A beginners guide to keeping American cichlids

A guide to keeping American cichlids


American cichlids, also known as New World cichlids, they range in size, colour, and personalities. American Cichlids are one of the most interesting and diverse groups of fish to add to an aquarium and are also great for breeding. They are very playful making great companions for both beginner and expert hobbyists. It is always important to maintain and care for your fish properly, so here is a guide to keeping your fish happy and healthy!


Setting up your aquarium

American cichlids are a diverse group of fish found throughout Northern, Central, and Southern America. Popular American cichlids include oscar, firemouth, blue ram, blood parrot and Texas cichlids. Cichlids are best in groups of 3 or more as it reduces aggression towards a single member.

They can live up to 20 years and grow up to 90+ cm depending on the species.

As their sizes vary so much, your aquarium should hold a minimum of 75 litres if your fish is to grow to 15 cm, if they will grow to 20 cm or bigger you will need at least a 110-litre aquarium.  They love freshwater rocks and caves, so be sure to decorate your aquarium with plenty of hiding spots to make them feel at home. To maintain your aquarium, testing kits and treatments can be purchased. Once set up, it can be exciting, but you must be patient and cycle the aquarium for at least 7 days to ensure water quality is perfect for your fish.

When deciding where to place your aquarium think about avoiding direct sunlight, areas where they could be disturbed by noise and any heaters or windows that could interfere with the water temperature.

American cichlids spend most of their time scavenging for food in the substrate, therefore be sure that any ornaments are balanced or secured so they do not injure themselves or damage the aquarium.

Your aquarium needs special care so here are a few factors you need to consider for the aquarium when keeping American cichlids:

  • Temperature: 24-27°C
  • pH: Ideally 6.0-7.5
  • Nitrate: Below 20 ppm
  • Nitrite: 0 ppm
  • Ammonia: 0-0.25 ppm
  • Phosphate: Below 0.5 ppm

Supplies list

  • Aquarium tank
  • Filter
  • Lighting
  • Testing kits
  • Gravel (natural gravel/lime sand/coral grit is recommended)
  • Water conditioner
  • Aquarium salt
  • pH buffer
  • Plants
  • Driftwood – The more the better
  • Rocks
  • Airstone & pump (not essential, but recommended)
  • Aquarium heater
  • Thermometer & hydrometer
  • Algae scraper/magnetic glass cleaner
  • Fishnet



American cichlids like to eat different things in the wild, are not fussy eaters and are mostly omnivores, so their diet consists of plants and meat. They love brine shrimp and bloodworms which can be fed to them either live or frozen. You can give them green foods such as spinach, peas, and broccoli that you can buy at your local supermarkets.

The species that like to spend time at the bottom of the aquarium can be fed pellets or flakes, which allows them to maintain their natural behaviour of rummaging around the substrate for food.

If you leave them hungry, they will become aggressive. However, it is important not to overfeed your fish as this is the most common cause of tropical fish death. It is recommended to only feed how much they can eat in 2-3 minutes, and only two times a day. Always research the specific fish species to ensure you provide them with the best diet or ask an aquarist at your local store.



To keep your fish happy and healthy, you need to change the water often to reduce nitrate levels. This process can be stressful to fish, so only remove and replace 10-20% of the water every week. Before you add the new water to the aquarium, check the water quality with a testing kit and never remove all the water as healthy bacteria builds up over time in the aquarium. A siphon with a gravel vacuum is a great tool to purchase as it removes any leftover food and particles floating around between the substrate and ornaments.

Be sure to clean the sides of the aquarium to remove any excess algae growth. A magnetic scraper can be added to the sides to constantly control this.


Health care

Diseases are not uncommon when caring for fish, so it is vital to keep a close eye on them, so they do not get sick. Before purchasing your new fish and taking them home, be sure to check for any injuries or diseases.

Here are some common diseases that American cichlids may be affected by:

  • White spot: A contagious parasitic disease where the parasite feeds on the cells and bodily fluids of the fish. White spots will appear on the fish’s scales.
  • Gill flukes: Fish are seen with mucus on their gills where worms reproduce which causes difficulty breathing.
  • Cotton wool disease: A fungal infection that affects the skin, fins, and mouth. It is seen by white spots which grow into fluffy cotton-like fungus.
  • Swim bladder disease: The fish can be seen swimming upside-down, sinking to the bottom or floating to the top of the aquarium. The cause is usually from a physical injury or poor nutrition.
  • Hexamitiosis (hole in the head disease): This is caused by a parasite called Hexamita. The fish will become thin, weak, and have a bloated stomach. Lesions will appear on the fish’s head.
  • Bloat: The stomach becomes bloated, they lose their appetite, can be seen sitting on the bottom of the aquarium, and have rapid breathing. Eventually if not treated it can lead to kidney or liver problems.

Once one fish is infected the whole aquarium is at risk. You should separate the infected fish and put them into quarantine until they are feeling better to join their aquarium-mates.


Who can they share an aquarium with?

You may want to add diversity into your aquarium, but you need to consider the compatibility to reduce stress, disease, and injuries. Their aggressive behaviour can make it hard to mix with other groups of fish. They may claim territory or even attack if an aquarium-mate gets too close, so you must choose the correct fish to mix with them. It is not recommended to mix African cichlids with South American cichlids as they have evolved in different continents, so their immune system varies.

To prevent fights, choosing fish that are similar in size and occupy different areas of the aquarium is best. For example, bottom-dwelling fish such as clown loaches and red tail sharks are great for cichlids around 17-20 cm. Other compatible fish include Severum species, Red Devil cichlids, Silver dollars and Peacock Bass, plus many more varieties, it is almost endless.

Although when adding new fish or unknown species, do not add fish that can fit in the mouth of your other American cichlids, as they will be eaten almost immediately. It is a quite a bit of trial and error, so make sure that you keep a spare tank in case two fish decide they don’t get a long, as often the dominance fights can result in the death of one of both fish.

Even though these fish are compatible, it is important to closely watch them when you introduce them into the aquarium. 

Take Care, Happy fish keeping and we will see you again soon.