How to Care for African Cichlids

Adult African cichlids can reach 4 to 9 inches in length.
Adult African cichlids can reach 4 to 9 inches in length. (Image: mtreasure/iStock/Getty Images)

A smart choice for novice aquarists, African cichlids are generally healthy, hardy and resistant to disease, as well as colorful and entertaining. While African cichlids are relatively easy to keep, a little planning helps make your job easier and encourages these notoriously aggressive fish to play nice with their tank mates.

Considering Tank Size

Buy a large enough tank to accommodate your cichlids' adult size. A 20-gallon tank would suffice for a breeding pair of large adult cichlids or for several dwarf cichlids, while a 50-gallon tank would be able to hold a community of four to six larger cichlids.

Choosing Cichlid Home Decor

Primarily rock dwellers, some African cichlid species prefer substrate or shells, and a few prefer to school in open water. Regardless, your fish will enjoy rock outcroppings and caves, deep gravelly bottoms and other areas they can use to hide or spawn. As much as your African cichlids will enjoy aquarium decorations, they also love to remodel their surroundings frequently. Place any rocks or other decorative items on the tank bottom, then surround those items with gravel. This prevents the items from falling over when your fish decide to excavate.

Balancing Your Water

African cichlids prefer alkaline brackish water. Knowing where your fish originate will help you determine the correct pH balance for your aquarium. Typically, fish from Lake Malawi prefer a pH of between 7.7 and 8.6, while those from Lake Tanganyika enjoy a pH of 7.3 to 8.0. Placing rocks and some coral in your tank as decorations will help keep the water alkaline, which enhances your cichlids' coloring and their likelihood of breeding. Although African cichlids can survive in water with pH levels as low as 6 or 7, they don't thrive when water becomes neutral or acidic.

Keeping Them Warm

As with most tropical fish, African cichlids live in warm water. Use an aquarium heater to maintain a water temperature of 78 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Establish your tank's water temperature and ensure it is well-regulated prior to adding your fish.

Feeding a Meaty Diet

African cichlids love to eat. They'll eat vigorously, enthusiastically gobbling up whatever food you place in the tank. Carnivorous by nature, they'll eat live or frozen mealworms as well as flake or pelleted fish food. Feeding African cichlids two to three tiny meals per day ensures that they eat all that you provide, thus aiding water clarity. Feed only as much as they'll eat in about five minutes.

Weekly House Cleaning

While African cichlids enjoy alkaline water and exhibit few sensitivities to variations in pH levels, they are sensitive to nitrites and ammonia levels. For this reason, weekly water changes are essential to the well-being of your fish. Siphon out 25 percent of your tank water once per week and replace it with fresh water after you've removed chlorine or chloramine, prior to adding the fresh water to your tank. When possible, bring the new water to the same temperature as your aquarium prior to adding it to you tank. Otherwise, move your fish to a holding tank while you complete the water change. Abrupt temperature changes can send cichlids into shock.

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