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Cichlid Family Care Sheet

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

Includes Central and South American and African species, including:

  • Oscar 
  • Jack Dempsey 
  • Firemouth 
  • Ram
  • Severum
  • Red zebra
  • Frontosa 
  • Electric yellow
  • Venustus 
  • Electric blue 
  • Duboisi 
  • Kenyi


Scientific name Astronotus ocellatus, Rocio octofasciatum, Torichthys meeki, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi, Heros efasciatus, Metriaclima estherae, Cyphotilapia frontosa, Labidochromis caeruleus, Sciaenochromis fryeri, Tropheus duboisii, Metriclima lombardoi 

There are over 1,200 species of cichlids, most of which originate in Central and South America and Africa. Cichlids are one of the most popular freshwater aquarium fish. They are known for their interesting behaviors, extroverted personalities, color palette and pleasing appearance.

Typical appearance and behavior 

  • Most cichlids are highly territorial
  • Most species will spawn in captivity
  • Parents will care for and protect their young
  • Males are typically more colorful than females
  • Many cichlids are mouth brooders. Males will create a nest in the substrate where the female lays eggs. The male will then fertilize them, and the female will carry the eggs around in her mouth until they hatch


Care Difficulty Ranges from beginner to advanced, depending on species
Average Life Span Up to 20 years when properly cared for, depends on species
Average Adult Size 1-15+ inches long, depending on species
Diet Carnivore and omnivore, depending on species
Minimum Habitat Size 10+ gallons for dwarf cichlids only; 29+ gallons, depending on species
Water Temperature 72-82°F


Habitat size

Keep in an appropriately sized aquarium based on the species selected, which can range from a 10-gallon aquarium for a smaller species to 75+ gallons for species like an adult oscar.

Building your habitat

  • Water health - Provide proper filtration to ensure optimal water quality to help maintain health. Moderate to strong water circulation, depending on species, should be provided to mimic water currents and high oxygen levels found in the cichlids' natural habitat. Stable water quality (pH, ammonia, nitrate, nitrite) and water temperature are critical to the health of aquatic life. If you are unsure of your water quality, bring a sample to Petco for free testing. An aquatic heater should be used to stabilize water temperature, ensuring it does not fluctuate more than +/-2 degrees in a 24-hour period. Many freshwater sharks will benefit from the addition of freshwater salt to the aquarium; the specific gravity should be kept at 1.004. Always research your species-specific needs before adding freshwater aquarium salt. Do not allow specific gravity to fluctuate more than +/- 0.001 in a 24-hour period.
  • Décor - Many cichlids become territorial as they mature and should be provided plenty of rocks, caves and hiding places. Plants can be beneficial, but some species may uproot plants. A substrate of 1 to 2 inches is recommended as many cichlid species love to dig. Some species, like African cichlids, prefer a higher pH, and a substrate containing aragonite may be beneficial.
  • Some cichlid species are powerful jumpers a secure cover is strongly recommended.


What to feed your cichlids

A well-balanced cichlid diet consists of:

  • Appropriately sized flakes, pellets, freeze-dried, frozen or live food, based on the size of the species being fed 

Things to remember when feeding your cichlid:

  • Depending on size and species, feed one to two times per day, no more than fish will consume in 1 to 2 minutes
  • Thaw frozen food before feeding

Cichlid care

  • Water care: Maintaining great water quality with regular water changes and adequate filtration is important to help keep your cichlids healthy
    • Daily: Check filter, water temperature and other equipment
    • Weekly: Test water quality at least once a week
    • Weekly to monthly: Change 10 to 25% of the total volume of water every two to four weeks, or as needed. Change filter media monthly.
  • Avoid overcrowded conditions as this is a major cause of stress and disease

Where to buy 

 Various cichlids are available for purchase at Petco online and in store; availability varies by location. If visiting your local location, call ahead to check availability. 


Tank mates 

Some cichlid species can become aggressive and territorial as they mature. Larger cichlids can eat small fish; keep with similar size fish. Some species, like ram cichlids, have peaceful temperaments and may do well in a community aquarium.


Signs of a healthy animal

  • Clear eyes
  • Eats vigorously 
  • Bright, even coloring
  • Free of parasites or disease

Red flags (If you notice any of these signs, contact your local aquatic specialist or veterinarian.)

  • Loss of color  
  • Loss of appetite
  • Spots or fungus on body or mouth
  • Cloudy eyes or pop-eye
  • Elevated scales
  • Labored breathing
  • Erratic swimming
  • Weight loss
  • Bloating
  • Hole in the head
  • Lateral line erosion

Common health issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Health IssueFin rot Symptoms or CausesFrayed or disintegrating fins; the base of the fins usually reddens. Suggested ActionImprove water quality; consult your local aquatic specialist or aquatic veterinarian for treatment.
Health IssueFungus Symptoms or CausesWhite cottony growth and/or discoloration of the eyes. Suggested ActionQuarantine fish; use a commercial antifungal remedy as directed. Consult your local aquatic specialist or aquatic veterinarian.
Health IssueBacterial infections Symptoms or CausesCloudy eyes, open sores and/or reddening of the skin. Suggested ActionImprove water quality; add aquarium salt; use a commercial antibacterial remedy as directed; consult your local aquatic specialist or aquatic veterinarian for treatment
Health IssueIch Symptoms or CausesWhite spots appear on fins and body; fish rubs against hard objects or swims erratically. Rapid respiration. Suggested ActionQuarantine fish immediately; add freshwater aquarium salt and use commercial ich remedy as directed. Consult your local aquatic specialist or aquatic veterinarian.
Health IssueCottonmouth or Columnaris Symptoms or CausesCottony white growths along the body and/or gills, frayed fins and gills turn brown and necrotic in late stages; caused by bacterial infection. Suggested ActionQuarantine fish; improve water quality; lower aquarium temperature to 72°F to deter bacteria from growing; medicate as directed; consult your local aquatic specialist or aquatic veterinarian for treatment.


  • How big do African cichlids get? Most adult African cichlids average between 3 and 8 inches but the species Frontosa can get up to 15 inches 
  • What do cichlids eat? Cichlids should be provided with a variety of flakes, pellets, freeze-dried, frozen or live foods
  • How long do cichlids live? Cichlids can live up to 20 years when properly cared for 
  • What is a cichlid? Cichlids are a group of fish that belong to the Cichlidae family consisting of 2,000+ species 
  • Can African cichlids live with other fish? Most African cichlids can be extremely aggressive and territorial but may live in harmony with larger catfish and plecostomus 

Additional care sheets

Notes and resources

Ask a Pet Care Center associate about Petco's selection of products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

Because all aquatic life are potential carriers of infectious diseases such as atypical mycobacterium and salmonella, always wash your hands before and after handling your aquatic life or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease.

Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physician before purchasing or caring for aquatic life and should consider not having aquatic life as a pet.

Go to for more information about aquatic life and disease.

The information on this Care Sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, contact your veterinarian as appropriate.