redtail catfish

Redtail Catfish Care: A Comprehensive Guide to Keeping Your Aquarium Healthy and Vibrant

Redtail catfish are one of the most impressive freshwater species out there. This majestic fish has been around for decades, yet it still remains a challenge to take on in the home aquarium.

Understanding the basics of redtail catfish care is key to providing them with the best quality of life possible.

In this guide we’re going to cover the size, characteristics, and tankmates of the redtail catfish, as well as how to provide the most suitable environment possible to help them thrive.

redtail catfish

Species Summary

The redtail catfish (scientifically known as phractocephalus hemioliopterus ) is native to Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guyana, and Bolivia, primarily in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins, streams, and lakes.

These fish have earned somewhat of a mythic reputation for their size and aggression, giving them legendary status amongst South American cultures.


Under the right conditions, redtail catfish can live for up to 15 years in captivity. In the wild, their lifespan is likely to be longer, although data on the subject is quite limited.

Unfortunately, in the wrong environment, poor care can drastically lower the average lifespan of these fish, so making sure everything is set up correctly is essential.


The redtail catfish has a very classic “catfish” look to it, with large, noticeable whiskers called barbels. The body is dark grey, with a pattern of faint dots across its surface, whilst the underside of its head is white, extending back to the area near the pectoral fins.

From here, the white area continues all the way to the base of the caudal fins, which along with the top third of the dorsal fins, are brightly red – where the name comes from. The fish itself also has a flat underbelly, particularly underneath its head.


On average, redtail catfish measure between 3 and 4 feet in length in captivity, while specimens in the wild may reach up to 5 feet in size. This makes them considerably bigger than other fish kept in home aquariums, and requires a minimum tank size of around 1,500-2,000 gallons just to ensure they’re comfortable.

Redtail Catfish Care

The most important thing to consider when keeping redtail catfish is understanding what they need, and how to provide it.

Tank Size

As mentioned above, it’s essential that the tank size is large enough to accommodate the fish comfortably. Anything under 1,000 gallons simply won’t cut it.

Water Parameters

The water parameters are equally important. As hardy fish, redtail catfish still require optimal temperatures (between 68°F and 80°F) and pH levels ideally below 7. It’s also worth noting that, due to their diet, they produce a lot of waste, so making sure the water remains clean is an added challenge.

What To Put In Their Tank

Given the size of these fish, there should be nothing else in the tank apart from the catfish itself. They have a tendency to eat anything in their vicinity, so exercise caution before introducing any new additions.

That being said, if you do plan on having multiple redtail catfish it’s worth considering their compatibility. 

Many people opt to keep males together, as they tend to be less aggressive than females. Whichever combination you choose, make sure each catfish has plenty of room to move around without competing for food or space.

Catfish Is A Huge Effort

Keeping redtail catfish is a huge effort and undertaking. A lot of their care that makes them live longer than normal is heavily reliant on the tank size and keeping up good water parameters.

Unfortunately, many people who want to keep these fish don’t have the resources to provide for them properly, leading to shorter lifespans.

That’s why it’s essential to make an accurate assessment of your own capabilities before deciding to invest in a redtail catfish. If you think that you’re capable of providing them with a suitable environment, then go for it! These fish can be immensely enjoyable if taken care of correctly.

Aquarium Setup

The aquarium should be set up with a combination of driftwood, rocks and plants to create an ideal environment for the redtail catfish.

It’s important to use a powerful filter to keep up with the large amount of waste the fish produces, but make sure the flow isn’t too strong or it can stress the fish out.


As bottom-dwellers, redtail catfish don’t need any special lighting needs, so any low wattage aquarium light will do. If anything, you may want to add a dimmer light over evening hours to help replicate a more natural day/night setting.

Feeding and Diet

Redtail catfish are omnivorous scavengers and will eat both plant and animal matter. In the wild, their diet consists primarily of insects, crustaceans, smaller fish, and plant matter. As such, it’s important to include a variety of foods when feeding them in the home aquarium. Commercial sinking pellets and frozen foods, as well as live foods like ghost shrimp, make great options.

Tank Mates

Redtail catfish are large predatory fish that require plenty of swimming space and a specific diet to thrive.

Due to their size and predatory nature, they are not recommended to be kept with most other fish. However, some compatible tank mates for redtail catfish can include other large, aggressive fish such as large cichlids, pacus, or other catfish species such as plecos or large Synodontis catfish.

It’s important to ensure that the tank is large enough to accommodate all the fish and that they are provided with plenty of hiding places and territories to prevent aggression. It’s also crucial to monitor the water quality and maintain a healthy diet for all the fish in the tank.

Breeding Redtail Catfish

Breeding redtail catfish is difficult in the home aquarium and has rarely been achieved, and there is little information on their reproductive habits. In the wild, they spawn in waters with a high current and then migrate downstream.

This is thought to be why breeding them in captivity is so difficult as the environment needs to be just as closely replicated as possible.

Health and Diseases

Redtail catfish are generally quite hardy and disease-resistant fish, but as with any aquarium species, there’s always a risk of disease. As such, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of stress or illness such as discoloration, loss of appetite, or erratic behavior.

It’s also a good idea to regularly check the water parameters to ensure that any potentially dangerous changes are caught early on.

Common Health Conditions

Unfortunately, redtail catfish are prone to a few common health problems. These include parasite infestations and fungal infections, both of which can easily spread if not properly addressed.

Additionally, these fish can suffer from swim bladder disease due to their large size and their tendency to overeat.

Signs of Stress

Knowing how to identify signs of stress in your redtail catfish is key to keeping them healthy and happy. Some of the biggest signs to look out for include excessive scratching, gasping at the surface of the water, and loss of appetite.

If you spot any of these signs, it’s important to investigate further and adjust the tank conditions if necessary.

Water Changes

Regular water changes are a must when it comes to keeping redtail catfish. Given their size, they produce a lot of waste and ammonia, so it’s important to keep up with water changes every two weeks or so.

Also, bear in mind that these fish do best in soft and acidic water, so an RO/DI water filter system can help to keep the pH levels in check.

Final Thoughts

Redtail catfish are a wonderful species to keep in the home aquarium, but they require a lot of care and attention. As long as their tank size and water parameters are kept up to optimal levels, and you stay vigilant for signs of stress or illness, these fish can thrive in captivity.

With patience and dedication, you’ll soon find that having a redtail catfish in the home aquarium is highly rewarding experience.