I recommend 40% every other day or more frequently. It is not unusual for some of my tanks to get 70% changes daily. However, this is not the norm. I usually shoot for 40 – 50% four or five times a week.

I don’t condition my water in any way before putting it in the tanks. I actually run the output from my RO directly into the tank after I have siphoned out water. I know how long it takes to run certain amounts of water and I know when I need to check to output. I do not buffer the RO, I do not add back tap water and I do not heat the water. All of this is contrary to what most will tell you. I am not disputing them in any way but am telling you what works for me. You may very well find that you have better success by buffering your RO water in some way.

Testing water parameters

If you are new to keeping dwarf cichlids I recommend that you purchase water testing tools (strips, color kits, or meters) and learn to use them and understand what the results mean. This will really teach you a lot about fishkeeping. I recommend that you keep a log or journal that documents your fish-keeping experiences. In this logbook, you can keep track of the water quality readings over time and learn to relate them to what you observe happening in your tank(s). After some period of time, you will begin to find that you can tell if something is “off” with your water. This seems to happen with most hobbyists as we begin to intuitively understand when our fish are at their best and when something is not right. Frequent water testing is a great way to start to hone your intuitions.

One of the problems that often comes with water testing is the desire to modify the natural conditions of the water. For most dwarf cichlid hobbyists this means trying to soften the water or lower the pH without using RO water. While it is possible to do both of these to some degree, I don’t recommend it. While I have no problem with those who wish to use peat to try and modify their water, I strongly encourage you not to try to use chemicals to change your water chemistry. Chemical additives can produce temporary changes, especially in pH. However, these are generally of short duration and the water quickly returns to its original state. It’s almost impossible to maintain a stable pH by using chemical adjustments.

Stocking the tank

I probably hear more questions about stocking a dwarf cichlid aquarium than any other topic. How many can I have, can I mix species, is my tank big enough for, etc? While we can provide some guidelines, there are no absolutes ever. The stocking that leads to a harmonious tank might work one time and fail horribly the next. Keeping these fish is an art as much as a science and no one can give you a step-by-step guide that will guarantee success. Each fish is unique and I’ve seen docile members of species known for ferocity and domineering fish from species considered to be peaceful. Successful dwarf cichlid keepers learn and adapt so don’t get discouraged if things don’t follow the plan.

What do you want from your tank?

So, we are right back to where we started, asking what kind of tank you envision. The stocking of a single pair breeding tank and a male-only community tank is vastly different so you need to know what you hope to produce before you make other decisions.

  • Single male tanks are pretty easy. It’s a matter of finding a nice male of a species you want and providing appropriate tankmates.
  • A single pair is not much different. You’ll need a male and female of the same species. If they are already a compatible pair it’ll make your job easier but most fish will accept a ‘forced pairing” if they are in a tank suitably aquascaped to reduce aggression. In a species tank, you are done stocking with just the pair but in a community tank, you need to select the proper tankmates.
  • A harem of Apistogrammas can present a stocking challenge. If the fish are young and the tank is complex you can often raise a group of mixed-sex individuals together. Depending on the tank set-up you may need to remove subordinate males as they develop. If you are housing a group of adults you will need to find a source for a single male and multiple females. Since most dwarfs are sold as pairs this can be difficult. It’s important to introduce the entire group at the same time so there are no pre-existing territories. Be aware that while some Apisto species typically form harems in the wild, Pelvicachromis species are monogamous. so it’s best to keep them in pairs.
  • Mixed-sex groups of the same species might work or might be a disaster. If the group is large enough it will almost always work but it might take 10 or more of the same species. Normally in these cases, there are so many fish that none are able to successfully claim a territory. I’ve seen a lot of jaw-locking fights in these types of tanks. While a group usually works, trying to have two males in a tank is usually difficult. In this case, there will be a dominant and a submissive. With no others to distract him, the dominant will spend most of his time hunting the submissive.
  • Housing single males of multiple species is another “might be great or might be a disaster situation”. I find the key here is often the individual personality of the fish. If one of the males is overly aggressive he might really target the others. However, often males of different species will mostly ignore each other unless there are females present. When you are setting up this type of tank it’s important to introduce all the fish at the same time. If you are adding new fish to an existing group you may need to rearrange the aquarium to break up existing territories.

Choosing a species

It’s important to understand that choosing a species might not work the way you want it to. It’s really easy to find photos of gorgeous dwarf cichlids online and they can really inspire desire. However, at any given time there are a relatively small number of species actually available. Some fish we have photos of were collected one time only and never seen again. Others are found in areas where no commercial collections are ever made. So don’t just look for the perfect picture of the fish you want. Instead, find out what species might actually be available to you and research them to see what you like best.

Depending on your local area, you may be able to find dwarfs at a local pet store. However, the majority of hobbyists will have to find fish and have them shipped. Fortunately, shipping fish has become a routine experience and you can generally find a reasonable assortment of species available from the various specialty fish sellers. We have a lot more about how and where to find fish in our Guide to Buying Dwarf Cichlids.

Suitable tankmates

The assortment of tankmates you choose can vary significantly depending on what type of tank you are setting up. Generally, dwarf cichlids are compatible with a lot of different species but there can always be variations from the norm depending on the individual fish. You should never try to mix dwarf cichlids with fish that require hard alkaline water such as East African or Rift Lake cichlids, many Central American cichlids, and many livebearers. Also avoid brackish water fish like moors, monos, and scats. Even the largest dwarf cichlids remain quite small so avoid stocking carnivores that can grow large enough to eat them. This includes some South American cichlids as well as carnivorous catfish. Depending on the species, many fish that reach 6″ or larger may be a problem.

Dither fish for dwarf cichlid aquariums

Dither fish are any of a host of species that are added to the aquarium to encourage normal social behavior in other species. In the case of dwarf cichlids, dithers can be used to reduce aggression and to reduce timidity. While this seems contradictory, both of these behaviors can be influenced by adding dithers. Dither fish differ slightly from target fish which are used to concentrate the aggression of a dominant male. Often when there is a single male and a single female in a tank they will fight, sometimes viciously. By adding another female, the original pair will jointly turn on the newcomer and by working together begin to develop a bond. If you attempt this strategy make sure you are prepared to remove the extra female before she suffers from the attacks.

Whether you are looking for dither fish or just compatible fish for a community aquarium there are many species that fall between acceptable and great as tankmates. When you select species remember that the dwarf cichlids want to control the bottom of the tank. While they don’t live only on the bottom, it’s the area where they are most comfortable. Consequently, there’s more likely to be a conflict with species that also want the bottom. This is especially a problem if you are hoping to breed the cichlids. Since the dwarfs want the bottom, fish that stay in the mid and upper levels work best. Here are some general considerations.

Dwarf cichlids with other dwarf cichlids

I’ll start with this one as many hobbyists want to know if they can keep multiple species together. The answer is maybe with a whole lot of caveats. It will depend on the size of the tank, how the tank is aquascaped, what species are being considered, if it’s an established tank or a new setup, what other tankmates will share the space, is it for males only or for mixed sexes, is breeding on objective, etc. In short, there is never going to be a way to know for sure unless you try. That said, here are some thoughts.

Dwarf cichlids as dither fish – I’ve used young dwarf cichlids as dither fish many times and it’s usually successful if done correctly. The key is to use juveniles that are too big to be eaten but not yet sexable. At this stage, they are just another small fish in the tank and can often serve to normalize behavior in a breeding pair. When they aren’t actually caring for eggs or fry the pair will usually mostly ignore the dithers except for an occasional desultory chase. However, once there are free-swimming fry, the dithers will be chased whenever they come near. If you use young Apistos as dithers you need to be prepared to move them to new quarters as they grow.

Dwarf cichlids as target fish – As described above, I’ll introduce an extra fish (usually a female) when a male and female aren’t bonding on their own. Typically the addition of another female will trigger pair formation as they jointly gang up on the extra female. If you attempt this technique you need to be observant and prepared to intervene if things don’t go as planned. Of course, it’s possible the male will bond with the new female instead, or perhaps he’ll form a harem. On a side note, sometimes when a pair of Apistogramma fail to spawn it will turn out that the female is actually a male with repressed colors and finnage, a so-called “sneaker” male. This can be a significant problem in some tank-raised species.

Planted aquarium with Apistogramma cacatuoides and blue rams mirogeophagus ramirezi
This tank shows how plants, rocks, and caves can be combined to create a complex habitat. Note the female Apistogramma cacatuoides in the lower right. She’s in front of a cave that faces into a clearing that is sheltered from view from the rest of the tank as the large mass of java moss creates a solid wall between sections of the tank. On the left, a male blue ram is above a flat rock that the ram pair used repeatedly for spawning. At times I had both the cacatuoides and Rams with fry at once but I always had to remove fry to raise any. Each species had a very defined territory that suited its particular needs and the only serious squabbles were over the exact placement of the dividing line. Interestingly, most often the male cacatuoides would rarely venture farther than the edge of the java moss divider, keeping back from the rams. This homemade tank holds less than 8 gallons (24″L x 10″H x 7″D) and was designed for dwarf cichlids, especially for photography. The shallow depth front to back (7″) keeps the fish available for photos.

Mixing species – It’s often possible to keep species from different genera together. For example, Some Apistogramma species will do well with blue rams or Bolivian rams. They also might work with a species of Dicrossus or Taeniacara. If you want to try keeping more than one species of the same genus remember to introduce all the fish to the tank at the same time and have a plan in place to respond if the combination of fishes doesn’t work. With any attempt at keeping multiple species together, you must make sure that you have a tank with a very complex habitat. You are much more likely to have success if you can aquascape so each species has its own territory that suits its needs.

Dwarf cichlids with other cichlids

As a general rule, I don’t recommend mixing South American dwarfs with non-dwarf cichlids. A few species, such as the Keyhole Cichlid (Cleithracara maronii), are gentle but I usually avoid the larger South American cichlids. As mentioned above, I also advise you to avoid keeping your dwarfs with Central American and East African (Rift Lake) cichlids. Not only are these species generally larger and tougher, but they also come from completely different habitats and need hard alkaline water. West African dwarfs are a bit of a different situation as many are found together with other cichlid species. Some species of Congochromis, Benitochromis, and similar genera may work well. However, these fish are very uncommon unless you seek them out.

Dwarf cichlids and discus

Depending on the species, dwarf cichlids can be good tankmates for discus. However, discus have water demands that must be met and their temperature requirements rule out quite a few dwarf cichlid species. Discus require soft and acidic water which is no problem. However, they also require very warm temperatures in the mid 80°F range which stresses most dwarfs. The two species are usually compatible with the dwarf cichlids staying to the bottom while the discus take the open water in the mid to upper levels. In a deep tank, it’s possible to have a small group or breeding pair of dwarfs that carry on with little interaction with the discus above.

Dwarf cichlids and angelfish

Keeping dwarf cichlids and angelfish together in a community tank is often successful. Angelfish generally stay in the mid to upper water levels while the dwarfs stay closer to the bottom. Dwarfs and angels do well in warm, soft, and acidic water and there are generally few compatibility issues, especially if you raise them together from a small size. However, individual fish can always be different than we expect. I’ve seen some large aggressive angels that terrorize a tank, and I’ve seen an aggressive Apistogramma male chase an angelfish to exhaustion. There is no absolute way to know until you try. Of course, spawning by either species is likely to create problems.

Catfish and dwarf cichlids

Combining dwarf cichlids and catfish is often successful. However, success often comes down to planning ahead to increase the chances of compatibility. A main consideration is that dwarf cichlids and catfish are both bottom dwellers which can put them in competition for territory or food. In a few cases, the cichlids and catfish may occupy the same habitat in the wild but that is the exception.

Corydoras and similar catfish range across South America and occupy many different habitats. They are generally very peaceful in the aquarium and mostly ignore all other fish. Corydoras catfish have two rows of bony plates on each side of their body which give rise to the name “armored catfish”. This protection allows them to absorb most dwarf cichlid attacks without any ill effects. They don’t recognize any territories that the cichlids try to claim and while ordinarily, the cichlids can temporarily chase them away, during spawning they are relentless in pursuit of eggs or larval fry. Their tough “armor” allows them to ignore vicious attacks but ineffective attacks from the parents. I think that Corydoras catfish can work great in a community aquarium but they will not work in a spawning tank.

Suckermouth catfish are often known as algae eaters but there are over 600 different types that provide a huge variety of choices. Although often called algae eaters, they won’t survive on a diet of algae growing in the tank and need to be fed just like other fish. Many of them grow to very large sizes and should be eliminated from consideration. Most of the species that stay small are fairly peaceful. Most of these catfish are cave spawners and many prefer to be cave inhabitants, spending most of their time lying in a cave. Consequently, you need to make sure there is no competition for cave space. Bristlenose plecos, Otocinclus, and, Farlowella are usually good choices but many other species might work as well.

Other catfish can be considered for a dwarf cichlid tank but most are ones I’d avoid. There are quite a few beautiful catfish from the Amazon that are great tankmates until they decide to eat the dwarf cichlids. So avoid red-tailed catfish, tiger catfish, and other predators.

Synodontis catfish may be suitable in some West African tanks. There are over 150 different kinds so it’s hard to generalize. However, they are known as plant diggers and most grow to 6″ – 8″ and are best kept in groups of 6 or more.

One of my favorites is the unusual glass catfish (Kryptopterus vitreolus). These transparent catfish are peaceful, plant-loving, and stay near the surface.

Dwarf cichlids with tetras, barbs, and others

Tetras, barbs, and similar fish can be perfect companions for dwarf cichlids in a community aquarium. They generally stay in the middle and upper water levels and add color and movement to the tank. Most are peaceful and ignore the cichlids. If you have a group of mid-water fish make sure when feeding that enough food drops through them to the bottom where the cichlids feed. While these fast-swimming fish are great companions in a community tank you should avoid them if you are hoping to raise fry. They will easily raid the fry while the parents try to guard them.

Tetras – are common in most dwarf cichlid native habitats. There are many hundreds of different species and some are better than others so you need to research specific species you might consider. Most tetras are notorious fry predators that will quickly dart in to pick off the fry one at a time, an attack that most dwarf cichlids are unable to fend off. Consequently, if you are planning on a breeding tank you’ll want to avoid most tetras. That said, it’s easy to create a beautiful community tank with a school of tetras and a pair or group of dwarfs.

Pencilfish are usually considered to be tetras but I’m singling them out here because they are generally one of the best species to mix with dwarf cichlids. They are normally calmer and more peaceful than tetras and tend to stay higher in the tank. They have smaller mouths than tetras and are much less aggressive but they will try to snack on young fry if they can.

Hatchetfish are another tetra I want to mention separately. If your tank is shallow with little mid-water space you might consider hatchetfish. They are generally peaceful and ignore the cichlids. Their mouths face upwards for surface feeding and they spend their time right at the surface leaving everything below to the cichlids.

Rasbora is both a genus name and a popular name applied to aquarium fish from a number of genera. They are similar to tetras in many ways but they are from south and southeast Asia and parts of China. Although their range doesn’t overlap with any dwarf cichlids, the proper species can be good tankmates for dwarf cichlids. Most of the popular aquarium species should do fine but always research the species you are considering as some can grow larger than desirable.

Danios are another group of fish that are tetra-like in appearance and behavior. However, I recommend against danios as they are too active. They swim fast all the time and are in constant motion. Some include nipping and chasing in their activity. They are a bit too much for my tanks.

Barbs – Barbs are a name given to a large group of fish that share the common characteristic of having two barbels at the corner of their mouths. Barbs come in all shapes and sizes but as aquarium fish, they are generally confined to smaller minnow-like fishes. Some are very colorful and many have been popular in the hobby for many decades. Like the tetras, they are generally schooling or semi-schooling fish that do best in groups. They are very active and are constantly swimming throughout the tank, consequently, they prefer large open areas in the tank. Research the species you are considering before you buy. Some of the deeper-bodied species like tiger barbs and rosy barbs are noted for being very aggressive fin nippers.

Killifish and Pelvicachromis can often be kept together

Killifish – many killifish are found in waters also inhabited by dwarf cichlids. Consequently, they often make a good combination in the aquarium. Most killies are upper-water fishes that will likely ignore the dwarfs. If this is a combination you want to pursue you’ll do best to order the killifish online from a breeder who can provide additional advice. Make sure you do some research into the species you are considering. Many species are suitable but some might best be avoided. Adding killifish can also provide the challenge of breeding them as well.

labyrinth Fish

Labyrinth fish have a specially modified organ that allows them to extract oxygen directly from air that they take in. While most of their oxygen demands are met through their gills, their ability to utilize the atmosphere gives them some advantages. The fact that they can breathe air means that they are much more oriented to the top of the tank than the bottom. The best-known labyrinth fish are gouramies and bettas.

Gouramies – Gouramies may be considered if you are developing a community tank, especially a taller tank that has more mid-water space. Most gouramies grow larger than dwarf cichlids and I’ve rarely kept this mix of fish. I’d consider this a risky combination as many gouramies get aggressive as they mature. The exceptions are croaking gouramies (Trichopsis vittata), sparkling gouramies (Trichopsis pumila), and other similar species. These tiny fishes rarely reach 2″ in length and normally aren’t aggressive toward the Apistos. However, their preferred habitat is the bottom area which puts them in competition with the cichlids. This will lead to nothing but stress on the gouramies and I really don;t recommend this combination.

Bettas – Few aquarium fish are better known than the betta. They come in a variety of colors and a single male can make a stunning impression. It’s certainly possible to keep a betta with your dwarf cichlids. The betta will typically stay near the surface giving the dwarfs the bottom. Watch out for individual fish that might be attracted to the flowing fins as targets. Be ready to move fish if the betta gets attacked.

Other fish for consideration

Loaches and eels – I recommend staying away from these bottom dwellers. In a community tank, they might work but avoid them in a breeding tank.

Goldfish – Avoid them – Always. They require cold water temps and aren’t suitable tankmates.

Guppies, swordtails, and mollies – These livebearers will not do well in the soft acidic water preferred by the dwarf cichlids.

Rainbowfish – Many rainbows grow too large and should be eliminated as should those that prefer hard alkaline water. However, there are smaller species that can work. I’ve had success using Madagascar Rainbowfish (Bedotia madagascarensis) and Threadfin rainbows (Iriatherina werneri).

Dwarf cichlids and shrimp

There are many attractive shrimp species that are available in the hobby and, depending on the species and the individual fish, it might be possible to keep them with dwarf cichlids. The biggest problem is the cichlids viewing the shrimp as food and eating them all. If possible, start with a tank that has an established shrimp population and add the cichlids to the tank. As new additions to the tank, the fish may accept the shrimp as part of their new home and not view them as a meal. On the other hand, if you add shrimp to an established tank the fish will view them the same as any other food you drop in for them. If you need to add the shrimp to an inhabited tank, consider doing it at night after the lights are off so they have a chance to find cover in the dark.

Shrimp thrive on Iive plants which should be present in adequate quantity. It’s unlikely that you’ll be successful at shrimp keeping without plants. Make sure your plantings include dense areas that can provide a sanctuary for the shrimp. However, it’s hard to have enough cover to protect the shrimp if you have fish seeking them out.

Large adult shrimp are more likely to survive than babies. Correspondingly, young fish are less likely to bother the shrimp. If you are starting with young cichlids they might learn to ignore the shrimp. Each fish is an individual and there are no rules as to what will work and what won’t. Depending on the shrimp species, they might reproduce in your tank. This is natural and it’s really cool to have a colony of self-sustaining shrimp. With a breeding group, you might find that the smallest shrimp become food but once they reach a certain size they become safe.

Snails in the dwarf cichlid aquarium

snail onaquarium glass

I love having snails in my dwarf cichlid tanks. The biggest problem I have is keeping them going in the water conditions I maintain. Snails need calcium to build their shells and soft water has very little calcium. Consequently, I am always transplanting snails into my tanks from the couple of tanks I keep that are maintained with hard water. Snails provide several benefits including algae control and improved detritus decomposition. I find them especially useful in tanks of fry where there is often uneaten food on the bottom. Snails can do a lot to keep the tank clean. I’m far from an expert on snails and am not going to provide species advice. I will suggest you try to find out about the snails you are considering as some are known to eat eggs.

Foods and feeding

Most dwarf cichlids are omnivores and consume a variety of foods in nature. In the aquarium, they will eat many different foods and a diet that provides a variety of healthful foods is fairly easy to provide.  Many dwarfs have a reputation for needing live food for survival. The truth is, almost every fish will learn to eat the foods that are available. However, live food is always relished and the frequent feeding of live food helps to ensure success.

Wild fish are often more demanding of live food than tank raised. Additionally, many dwarf cichlid breeders only feed live foods, and the fish they produce are often slow to convert to prepared foods. These fish will typically convert to high-quality frozen food if they go for a period of time without receiving live food. Once they are accustomed to feeding on frozen food the conversion to prepared is usually a matter of patience.

It’s important that your fish receive an adequate supply of food that has good nutritional value. In most situations, your fish will thrive on two feedings a day, morning and evening. Initially, it may be hard to determine the right amount of food to feed and you should err on the side of too little until you know your fish and their consumption. Do not think that you must feed your fish on a precise schedule. In nature, they tend to go through periods of plentiful food when feeding is easy, and periods of scarce food when they might go weeks without feeding. In fact, mature fish that are slow to breed can sometimes be triggered to spawn by a fasting period of one to two weeks followed by massive water changes and good food.

Live Foods

If you want to have happy dwarfs you should offer them live food as often as possible and live food is critical for successful fry rearing. There are a number of different types of live foods that are fairly easy to procure or produce for feeding your fish.

Brine Shrimp – The staple live food for many aquarists is brine shrimp. Adults of this small crustacean can be purchased in many pet stores and the newly hatched nauplii are an excellent food for fry and small fish. As previously mentioned, some pet stores sell adult brine shrimp. It’s been years since I’ve had access to them but my fish always appreciated them. Try to buy them fresh as they have a short life span. Hatching brine shrimp eggs is an activity that you should at least attempt if you want long-term success with dwarfs. While it often takes a few tries to get it figured d out, hatching eggs is easy and you can find lots of suggestions for hatching methods online.

White and Grindal Worms – White worms and grindal worms are frequently cultured as live food. They can be raised quite easily and large quantities can quickly be produced. It’s best to be careful about feeding these worms. Your fish will love them and greedily stuff themselves on them. However, they are fatty and too rich for many fish. I always have these worms around but rarely feed them to my fish more than once every other week. Often before feeding, I’ll mix food for the worms that’s high in spirulina. The worms actually appear green after eating this and they are slightly more nutritious. Other nutritious supplements can also be used for this type of “gut loading”.White worms and grindal worms are very similar except in size. White worms are larger and thrive in cooler temperatures.

Micro Worms, Walter worms, Vinegar eels – These tiny worms are smaller than newly hatched brine shrimp. They are easy to culture and make great food for newly hatched fry. They live in freshwater for hours so a little overfeeding will generally not be a problem. Although adult fish will feed on them, they are very small food and adults cannot make them a staple of their diet.

Black Worms (Tubifex Worms) – Black worms and closely related Tubifex worms are found in a variety of water types around the world. Although they inhabit all water types, some species thrive in water that is full of harmful bacteria. When fish eat the worms from these sites they will often develop significant diseases. Fortunately, today most of the black worms on the market are clean and a good food source. Some pet stores carry them and they can be great food for your dwarfs. However, I recommend that you ask the shop to make sure that the worms come from a reliable supplier As with white worms, I don’t recommend a steady diet of these worms. However, they can be a good supplement.

There are many additional live foods that make good food for dwarfs in certain situations. Many different live food cultures can be purchased from specialized sources. In addition, depending on where you live, you might be able to collect mosquito larvae, daphnia, and other live foods locally. However, I will leave that discussion for another time.

Frozen Foods

There are a variety of frozen foods that offer high-quality nutrition and are easy to store and handle. Most of the frozen foods available will be eagerly accepted by your fish. I usually put frozen foods directly into the tank and let the fish feed on them as they thaw. Others recommend thawing the foods and even rinsing them before serving but my method works for me.

First on my list is blood worms. These aren’t actually worms but the larval stage of a fairly large midge-like insect. They are the shape of a tiny red worm and their wiggle in the water is rather worm-like. As a frozen food, I find that they are usually of high quality and provide good nutrition for my fish. Blood worms maintain their shape and size after freezing and I most often shave them off the frozen block into my tank. By controlling the thickness of the cut I can control the size of worm pieces I feed.. Using a razor blade on the frozen food I can shave thin enough to feed rather small fry. Caution! – many highly experienced dwarf cichlid keepers refuse to use blood worms believing them to be harmful to some fish.

I find frozen brine shrimp to be less satisfactory. Live shrimp are mostly water with a rather thin shell. When frozen they tend to crush and after thawing there is often little but water and shell – with all of the nutrition in the water. This is an even worse problem with daphnia which don’t seem to be offered much anymore.

There are a lot of blends and “diets” of frozen foods today. I don’t have much personal experience with these so I’m not going to comment other than to say I believe that they appear to be nutritious.

Most pet stores carry a variety of frozen foods. They have a good storage life if you take care of them. Many foods are now available in prepacked servings which can be very convenient if you can feed an entire portion to a single tank. This can be a problem in a tank with just a pair of small dwarfs. Always try to inspect the frozen food at the store if possible. It’s important that the food remain frozen. I’ve seen frozen foods that have thawed in shipment be refrozen and sold. You might not be able to tell for sure but generally, you can tell if the food looks like it has been around too long.

Prepared Foods

Prepared foods are flakes, pellets, and other types of packaged foods that are commonly sold at all pet stores. They have been a standard in the aquarium hobby for many years but today’s products are far different from the flakes that I fed my first fish many years ago. Good quality prepared foods are nutritious and can make a staple diet for most dwarfs. By good quality, I mean food that is fresh and produced by a reliable source. As with most things, there are prepared foods available at various prices and in many different formulations.

It’s always best if you feed a variety of different prepared foods and rotate their feeding to your fish. I recommend that you purchase small sizes of multiple prepared foods. These foods last a long time if you are rotating and the food in a large container will be very stale before it is all fed.

Flake Food – Flake food has been the standard fish food for many years. Today’s flakes are nutritious, hold together well in the water, and are convenient to store and serve. There are many different formulations for flake food with everything from vegetarian to earthworm flakes available. I personally don’t usually feed flake food. Most of my tanks are thick with plants and house only bottom-feeding dwarfs. Floating flakes are not targeted by the fish and most of the food ends up sinking where the cichlids never have access to it.

Pellet Foods – Pellets come in all shapes and sizes. Some float while others sink and there are many, many different formulations. I feed a number of different sinking pellets to my dwarf cichlids. Brine shrimp and spirulina pellets are a larger size than fish can swallow so they will pick them apart on the bottom as they gradually soften. This stretches out their feeding over a longer period of time. Be careful to not overfeed these types of pellets. I also use several different sinking pellets that are small enough for the fish to handle. There are a number of companies making very high-quality pellets that work well.

Other Prepared Foods – Some of the other types of prepared foods are very similar to flakes and pellets. Algae wafers, Bug Bites, and the like are very similar. Freeze-dried foods provide a good source of nutrition. However, I find these difficult to feed as they float, and, as described above, I don’t like floating foods. There are prepared foods made from preserved insects. Companies are constantly working to develop new foods that are convenient and nutritious so don’t be afraid to try new foods. All of these foods offer good choices for feeding your fish. Be sure to have several types to feed your fish and they’ll do well on prepared foods.

Parasites and Diseases

Unfortunately, this section is going to be brief and unhelpful. I have no good solutions if you have fish health problems. Over the years I’ve treated many different fish in many different ways and have never found reliable cures. Generally, if I can’t treat it with massive and frequent water changes the fish will die. Of course, this is with diseases, not parasites. However, in my experience parasites are quite rare. Many hobbyists believe their fish have intestinal worms and there are lots of suggestions for cures on the internet. For disease questions look to the forum at apistogramma.com where you will find a lot of expert advice.

Before you think I’m callous about the health of my fish, I don’t believe I’ve lost a single fish to disease in my fishroom for at least 5 – 10 years so it’s really not a problem. I believe prevention is a big part. Quarantine new arrivals, provide a good habitat with lots of water changes, and good food and you’ll generally have healthy fish.

The successful dwarf cichlid aquarium

I’ve tried to lay out the basics of dwarf cichlid aquarium care and I know I’ve provided both too much and too little information. For anyone hoping I’d provide a definite answer to a question, that’s not my style. I don’t offer absolutes so I’m not going to tell you how many Apistogramma will go into a 20-gallon tank or if you can mix species or which color form is prettier. Instead, I’ll provide a discussion of what might work and warn about what likely won’t. However, each fish is different, each tank is different and each aquarist is different. You need to keep the fish and learn from them.

If you want to learn more about keeping and breeding dwarf cichlids there is a lot more information in the Genus articles (click the genus name in the sidebar menu) and individual species articles. There are also these “Essential Articles”.

Introduction to breeding Apistogramma and other dwarf cichlids

Information Resources for learning about dwarf cichlids – Where to get answers to your questions.

Where and how to buy Apistogramma and other dwarf cichlids

Live plants for Apistogramma and other dwarf cichlid aquariums


Most of the information I provide on this website comes from books and websites. While I don’t provide specific citations, these are the sources for most of my information.
South American Books:
Mergus Cichlid Atlas Volume 1 & Volume 2 by Dr. Uwe Römer
South American Dwarf Cichlids by Rainer Stawikowski, I. Koslowski and V. Bohnet
Die Buntbarsche Amerikas Band 2 Apistogramma & Co. by Ingo Koslowski, Translation by Mike Wise
South American Dwarf Cichlids by Hans J. Mayland & Dieter Bork
American Cichlids I – Dwarf Cichlids by Horst Linke & Dr. Wolfgang Staeck
West African Books:
The Cichlid Fishes of Western Africa by Anton Lamboj
African Cichlids I – Cichlids From West Africa by Horst Linke & Dr. Wolfgang Staeck
Apisto sites – the home page of Tom C – Global authority for identification and classification of apistogrammas
Apistogramma.com – An excellent international forum with expert members who gladly share their knowledge.
Much more information is available in our complete exploration of dwarf cichlid information resources.