Pictus Catfish: Species Profile And Complete Care Guide

Pictus catfish near the aquarium substrate
Dr. Mollie Newton
Published by Dr. Mollie Newton PHD| Senior Editor
Last updated: April 12, 2024
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Just like their famous relatives, the cory catfish and the pictus catfish, aquarium lovers appreciate them for their effectiveness in eating algae, their calm nature, and their ability to get along with larger fish. Though lesser-known in the aquarium industry, we’ve put together insights from our experts to develop an extensive pictus catfish care guide. Continue reading to learn more about how to care for these slim, green, algae-eating machines.

Article Summary

  • Pictus Catfish are relatively small, reaching a size of 4-4.5 inches and have a silver-gray body with black spots; they also have long whiskers (barbels).
  • Their diet consists of 80% algae and 20% supplemental protein, and they should be fed sinking catfish pellets, algae wafers, and live or frozen foods.
  • Tank requirements include a well-planted tank, suitable water parameters, hiding spots, and dim lighting.

Species Overview

Common namesPictus catfish, pictus cat
Scientific namePimelodus pictus
Size4-4.5 inches
Lifespan8-10 years
FamilyPimelodidae
GenusPimelodus
DistributionSouth America
ColorSilver and black
DietOmnivores
TemperamentPeaceful
Minimum tank size55 gallons
Place in the tankBottom
Care levelEasy
BreedingModerate to difficult

History and Background 

Despite being a fairly plain looking fish, the pictus catfish has a very diverse background and is the subject of much research regarding noises making mechanisms in fish.

Origin

The pictus catfish (pimelodus pictus) is native to South America where they are found in the Orinoco river basins and Amazon river basins in Peru, Brazil, Columbia, and Venezuela. This small, peaceful fish is a nocturnal species commonly found in shallow waters with fast flowing current. They were originally documented in 1876.

Do pictus catfish make noise?

Yes! Like many of their catfish relatives the pictus catfish is known to make noises. Sounds are usually made when they are stressed, warning each other about territorial boundaries or feeling threatened by predators.

Pictus catfish actually make two different noises (a low and high frequency noise) using two different sound mechanisms.

Appearance

Pictus catfish at the aquarium substrate
Pictus Catfish (Pimelodus Pictus)

While many aquarists don’t fully appreciate pictus cats’ plain appearance, they’re still one of the most popular aquarium catfish species. We think their attraction comes from the simplicity of their appearance.

What do pictus catfish look like

These small, scaleless fish have a silver gray body with black spots distributed across their body and fins. One of the most noticeable features is their long whiskers (called barbels) which can extend from their face all the way to their forked tail!

TIP

Pictus catfish are often mislabeled as the angelicus catfish despite not looking similar. Whereas the angel cat is black with white or light gray spots the pictus catfish is silver with dark spots.

The dorsal and caudal fins might be a bit hard to see due to them being semi-transparent.

The pectoral fins and tail have sharp spines which can get caught in nets and slice skin. Be extra careful when handling.

FUN FACT

Pictus catfish is one of the few species that is venomous. If cut by their pectoral or dorsal fin you can be exposed to a mild venom that can inflict pain.

How to tell the gender of a pictus catfish?

Sexing these fish is difficult, especially when young. Females tend to be slightly larger and have a rounder body shape than males. There are no external sexual characteristics to help differentiate.

Many experienced hobby fish keepers have a hard time differentiating the two, so don’t worry if you’re new to the aquarium hobby and can’t see the difference.

Pictus catfish colors and varieties

There are two main varieties of the pictus catfish: the large spotted pictus cat and the small spotted pictus cat. You will likely only see the large spotted variety in the aquarium trade as it does not grow quite as large.

How big do pictus catfish get 

The pictus catfish will likely be one of the smallest fish in your community tank. These fish average around 4 to 5 inches in length when mature. Despite the pictus catfish size you will need a very large tank as they are very active.

How fast do pictus catfish grow 

It takes 8 to 12 months for the pictus catfish to reach its full size. Improper aquarium conditions can hinder their growth rate due to less than favorable environmental conditions. 

Temperament and Tankmates

An Aquarium With Different Fish Species
An Aquarium With Different Fish Species

The long barbels of the pictus catfish look like a tasty snack to many fish making it a challenge to find suitable tank mates.

Are pictus catfish aggressive?

No, these small fish are quite peaceful, but do best when they are the only inhabitant on the bottom level of the tank due to their need for a large amount of swimming space.

How many pictus catfish should be kept together?

Pictus catfish are not shy and are active swimmers, and enjoy being housed with other species in the catfish family. Although they are not a shoaling species you should keep a group of 4 to 5 of them. However, to ensure all the fish have enough space you would need roughly 150 gallons.

Are pictus catfish fin nippers?

The pictus cat can live with most other fish species, and for the most part you won’t notice any aggression. However, if the catfish feels like other fish are encroaching on its territory it might try to chase them off with a few nips.

What fish can live with pictus catfish

As a peaceful species you can get away with keeping pictus catfish with most other fish. Important things to remember when keeping fish with the pictus catfish is that they claim the bottom of the tank as their territory and do not like others encroaching upon it, and in order to keep all community fish happy your tank should be large enough that all can swim comfortably.

Compatible tank mates

  1. Giant danios – a similar sized schooling fish that will stay out of your pictus cat’s way. Giant danios are fairly peaceful, and are less likely to be eaten than the regular danios which are a smaller fish
  2. Rainbow sharks – A more aggressive species with a feisty personality, they will especially leave your pictus catfish alone if you have a group of them. As they are both similar sizes it is unlikely they will eat each other, but you will need a large home aquarium.
  3. Other catfishMellow catfish relatives of similar size can be kept as tank mates including the bumblebee catfish, the upside-down catfish, and striped talking catfish. Angelicus catfish would also be excellent tank mates for the pictus cat
  4. Angelfish – as these two species of fish will inhabit different areas of the tank they are compatible. However, it is essential that you have a large enough tank as both are very active fish.
  5. Tiger barb – while they are a smaller fish it is unlikely that they will be eaten by the pictus catfish as they are not slow swimming fish. However, you should ensure that the tank reflects the natural habitat as much as possible and provide plenty of hiding places throughout.
  6. Kissing Gouramis – can generally coexist peacefully in the same aquarium as Pictus Catfish, as long as the tank size is sufficient and both species have appropriate water conditions and suitable hiding spots.

Tankmates to avoid


While Pictus catfish are typically peaceful in nature, you should avoid smaller tank mates as they may become a tasty snack for the Pictus catfish.

  1. African Cichlids-this fish exhibits too much aggressive behavior to be kept in a pictus catfish tank
  2. Cory Catfish-It’s not recommended to keep cory catfish with pictus catfish because cory catfish are smaller and may become prey for the larger pictus catfish.
  3. Blue Velvet shrimp-While blue velvet shrimp make excellent members of a cleanup crew, they are not compatible with pictus catfish due to the risk of the catfish preying on them.
  4. Jack Dempsey-these fish are too aggressive to be on of pictus catfish tank mates
  5. Guppy Fish/Million Fish – Small fish should not be housed with pictus cats because they will likely end up as the catfish’s next meal.
  6. Neon Tetras-Pictus cats will eat smaller fish, making neon tetras a likely snack
  7. Cherry barb-cherry barbs are tiny when compared to pictus catfish size, do not use these fish as tank mates unless you are expecting them to be eaten
  8. Zebra Danios– this species of Danios is smaller than the pictus and will likely be eaten

Tank Requirements

Freshwater Planted Tank
Freshwater Planted Tank

Despite requiring some algal growth for their diet this fish needs pristine tank conditions.

How many gallons do pictus catfish need?

One pictus catfish needs at least a 55 gallon tank. Two pictus catfish will need a 90 to 100 gallon tank.

Water Parameters

Tank Size>55 gallons
Water TypeFreshwater
Water Temperature75-80
Water pH7-7.5
Water hardness5-15 dH

Plants

When keeping pictus catfish, tank should be heavily planted with lots of smooth rocks, caves, and other objects for your fish to explore. Pictus cats belong at the bottom of the tank and appreciate having a diverse landscape in which to hide and play in. Additionally, algae will grow on plant leaves giving them another food source.

However, we recommend hardy live plants that will do well in low lighting. Some suggestions include; hornwort, Anubias, and java fern.

Filter

Having a quality filtration system is part of proper pictus catfish care, and is necessary for your tank. Like most catfish the pictus cat will eat algae, but they will also produce waste that your filter will have to get rid of.

Heater

It is unlikely that you will be able to maintain the tropical temperatures that these fish need to survive without the help of an aquarium water heater.

What temperature do pictus catfish like

These fish prefer tropical water conditions between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Substrate

In terms of substrate, try to imitate a river bed with sandy substrate as much as possible. Sand, fine gravel, or smooth large river rocks is the best choice of substrate when it comes to pictus catfish. These fish swim along the bottom of the tank and can be injured by sharp substrate. Additionally, you should use tank substrate that wouldn’t bother the fish if ingested as it is likely they will mistakenly eat some when eating algae.

Lighting

As a nocturnal fish your pictus catfish will likely prefer a dimly lit tank. However, some lighting is needed for algal growth. The balance between darkness and light is something that depends on your pictus catfish and other community fish. One way to provide lighting but to not stress your pictus catfish out is by providing an ample amount of caves and hiding places so that they can escape during daytime hours.

Do pictus catfish need an air pump?

No. As bottom dwellers, pictus catfish don’t need an air pump. But like almost any fish, they can benefit from the additional oxygen that will come with an air pump. So while not necessary, it will only improve your fish’s quality of life.

Do pictus catfish need hiding places?

Absolutely! As a nocturnal species, your pictus cat will want to get away from the light as well as predatory species and will need plenty of hiding spots to be happy. These hiding spots should be at the bottom of the tank and be created with driftwood, artificial rocks, and other items which mimic the pictus catfish’s natural habitat, a riverbed.

Diet and Health

Fish Food
Different Types of Fish Food

Unfortunately, many aquarists don’t fully understand the dietary needs of this fish leading them to be malnourished. We’ve included nutritional guidelines for this species below to ensure that your fish is as healthy as can be.

What do pictus catfish eat

Pictus cats are omnivores and will eat both meat and plant matter. The pictus catfish diet mostly consists of 80% algae along with about 20% of supplemental protein.

What to feed pictus catfish?

You should feed your catfish a high quality diet of sinking catfish pellets, catfish algae wafers, and live or frozen foods such as brine shrimp, or dragonfly larvae.

How often to feed pictus catfish

As your fish will be spending a majority of its time grazing it isn’t necessary to follow a strict feeding schedule. We recommend adding algae tablets twice a day (once a day if your tank has some algae) and protein three times a week.

TIP

Be careful adding algae to your aquarium as any leftover food can foul your tank water quickly. Any uneaten food from your other fish will also be a source of algae.

How much to feed pictus catfish?

You shouldn’t be adding more than 2 algae wafers to your aquarium every feeding session. If any of your pictus catfish tank mates also eat algae we recommend adding 1 wafer per algae-eating fish.

More active or larger fish might need more nutrition…

As algae pellets slowly dissolve you won’t be able to use the 3 minute rule to measure how much to feed. More active or larger fish might need more nutrition, be sure to keep your eye out for any aggressive behavior that identifies hunger such as fin nipping or territorialism.

Are pictus catfish hardy?

Yes, pictus catfish are hardy and are not genetically predisposed to most common aquarium diseases unless tank conditions are poor. However, as a scaleless fish catfish are more susceptible to ich.

Common diseases of pictus catfish

Dependent on water parameters these fish can become susceptible to bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections. Some freshwater diseases that are known to impact these algae eaters include;

Ich

The dreaded white spot disease symptoms include having white spots all over the body and fins and the fish rubbing against decorations. Ich is caused by a parasite and can be treated with aquarium salts or medicine like malachite green or copper sulfate.

Bloating

Fish suspected to be bloated should be placed in a separate tank with the water level just above their head and water changes every 2 days. Often caused by overfeeding, bloating can also be a sign of dropsy. Bloating caused by constipation should be treated by reducing the amount of food given.

Fin Rot

Caused by poor tank conditions, this illness can only be treated using a broad-spectrum antibiotic- such as Tetracycline- and should be taken seriously. In particularly severe cases, fish have even been known to lose their fins. Common symptoms to look out for are:

  • Fins/tails appearing tattered or frayed
  • Part of the fins/tail missing
  • Inflammation at base of fins
  • Edge of fins turn brown, black, red or white
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite

One other important note, fin rot often occurs in conjunction with other diseases. If you suspect your pictus catfish is suffering from fin rot, be sure to inspect them for other illnesses as well. 

TIP

When bloated, a fish tends to float, by lowering the water level we reduce the fish’s stress and ensure it’s able to still swim.

How long do pictus catfish live?

Pictus catfish on average live for 8 years. Other pictus catfish can live up to 10 years, but increased lifespan is dependent on high quality pictus catfish care.

Breeding

Ventral View of Pictus Catfish
Ventral View of Pictus Catfish

Breeding this species is very difficult and almost impossible in the home aquarium.

Can you breed a pictus catfish?

Breeding pictus catfish is very difficult mostly because a very large tank is needed to provide proper pictus catfish care. In fact, even commercial farms struggle having a tank size that is large enough for these fish to properly reach sexual maturity and feel comfortable enough to breed.

FUN FACT

The pictus catfish doesn’t produce spawning pheromones in captivity so artificial insemination must be used for commercial breeding. Insemination is not always effective as sperm is only viable for 1 minute.

One of the most problematic aspects of breeding this species is that it is extremely hard to sex the fish.

How to breed a pictus catfish?

Since it is difficult to sex these fish the easiest way to ensure that you have a mating pair is to place 4 to 5 fish in the tank. Observe the grouping and whether two particular fish seem to be mating or producing offspring fairly often.

After establishing your mating group in a breeding tank raise the temperature 2 to 3 degrees per day until it reaches 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Ensure that there are plenty of hiding spots as well as dim lighting to not stress your fish.

Not much else is known about the pictus catfish’s breeding rituals such as mating dance, gestation time, and fry care. Juveniles normally reach maturity in 2 months.

What do pictus catfish eggs look like

Eggs will be laid in the substrate and can be hard to find as they are small, white, and cylindrical. They will be laid in groups or 50 to 100.

Is the pictus catfish for you?

The pictus catfish is for any aquarist looking to add an excellent algae eater to their cleanup crew that won’t distract from other brightly colored fish in your freshwater aquarium.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the pictus catfish is a peaceful species that is sure to provide hours of entertainment with its playful swimming as well as lend some helping barbels in the tank.

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