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Pictus Catfish Care and Tank Setup (Tank Mates, Breeding, Behaviour)

Pictus catfish are a freshwater species found naturally in dense forest river regions throughout South America. Their unmistakable appearance, energetic personality and monochromatic coloring make them a favorite among aquarium hobbyists. These active, bottom-dwelling fish are a joy to observe and make a wonderful addition to almost any large freshwater tank.

This article will explain all you need to know as an aquarist about the pictus catfish including daily care and maintenance. I’ll discuss such details as how big of a tank they require; how to set it up properly; what water conditions they need; what they like to eat; how long they live in captivity; how big they get; what their temperament is like; how to determine their gender; how they reproduce; what diseases they’re susceptible to; and how to decide if they’re right for your tank.

So now, if you’re ready to ‘dive deeper’ into the aquatic world of the vibrant and unique pictus catfish, then let’s begin…

Pictus Catfish Overview

First up, I am going to provide you with a quick overview in point form of the Pictus Catfish. Throughout this article I will then expand on these points where applicable.

Behavior: peaceful

Breeding: egg layer

Care level: easy

Diet: omnivore

Family: Pimelodidae

Lifespan: 8 years of more

Origin: rivers in forested regions in South America

Size: up to 5 inches long

Tank size: 55-gallon minimum

Pictus Catfish Natural Habitat

Pictus catfish are found naturally in the lower parts of shallow, warm, fast-flowing streams in densely forested areas throughout South America. They are found mostly throughout the Amazon and Orinoco rivers.

These mainly bottom-dwelling fish like to spend their time scurrying along the sand in search of an easy meal and will rarely venture away for the comfort and safety of the riverbed.

a few pictus catfish

Pictus Catfish Appearance and Size

Pictus catfish are beautifully colored and silver in appearance. They often have black dot markings, white barbels or ‘whiskers’, and transparent fins. Their bodies are long and slender with an aerodynamic look. They’re known for their large mouths, forked tails, and sharp spines which can unintentionally cause serious injury to other fish.

Adults can grow up to 5 inches in captivity and a bit larger in the wild. I’ve found that when buying pictus catfish at my local fish store, they’re generally in the 2” to 3” size range.

Pictus Catfish Behavior and Temperament

Pictus catfish tend to have a peaceful demeanor. Despite their large, downturned mouth and forked tail (which look menacing at first glance), they aren’t typically territorial or aggressive towards other fish, especially those of like size or bigger. Basically, any aquatic creature that’s too big to fit easily into their mouths is safe!

In captivity, pictus catfish like to spend their days scavenging along the substrate while scurrying about quickly in search of a fast, easy meal. Slow-moving fish that like to swim near the bottom of the tank could be at risk of getting injured or accidently swiped by their sharp tails. Provided the tank isn’t too small or overcrowded, pictus catfish will typically remain peaceful in a contained aquatic environment.

You may also want to consider (prior to purchasing a pictus catfish) if you have any slower moving fish in the tank – as they might get stressed out from the catfish’s constant and quick movement.

Pictus Catfish Diet

Pictus catfish are omnivores and as such, will eat both plant- and meat-based foods. In the wild, they’ll scavenge along the riverbed and eat whatever they can find such as plants, insect larvae, snails, and tiny fish. In captivity, you can offer them a variety of edibles including frozen brine shrimp and bloodworms as well as high-quality pellet food. They’ll also help keep the tank clean by nibbling on excess algae.

You can also feed these fish lettuce. Before doing so, it’s a good idea to blanch the lettuce first to make it easier to consume. I’d recommend boiling water and dropping the lettuce in for 10 to 15 seconds and then remove. When ready, you should use an aquarium safe clip and attach the lettuce to decorations or rocks near the bottom of the tank.

It’s recommended that you feed pictus catfish at least once per day with just enough food to be eaten in a 2-minute time-period. The leftovers should be removed promptly after feeding so as not to alter the water parameters. Rotting food (in excess) can increase toxicity levels in the tank which will negatively affect fish health. Though pictus catfish will nibble on algae, you don’t want too much of it in the tank.

Pictus Catfish Lifespan

Pictus catfish will generally live up to 5 years in captivity. In the wild, this species may live slightly longer due to better environmental conditions. This fish is highly sensitive to fluctuating water parameters which can leave them more susceptible to disease and death at an early age. To increase the longevity of this fish, you must ensure their aquatic surroundings are both clean and safe.

From my own personal experience, I’ve found that pictus catfish don’t do well in small aquariums.  Having as big an area as possible is recommended for such as active and explorative species.

Pictus Catfish Required Water Conditions

Pictus catfish are tropical freshwater fish and prefer softer, warmer water that’s conducive to their natural habitat. Since this species likes to move quickly along the substrate, it needs a large tank – at least 55-gallons minimum per fish though bigger is better. The temperature of the water should be between 75- and 85-degrees Fahrenheit with a pH level of 7.0 to 7.5 and a hardness of 5 to 15 dH .

Regular water testing and weekly partial water changes is a must for keeping pictus catfish healthy and safe. They won’t survive for long in a captive environment that’s too small or with poor water quality. Investing in a water testing kit is a must. Performing weekly partial water changes is also necessary for keeping ammonia and nitrate levels at bay.

Pictus Catfish Tank Size and Setup

Tank setup and size for pictus catfish will depend upon how many fish you intend to keep. If you’re planning to have 3 to 4 of this species, then you’ll need at least a 150-gallon tank since a single fish needs at least a 55-gallon aquarium. Because this fish originates in shallow, swift-moving rivers within dense forests, their tank should contain soft sandy substrate, driftwood, rocks, and other hiding places.

Live plants are a great addition to a pictus catfish tank. Not only do they provide coverage, but they also help keep the water clear and oxygenated. Hornwort and java moss are both good choices. Be careful not to add decorations with sharp edges since this species likes to move swiftly among and between objects and could injure its delicate barbels.

Pictus catfish are highly sensitive to changes in water conditions. Therefore, it’s imperative that the tank be kept clean and the water parameters tested regularly. They originate in warmer water, so they need a heater, aquarium light, and filter in their aquarium. To mimic their natural habitat, a high-quality hang-on-back filter is recommended to help create the ‘flow’ of river water.

If you want to invest in your large tank and fish, then I’d recommend buying a canister filter like these ones available on Amazon. A canister filter will give you the best water flow however, a large HOB filter will suffice.

Best Tank Mates for Pictus Catfish

Pictus catfish are non-aggressive and peaceful in nature. That said, they still need the right aquatic environment to keep them that way. This species is best kept with other docile fish of like size and temperament. Giant danios, opaline gouramis, rainbow sharks, glass catfish, bucktooth tetra’s, silver dollarfish, angelfish and other types of catfish like the striped Raphael are all good options for pictus catfish tank mates. If you ensure the pictus catfish is the smallest fish in the tank, you should be okay.

As well, fish that prefer to swim in the middle of the tank rather than close to the substrate are great since they’ll stay out of the pictus catfish’s way. Avoid housing this species with smaller fish like guppies or neon tetras as they’re likely to get eaten. Also, don’t place them with bettas since pictus catfish are active and could possibly harm these slow-moving fish.

When it comes to keeping multiple pictus catfish together, most aquarists opt to keep just one since they require a lot of space. While it’s okay to keep them alone in a community tank, this species is a shoaling fish and thrives in the company of other pictus catfish. In groups of 3 or 4, they hide less and are much more active.

Pictus Catfish Sexual Characteristics

To determine the gender of pictus catfish, begin by observing their overall size. Full-grown females are generally larger than males with a slightly more rounded appearance. As juveniles, it’s almost impossible to sex this species. An aquarist who’s never kept pictus catfish before likely won’t be able to tell males and females apart until they reach sexual maturity.

Breeding Pictus Catfish

Pictus catfish are an extremely difficult species to breed in captivity. Hence, they’re typically wild-caught and sold to aquarists as juveniles. Since this species needs a very large tank to grow to full-size – at least 200 gallons or more – most hobbyists just don’t have the time or money to spend on such an aquarium. Anything smaller just isn’t enough for them to reach sexual maturity.

Because it’s virtually impossible to breed this species in captivity, little is known about their spawning habits. What we do know for sure is that they’re egg layers, meaning the female lays her eggs first and then the male swims over and fertilizes them. For pictus catfish to successfully procreate in a contained aquatic environment would take no less than a miracle!

Pictus Catfish Cost

Pictus catfish cost anywhere from $10 to $15 each, depending on the size of the fish and where you live. Prices often vary from seller to seller, which is significantly less than other species of catfish that can run you upwards of $25 to $50 per fish. By freshwater aquarium fish standards, these prices are a little high but still within reason.

Common Pictus Catfish Diseases

It’s a known fact that pictus catfish are sensitive to changes in their aquatic environment, particularly when it comes to water quality. Fluctuations in temperature and pH level along with high toxicity rates will often lead to disease and ultimately death. Watch for signs of illness including lethargy, loss of appetite, ragged-looking fins, open sore or ulcers, and changes in fish gill coloring.

To treat typical pictus catfish diseases such as a bacterial infection known as ‘ich’, begin by isolating the ailing fish in a ‘sick tank’ with a heater, filter, aquarium light and the correct water parameters. A slightly salted environment (2 teaspoons of aquarium salt per 5 gallons of water) is recommended. Treat your ill pet with some copper-based medication or antibiotics but use sparingly – half the usual dose if possible.

Special Recommendations for Pictus Catfish

To successfully keep healthy, happy pictus catfish you must be willing to invest in an extra-large tank. This species is active and needs plenty of room to forage in and explore its aquatic surroundings. It also needs a high-quality diet of both plant- and meat-based foods offered at least once per day. If you don’t feed them enough, these scavengers will eat whatever’s available, including tiny tankmates.

Weekly maintenance is a must for pictus catfish. Extra time and care must be taken to keep their tank as clean and safe as possible. They’re best kept alone or in a pair (at the most) and will do well with other fish that are calm and the same size or bigger. Be sure to invest in a high-quality filter as well as an LED aquarium light, heater, thermometer, aquarium vacuum or siphon, algae scraper, and water testing kit.

Are Pictus Catfish Hardy (Easy to Keep)?

Because this species is so sensitive to environmental change and by no means ‘hardy’ when it comes to adaption, it isn’t recommended for beginner hobbyists. Though they’re easy to feed with a peaceful temperament, they need a near-perfect aquatic environment to thrive in captivity. Fluctuations in temperature and pH level along with increases in toxins is detrimental to this fish.

If you’re an intermediate or advanced aquarist with years of experience – especially with tropical freshwater fish – then keeping pictus catfish shouldn’t be that difficult for you. Keeping the tank as clean as possible by doing weekly partial water changes (10% to 15%), testing the water parameters regularly, and vacuuming the substrate to remove waste material, rotting food, or decaying plant matter is key.

Are Pictus Catfish Suitable for Your Tank?

To determine if pictus catfish are suitable for your freshwater tank, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my tank big enough – at least 55-gallons or larger?
  • Do I have the necessary equipment – large filter, heater, and aquarium light?
  • Do I have the time to do regular maintenance such as frequent water tests, weekly partial water changes, and substrate vacuuming?
  • Are the water parameters suitable for pictus catfish?
  • Does my tank have fine, sandy substrate and plenty of plants, rocks (not jagged), and driftwood for hiding places?
  • Are the inhabitants of my tank peaceful and large enough to cohabitate with pictus catfish?

a lone pictus catfish

Pros and Cons of Pictus Catfish


  • Pictus catfish are calm and gentle by nature and get along well with other fish of like size and temperament.
  • Pictus catfish are fairly easy to care for, provided the tank is both well-established and well-maintained.
  • Pictus catfish are easy to feed and will help keep their aquatic surroundings clean by eating excess algae.
  • Pictus catfish are active, beautifully colored, and fun to watch!


  • Pictus catfish are very sensitive to changes in water conditions and need a tank with balanced and stable parameters – this requires extra work by way of maintenance.
  • Pictus catfish are opportunistic feeders and will eat smaller tankmates if the opportunity presents itself.
  • Pictus catfish need a large tank (the bigger, the better) with plenty of room to forage and explore in their aquatic surroundings.
  • Pictus catfish are more vulnerable to common aquarium diseases which can lessen their lifespan.

Final Thoughts

To conclude, pictus catfish are a type of freshwater fish found in river basins within dense forested areas throughout South America. Their aerodynamic shape, active personality, and unique coloring have made them a long-time favorite among aquarists and a joy to observe in captivity. With the proper setup and care, this species makes a welcome addition to almost any large freshwater tank.

I hope this article has provided you with the information you seek regarding how to keep and maintain happy, healthy pictus catfish in a captive aquatic environment. Thanks for reading and good luck with your aquarium hobby!

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