Redtail Catfish Guide: Care, Diet, and Health (2023)

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Dr. Mollie Newton
Published by Dr. Mollie Newton PHD| Senior Editor
Last updated: November 9, 2023
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If you’re looking for a freshwater fish to fill a massive tank or indoor pond look no further than the redtail catfish for a hardy, interesting species. We’ve provided an everything you need to know guide on redtail catfish care including what they are, what to feed them, and why you should keep them.

Article Summary

  • Redtail Catfish, with their striking appearance characterized by long whiskers, a broad head, and a thick body, have a dark grey, black, or brown body with white underneath for camouflage, and notable features such as bright red coloring on their caudal fins and the top of their dorsal fin.
  • They are opportunistic feeders and will eat almost anything available to them, including small fish, insects, and crustaceans.
  • These catfish are hardy fish but can suffer from ammonia poisoning and Red Pest Disease if water quality is poor.

Species Overview

Common namesSouth American, Redtail catfish, pirarara, red cat, cajaro, Banana catfish, Antenna catfish
Scientific namePhractocephalus hemioliopterus
SpeciesP. hemioliopterus
Size5 feet
Lifespan15 years
DistributionSouth America
ColorDusty red, gray, white, brown
Minimum tank size1,500-2,000 gallons
Place in the tankBottom
Care levelDifficult

Redtail Catfish History and Background

Amazon River
Amazon River

The Phractocephalus hemioliopterus was only introduced to the aquarium trade within the 20th century, but has become extremely popular since.


The redtail catfish (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus) is originally from northern South American. It is a massive freshwater fish that is collected as juveniles from South America and brought to a large home aquarium, pond, or public aquarium.

Where do red tail catfish live?

The redtail catfish is native to South America and are most commonly found in northern regions such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador. They generally inhabit the Amazon river basins, Essequibo river basins, and Orinoco river basins.

Are red tail catfish invasive?

The South American redtail catfish is considered to be an invasive species in Malaysia as that is where the Asian Redtail Catfish lives.

Are red tail catfish bottom feeders?

They are bottom dwellers and will spend most of the time scavenging along the bottom of your tank looking for food.

Redtail Catfish Appearance

This fish has a striking color pattern (described below!) that can be seen all the way down in the depths of your tank, making it a fan favorite.

What do red tail catfish look like

Body of a Redtail Catfish
Body of a Redtail Catfish

Red tail catfish have long whiskers that stick straight outward in front of them, a sign of their well developed tactile sense. Their coloring can range from a dark grey, black, or brown but they usually have white underneath to help with camouflage. You’ll notice that along the darker colored area they will have faint dots stretching across their body. Like most catfish, they have a broad head and a thick body that tapers close to the tail. Identifying features include bright red coloring on their caudal fins and top of their dorsal fin, with some coloring along their anal fins.


Asian Redtail Catfish (Hemibagrus wyckioides)

The Asian Redtail Catfish is actually a completely different fish species and genus. While they can grow to roughly the same size they are known to be one of the most aggressive freshwater fish. They are a favorite game fish and are a popular dish. These game fish lack the vibrant red coloring along their caudal fins.

Tiger Redtail Catfish

This fish is a hybrid between the redtail and tiger shovelnose catfish, which are two of the largest growing catfish species. They will grow extremely fast and prefer slightly warmer temperatures from 76-82 degrees Fahrenheit. You will notice that they have a flatter nose, and less vibrant red coloration.

South American Redtail Catfish (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus)

Unrelated to the Asian variety, the Phractocephalus hemioliopterus is more vibrantly colored and less aggressive. It is not often caught for sport or used for food. Their distinguishing feature and cause of their common name is the bright red coloring along their caudal fin.


Did you know that all catfish make a clicking sound called stridulation. It is thought to be a defense mechanism.

How big do red tail catfish get

Adult redtail catfish can reach up to 5 feet in their natural habitat along river basins, but most aquarists agree that they stay around 3-4 feet long in a home aquarium.

How fast do red tail catfish grow

You’ll likely see juvenile redtail catfish in the pet store that are roughly 2 inches. While these fish may look cute at first, they can grow rapidly at a rate of 1 inch per week until reaching their full redtail catfish size (3-4 feet).

Redtail Catfish Temperament and Tankmates

Redtail Catfish with Tiger Shovelnose Catfish
Redtail Catfish with Tiger Shovelnose Catfish

Redtail Catfish Behavior

When keeping this fish the key is ensuring there is enough room to swim and prevent any aggression from forming.

Are redtail catfish aggressive?

The redtail catfish is not considered as aggressive as other fish species, however they can become very territorial when other species or bottom dwelling fish encroach on their space. However, they are a predatory fish and their normal predatory behavior is often mistaken for aggression.

Will red tail catfish eat other fish?

Yes, as predators the redtail catfish will eat smaller fish regardless of what fish species they are. This can cause many issues for catfish owners.

What fish can live with redtail catfish

Other large fish that are non aggressive and tend to stay in the upper half of the aquarium can be compatible with red cats. Most aquarists choose to keep red cats on their own, though, as adding other species to the aquarium will increase how large it needs to be. Like Harlequin Lancer catfish, other catfish with similar water conditions can live with red cats. Although, it’s essential to monitor their behavior and provide ample space due to their large size.

Top 5 Compatible tank mates

  1. Peacock Bass – this large fish shares the redtail catfish natural habitats in the Amazon river basins. They will require similar water parameters, but will make good tank mates due to their size and preference for the upper portion of the tank.
  2. Adult Plecostomus– The average size of a common pleco is 15 inches. While this is one of the smaller fish on our redtail catfish tank mates list, they are still worth noting as they are large enough to not be swallowed. However, combining these two freshwater aquarium fish will require an extremely large aquarium.
  3. Freshwater stingrays – Unusual tank mates for any freshwater aquarium, sting rays will actually make excellent redtail catfish tank mates. Other fish tend to leave them alone as they bury themselves in the sand.
  4. Tiger shovelnose catfish– a large catfish that has similar natural habitats to red tailed catfish and is considered to be fairly peaceful.
  5. Pimelodid catfish – One of the smaller fish that still will make good tank mates. The Pimelodid catfish species (like the Marbled Pim) will grow to a maximum size of 30 inches. However, we recommend only adding adult pimelodidae as younger fish will definitely be mistaken by the large fish for food.

Top 5 Tankmates to avoid

  1. Other redtail catfish – we mentioned earlier that the redtail catfish is territorial, which is why they don’t make good tank mates. When placing more than one of these freshwater fish in an aquarium you will likely end up with a cat fight.
  2. Ram Cichlid – while one of the large cichlids, these fish are small in size (when compared to redtail catfish) and will likely be eaten. Additionally, they have sharp pectoral and dorsal fins that can cause issues if swallowed.
  3. Green Terror Cichlids – these small fish will stress your redtail out with their aggressive nature and fin nipping. Additionally, Green Terror Cichlids are on the smaller side and will likely be eaten.
  4. Black skirt tetras – While usually excellent tank mates for large fish due to the fact that they travel in schools and tend to be swimming fast, tetras are much too small to keep with redtail catfish.
  5. Congo tetra – one of the larger tetra species, they will likely still be eaten by your redtail catfish looking for a snack.

Redtail Catfish Tank Requirements

Redtail Catfish Swimming Near Wood Decor
Redtail Catfish Swimming Near Wood Decor

Because of their large size these fish require large tanks which can mean much more maintenance.

Will redtail catfish eat guppies

Yes, this catfish will definitely chase after smaller species such as guppy fish and try its best to eat them.

How many redtail catfish should be kept together?

You should not, under any circumstances, place more than one redtail in the same tank as tank mates. Not only will they overwhelm the bioload for your tank size, they are also very territorial fish and will likely end up fighting each other.

Tank Size

The minimum tank size for redtail catfish is 1,500-2,000 gallons. The range is due to their final size varying between 3 and 5 feet. A smaller catfish at only 3 feet will do fine anywhere in the tank size range, but a 5 foot catfish needs a large tank on the upper scale of the range.

Can redtail catfish live in a 5 gallon tank?

No. The minimum tank size for a redtail catfish is 1,500-2,000 gallons. The large tank size requirements is one reason why this catfish species isn’t very popular in home aquariums.

Water Parameters

Tank size1,500-2,000 gallons
Water TypeFreshwater
Water temperature68-80
Water pH6.2-7.2
Water hardness5-20 dGH

Tank setup:

What kind of substrate to use

Like other bottom-dwelling catfish species we recommend using a substrate consisting of soft, fine sand. As your fish swims along the bottom of the tank searching for something to eat it will likely swallow some of the substrate by accident. Avoid gravel substrate which can cause choking hazards and puncture the fish stomach.

What will a filter do?

Having a filter is absolutely necessary to help maintain water quality in your fish tank. Because these catfish eat a large amount they also excrete a large amount of waste. Redtail catfish care includes having a filtration system that is capable of handling the large bioload. We recommend choosing a filter that can circulate all of the water in your tank at least four times per hour. In other words, for a 2,000 gallon tank you will need a system that can circulate 8,000 gallons per hour.

Should I have a pump:

We recommend adding a pump to your tank to help increase water flow and oxygen circulation throughout the aquarium. Having a large tank means deoxygenated pockets of water can develop without your knowledge. A pump helps negate this and provides similar water parameters throughout the tank.

Do I need a water heater:

You will likely need an industrial sized water heater to keep the water temperature in a tank this large in the upper end of the redtail catfish temperature range. If the air temperature stays consistently within this temperature range you can likely avoid a water heater during the majority of the year. However, if winter temperatures drop below 68 degrees Fahrenheit you should add a few smaller water heaters to your aquarium to be safe.

What temperature do redtail catfish like?

Redtail catfish prefer temperatures between 68 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

What kind of lighting should I provide?

This fish doesn’t have high requirements when it comes to lighting, but we recommend adding an aquarium light source to establish a day and night cycle for your fish. This is especially important for the redtail catfish as a majority of its activity takes place at night.

What kind of plants to add to my tank

While plants can provide an enriching environment for your fish and help disperse bright lights when choosing aquatic vegetation, be sure to pick plants that will not rapidly spread. The redtail catfish is a very large fish and its tank should be sparsely decorated to provide it with the maximum amount of swimming area. Unlike other fish, it doesn’t require drooping plant leaves to hide under, and would probably prefer to not have them.

Do redtail catfish need an air pump?

Yes, when dealing with large tank sizes it is recommended you provide a couple air pumps throughout the tank to ensure that all parts of the aquarium are being oxygenated.

Do redtail catfish need hiding places?

No, unlike their smaller fish relations the redtail catfish is quite confident and doesn’t need many hiding places, they prefer to be swimming around the tank. However, they are primarily nocturnal so you will need to establish a quiet area where they can rest during the day.

Redtail Catfish Diet and Health

Fish Food
Fish Food

These fish will feed on anything which can become an issue for aquarists that don’t know how to handle overfeeding issues such as bloating and constipation.

What do red tail catfish eat

They will eat anything that’s available to them. In their natural environment this includes small fish, insects, small crustaceans, and fallen fruits.

What to feed redtail catfish?

In captivity, you should feed your adult redtail catfish a variety of commercial pellet food and supplemental protein and vegetable sources. When choosing commercial food you should choose the sinking variety to ensure that it will make its way down to the bottom of the tank to your fish.

Additionally, when feeding redtail catfish you can add supplemental protein by adding earthworms, brine shrimp, or tubifex worms to your tank and allowing your fish to “hunt” them to provide enrichment and entertainment.

How often to feed redtail catfish

As your fish will often be scavenging the bottom of your tank they don’t actually need to be fed that much and adults can make do with a large meal once or twice a week. Juvenile fish should be fed every other day to ensure they are getting enough protein.


After eating you might notice your fish become super lethargic and slow, this is because they are devoting all of their energy to digesting the food!

How much do you feed redtail catfish?

You should aim to feed your fish as much as they will eat in a 5 minute time period. As they are slow-moving and will not come up to the top of the tank to eat you can allow them a little longer than the normal 3 minute time rule. Be aware that it is very easy to overfeed your fish and if you notice any signs of bloatedness or constipation you should reduce feeding time.

Are Redtail Catfish hardy?

Yes, with their large temperature range and low redtail catfish care requirements, these are one of the hardier species of freshwater fish. They are generally suggested for more experienced aquarists due to the large tank size and amount of bioload these fish produce.

Common diseases of redtail catfish

  • Ammonia poisoning this illness can be fatal to your redtail catfish and other tank mates and is an indicator of poor water quality. Symptoms of ammonia poisoning include red streaks along the body, inflamed gills, respiration trouble, lethargy, and lack of appetite. Redtail catfish care for ammonia poisoning includes moving your fish to a new tank, and beginning to recycle their previous tank. Additional care can come in the form of using indian almond leaves to help soothe their irritated slime coat (make a tea from the leaves and cool before adding in tank or directly add to tank), and continued observation to ensure a secondary bacterial infection does not develop.
  • Red Pest Disease – A bacterial disease that is caused by Bacterium cyprinid and can cause bright red streaks on the tail, fins, and body. Severe cases can cause the fins and tail to fall off. Treatment includes aquarium salts, water changes, and methylene blue or malachite green.

How long do redtail catfish live?

The average lifespan of a redtail catfish is approximately 15 years. This is assuming ideal living conditions and no genetic diseases.

Redtail Catfish Breeding

Redtail Catfish Swimming Together
Redtail Catfish Swimming Together

This has never been done in captivity and is not recommended to try.

Can you breed a redtail catfish?

It is unknown how to breed the redtail catfish in captivity and all of the fish sold are wild caught. Facts that are known about breeding are that the redtail catfish is oviparous (lay eggs), and require external fertilization. Temperatures must be between 75 and 80 degrees Farhenheit and they prefer laying their eggs in plants or rock caves.


Why is my redtail catfish always hiding?

Like many other catfish species, the redtail catfish is mostly nocturnal and will spend the majority of daylight hours hiding or at the bottom of your tank. They prefer deeper water where there is limited light and won’t often come out.

However, if the lights are off and you notice your catfish has little to no interest in moving (even for food) you should check to see if there are any factors that could be stressing them out such as bullying tank mates, or high water flow.

Can redtail catfish survive in cold water?

These fish fall on the more tropical side of the spectrum, though they can endure temperatures down to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

How much is a red tail catfish?

A juvenile red tail cat (2-4 inches) will range from $25-$40, but a 12 inch fish can cost up to $150.

Do red tail catfish bite?

Yes, though it is unlikely that they will attack your hand unless they think it is prey. However, red tailed catfish are predators and their mouths are made to eat prey in one large bite so you’ll definitely feel it if they decide to go after your hand.

Can red tail catfish sting?

Yes, like other catfish, red tail cats have sharp spines along their pectoral fin. Alongside those spines are sharp hooks that contain venom glands that can be released when the fish feels threatened or is being attacked.

Is the redtail catfish for you?

In short, if you’re looking for something to add depth and vibrancy to your biggest tank the redtail is definitely one to consider.


Only experienced aquarists should be considering keeping these fish as they do require a plethora of knowledge and maintenance. However, for those that are ready for the challenge this guide provides an excellent starting place to learn more about these fantastic fish.

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