Top 20 Popular Freshwater Aquarium Catfish (2024 Guide)

Pair of freshwater aquarium catfish
Dr. Mollie Newton
Published by Dr. Mollie Newton PHD| Senior Editor
Last updated: July 12, 2024
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If you’re considering purchasing a catfish, whether it’s the well-known pleco or more unusual species such as the tiger shovelnose or glass catfish, several factors should influence your decision. These factors include the catfish’s size, activity level, aggressiveness, and dietary needs.

Many aquarists appreciate these fish as part of their tank clean up crew, but they can actually provide hours of entertainment with their unique appearance and high activity level. This guide was created to assist you in choosing between the many freshwater catfish you can add to your aquarium.

Article Summary

  • Different catfish species have varying care requirements, including tank size, water temperature, and compatibility with other fish.
  • Catfish have a range of sizes, with some species growing as small as 1.25 inches and others reaching up to 3 feet.
  • Catfish are generally nocturnal and prefer low lighting in the tank, with plenty of hiding spots.

Best Freshwater Aquarium Catfish

1. Sailfin Pleco

Scientific Name: Pterygoplichthys gibbiceps

Care Level: Beginner

Size: 13-19 inches

Required tank size: 100 gallons

Sometimes referred to as the leopard pleco this species hails from South America and prefers tropical water temperatures. They are slow moving and will bury themselves in the sand when the water levels aren’t high in their natural environment. They have a massive dorsal fin that gives the appearance of a sail when they swim through the water.

2. Bumblebee Catfish

Scientific name: Pseudomystus siamenis

Care level: Easy

Size: 3 inches

Required tank size: 20 gallons

Another South America native species the Bumblebee catfish are well liked in the aquarium hobby because of their unique black and yellow striped pattern. They are one of the smaller fish and are typically around 3 inches in length. Bumblebee catfish enjoy a heavily planted tank with ample room to hide.

3. Bristlenose Pleco

Bristlenose Catfish

Scientific name: Ancistrus cirrhosus

Care Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Size: 6 inches

Required tank size: 30 gallons

Sometimes called the bushy nose pleco or bristlenose catfish, the Bristlenose pleco is one of the most common pleco in the aquarium trade. The term bristlenose plecos covers a wide array of varieties as these aquarium fish have been specially bred to have specific traits such as long fins, different coloring, and texture. Bristlenose plecos are one of the most efficient cleaners and are primarily herbivores.

4. Clown Pleco

Scientific name:Panaque maccus

Care Level: Beginner

Size: 3.5 inches

Required Tank Size: 20 gallons

A peaceful fish that gets along with many tank mates the clown pleco is a hardy fish and one of the most popular in the trade. The popularity of the clown catfish is partly due to their interesting coloring (bright colored bands on top of a black body) and their long life span (10-12 years).

5. Cory Catfish

Cory Catfish

Scientific name: Corydoras paleatus

Care level: Beginner

Size: 1-4 inches

Required Tank Size: 20 gallons

The corydoras catfish is a crowd favorite when it comes to catfish species and encompasses a wide variety of fish including the orange laser corydoras, and pygmy corydoras. Be aware when keeping cory species with other species. While they are small fish the cory catfish have sharp spines that can produce a slightly toxic venom when they become stressed. If larger catfish or species try to chase and eat them, these spines can easily cause damage to the predator.

6. Green Phantom Plecostomus

Bristlenose Catfish

Scientific name: Hemiancistrus subviridis

Care Level: Intermediate

Size: 5-6 inches

Required tank size: 30 gallons

The green phantom is a long lived species of catfish that is excellent for beginners. Its popularity mainly comes from its striking green coloring and armored body. Whereas other catfish are schooling fish, the green phantom species prefers isolation and does well in solitary. They are quite hardy, but need at least a 30 gallon tank with lots of caves to be happy.

7. Pictus Catfish

Pictus Catfish

Scientific name: Pimelodus pictus

Care Level: Beginner

Size: 4 inches

Required tank size: 50 gallons

The pictus catfish is quite speedy and leaves its other catfish relations in the dust. They have an interesting spot pattern on the upper and lower parts of their body with a solid silver line running from just behind their caudal fins almost all the way to their tail. Like other species of catfish these fish have barbels (the whisker things!) that commonly grow to match individuals body length.

8. Peppered Corydoras

Peppered Cory catfish

Scientific name: Corydoras paleatus

Care Level: Intermediate

Size:2-3 inches

Required tank size: 20 gallons

A smaller fish, they were first discovered by well known explorer Charles Darwin. They hail from the lakes of South America. Other types of freshwater these fish inhabit include small rivers and streams which means they like moderately fast water flows in their aquarium. Their appearance is well known as it includes a “peppering” of greenish-black dots against their tan bodies.

9. Otocinclus Catfish

Otocinclus Catfish

Scientific name: Macrotocinclus affinis

Care level: Beginner

Size: 1.5-2 inches

Required tank size: 15-20 gallon

Otherwise known as the dwarf sucking catfish they, (along with the corydoras pygmaeus) are one of the smallest of this fish species. The otocinclus catfish is a shy fish and should be kept with similarly sized fish in your aquarium. One of the most striking things about this suckermouth catfish is that it has sort of protruding eyes from either side of its head. Additionally, unlike other catfish species, it doesn’t have barbels.

RECOMMENDATION

If you’re looking for other fish that would do well in smaller sized tanks consider the Asian stone catfish or the twig catfish

10. Sterbai Corydoras

Sterbai Corydoras

Scientific name: Corydoras sterbai

Care level: Beginner

Size: 2-2.5 inches

Required tank size: 30 gallons

An excellent fish for beginner aquarists, this shy catfish can easily be found in most fish stores. One of the unique features of this catfish species is that aquarists claim they can blink! While fish don’t have eyelids so they are not physically able to blink, the Sterbai Cordy will often tilt its eyes downward in search of food, giving it the appearance of closing its eyes.

11. Synodontis Catfish

Synodontis Catfish

Scientific name: Varies

Care level: Intermediate

Size: 4 inches

Required tank size: 20 gallons

Native to Africa this aquarium catfish has a similar appearance to the pictus catfish due to its spot pattern and similar body coloring. Despite this similarity, there are roughly 120 variations of the Synodontis Catfish so we can definitely claim that it’s an entirely different catfish species. The identifying features that can differentiate the synodontis catfish from the pictus catfish is that the synodontis has much larger spots along its body, though this can be difficult to see when they are young. This species is an egg layer and is quite popularly bred by aquarium hobbyists.

12. Ogre Gulper Catfish

Scientific name: Asterophysis batrachus

Care Level: Advanced

Size: 9-12 inches

Required tank size: 100 gallons

This aquarium catfish has an oversized mouth and almost prehistoric appearance. Unlike other catfish this species doesn’t just eat smaller fish, they can eat prey that is larger than them too. Generally considered a predatory fish the gulper catfish has very poor eyesight and largely depend on their barbels to lead them to prey. In their natural environment, they inhabit deep areas of blackwater rivers making them especially sensitive to light. Breeding this species is not recommended due to them exhibiting aggression toward others of their species.

13. Upside Down Catfish

Upside Down Catfish

Scientific name:Synodontis nigriventris

Care level: Beginner

Size: 4 inches

Required tank size: 20 gallon

The Upside Down catfish is a fan favorite because of its unique swimming technique of swimming upside down. This behavior is due to them scouring the surface in search of insects to snack on. Because of this, the upside down catfish actually has a darker colored belly which will help camouflage it from predators. The upside down catfish only grows to roughly four inches, but are schooling fish meaning they need a larger tank.

14. Striped Raphael Catfish

Striped Raphael Catfish
Striped Raphael Catfish

Scientific name: Platydoras armatulus

Care level:Intermediate

Size: 8-9.5 inches

Required tank size: 30 gallons

The striped raphael catfish has a unique appearance that has one bold stripe that runs laterally the length of their body (but their belly is also lightly colored giving them the appearance of three stripes). Stripes can be white or yellow which stands out against their dark-colored body. Additionally, this unique fish has 3 pairs of barbels. When keeping this catfish you need a minimum tank size of 50 gallons because of their high activity level. They are not known to be a semi aggressive fish, however, they have been known to eat very small fish, mistaking them for snacks. So far this species has only been bred in captivity using reproductive hormones, making it impractical for the average aquarist.

15. Chinese Algae Eater

Chinese Algae Eater

Scientific name: Gyrinocheilus aymonieri

Care level: Intermediate

Size:11 inches

Required tank size: 50 gallons

Often mistaken for the Siamese algae eater, the Chinese algae eater is actually a completely different species. They are excellent algae eaters and make great additions to particularly messy tank mates such as goldfish. However, the minimum tank size is 50 gallons. We recommend a water temperature between 74 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. There are no established breeding methods for this species and those that have been captive bred are often accidental.

16. Royal Farlowella Catfish

Scientific name: Sturisoma panamense

Royal Farlowella Catfish
Royal Farlowella Catfish

Care Level: Intermediate

Size:8 inches

Required tank size: 30 gallons

A subspecies of Twig Catfish, this fish gets its name from its long skinny body. Unlike their relatives this fish has longer dorsal and pectoral fins. The twig catfish species does well when it is the only fish along the bottom of the tank with mostly surface dwelling tank mates. It does not enjoy being housed with its own species as it is not a schooling species. We recommend having a minimum of a 30 gallon tank to house this species for the best results.

17. Dwarf Petricola Synodontis Catfish

Scientific name: Synodontis petricola

Care level: Intermediate

Size: 4 inches

Required tank size: 30 gallons

Often known as the leopard catfish it is similar to the upside down catfish in that it also has a fondness of swimming upside down this freshwater fish does better with smaller tank mates barring invertebrates (it tends to snack on them). You will need a minimum tank size of 20 gallons. But we suggest having a 50 gallon tank if you have the room. However, unlike other fish, it will not bother live plants in the aquarium and prefers mainly meaty foods. They are fairly easy to breed and there are many breeding guides available on the internet.

18. Bandit Cory Catfish

Scientific name: Corydoras metae

Care level: Beginner

Size: 1.5-2 inches

Required tank size: 20 gallons

Named for its unique convict striped appearance you can very clearly see the armored scaling of the corydora catfish. You should have a minimum tank size of at least a 20 gallon tank to keep this freshwater fish as well as an additional 5 gallons per fish in its school. They prefer a mid range water temperature which makes them adaptable to a wide variety of tank conditions. The bandit cory is one of the easiest catfish to breed meaning that they are widely available for purchase.

19. Marble Hoplo Catfish

Marble Hoplo Catfish

Scientific name: Megalechis thoracata

Care level: Beginner

Size: 6 inches

Required tank size: 40 gallons

A very sociable catfish, in the wild they supposedly travel in schools numbering in the hundreds. For your home aquarium, we suggest having at least a school of 5, meaning you will need a minimum tank size of roughly 40 gallons. Water temperature for this species needs to be between 72 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning it can be housed with more tropical fish. The marble hoplo catfish is one of the few catfish that has been bred in captivity.

20. Golden Nugget Plecostomus

Golden Nugget Plecostomus

Scientific name: Baryancistrus xanthellus

Care level: Beginner

Size: 7-9 inches

Required tank size: 55 gallons

The golden nugget pleco is popular due to its dark coloring with golden dots that speckle its body. Like the common pleco these are beautiful fish are excellent algae eaters but are very shy. The gold nugget pleco can grow up to 6 inches and is territorial meaning you need a minimum tank size of at least a 50 gallon tank.

The gold nugget pleco should not be kept in a planted tank as they will dig and destroy root systems as well as nibble on leaves. This popular aquarium fish is one of the more expensive varieties of catfish as they are not able to be bred in captivity, or at least the attempts have not been well-documented or replicated.

21. Extra! Stone Catfish

Scientific name: Hara Jerdoni

Care level: Intermediate

Size:1 inch

Required tank size: 10 gallons

Description: A very small and inactive catfish, this species would do well in a nano tank with other small species or in a paludarium where there is not as much water. As omnivores, they will eat almost anything but prefer live or frozen bloodworms to most other food.

They have a dark green or brown appearance with black spots and pointy caudal and dorsal fins. They are sometimes referred to as anchor catfish due to their appearance. Their tank should be expertly maintained, have cool water temperature and well oxygenated water with plenty of hides. The stone catfish prefers to be kept in small groups of 3 to 4.

Other popular aquarium catfish include the ghost catfish (sometimes called the glass catfish), the redtail catfish, and the tiger shovelnose catfish.

FUN FACT

The glass catfish is named so because of its transparent coloring. The glass catfish has this adaptation to help hide from predators.

FAQs

Are catfish good for aquariums?

Yes, adding a freshwater catfish to your tank can be an excellent choice. They are generally peaceful fish, make excellent tank mates, and can be part of your tank clean up crew. Many fish keepers enjoy keeping catfish in their community tank not only because they are algae eaters, but also because of their active personalities.

TIP

While catfish make a valuable addition to any aquarium be sure to follow their minimum tank size requirements as they are very active fish and do not appreciate having their territory encroached on.

How long can a catfish live in a freshwater aquarium?

Life expectancy can vary depending on the exact fish species. Some such as the cory catfish may only live for five years, others such as the Synodontis catfish can live up to 25 years in ideal conditions.

Do catfish keep the tank clean?

While catfish species can definitely help keep your home aquarium clean and get rid of some algae infestations, having freshwater aquarium catfish is no excuse for not keeping up with regular tank maintenance or not having a filter. While this small fish can make a big dent in dirty aquariums, it is better for your catfish and other species in your community tank if you keep to a regular cleaning schedule.

What do you feed freshwater aquarium catfish?

Surprisingly freshwater catfish don’t just eat algae wafers, they are actually omnivores and require significant amounts of protein in their diet. Supplement your freshwater catfish diet with commercially available pellet food or flake foods, fresh prawns, mussels, or worms.

If you’re not able to purchase or keep live food fresh you can consider frozen meaty foods to use for supplemental protein. Additionally, if your aquarium doesn’t have many algae you should consider adding spirulina to the mix.

RECOMMENDATION

When feeding your catfish choose sinking pellets as they mainly hang out at the bottom of the tank.

How big do freshwater aquarium catfish get?

The exact size depends on the specific species and can vary between 1 ¼ inch (Asian Stone Catfish) and 3 feet (redtail catfish).

What do freshwater catfish eat?

In the wild freshwater catfish,will eat a variety of plant matter, dead and decaying organisms, and small morsels of meat such as insect larvae, insects, or mussels. You should try to replicate the diet of their natural environment as closely as possible and can find many options at your local fish store.

Each catfish will have slightly different dietary needs, for example, the redtail catfish needs lots of protein but will also eat fallen fruit in its native habitat. On the other hand, the Chinese algae eater consumes mostly herbaceous foods (though it still needs protein!)

Do catfish need sand or gravel?

Soft sand or large, smooth, river stones work best for aquarium catfish. Because they spend a majority of time at the bottom of the tank you want to choose a substrate that doesn’t have any sharp edges that can potentially scrape their bellies as they swim along. Additionally, having flat surfaces make it easier for these fish to graze as this is usually where algae grows.

How much light do catfish need?

Catfish are generally shy and skittish, and a majority of the species are nocturnal fish. If keeping in a large display tank you should limit the brightness of tank lights or add lots of floating plants and caves to provide shaded areas for your catfish to escape to.

Do catfish like planted tanks?

The ideal aquarium setting for most species of catfish is a community aquarium where they are the only bottom dwellers that have soft substrate and plenty of hiding spots. Plants that have large drooping leaves can be beneficial because it gives your catfish a safe spot to dart through.

However, plants aren’t necessary to make your catfish happy. For aquarists that don’t have a green thumb cave dwellings, driftwood, and large rocks with lots of crevices will also please your aquarium catfish.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there are roughly 3000 catfish species in the world which means there’s plenty to choose from when adding one to your freshwater aquarium. The 20 above are just a short list of easily available fish that do well in the aquarium setting.

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