Best Types Of Freshwater Aquarium Catfish

Catfish are among the more interesting species of fish, especially for those new to the hobby. Their whiskers and lively behavior set them apart from other fish immediately, but many types aren’t suitable for someone new to the hobby. Whether it’s size or aggression, you need to be careful when picking out catfish to avoid any problems.

That’s where we come in. Let’s take a look at the best types of aquarium catfish so that you don’t end up making a purchase you later regret.

pictus catfish

1. Corydoras Catfish

Max Size: 2-3”

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Omnivore

Special Requirements: None

The humble Corydoras is one of my favorite catfish. They’re small bottom dwellers with thick, armored scales covering their back. This makes them suitable as bottom dwellers in the majority of community tanks since they’re ridiculously tough for their diminutive size.

There are about a dozen species of Corydoras that you’ll see available in pet stores, and another dozen or so you can find from specialty dealers only. Their appearance is the main variation, all of them are equally easy to care for. There are a few extra small species suitable for nano tanks as well, the Dwarf Corydoras and Pygmy Corydoras.

Corydoras lack some of the features which can make other catfish hard to house. They’re not ambush predators, they don’t reach an epic size, and they don’t have specialized care requirements for the most part. They’re just cute little catfish ready to drop into most tanks.

2. Pictus Catfish

Max Size: 4 ½ to 5”

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Predator

Special Requirements: None

The Pictus Catfish is a native of the Amazon Basin. It’s a silver, roughly 4 ½” long catfish with black spots and long barbels. The latter is one of the defining features of the species, a Pictus can have whiskers the length of its entire body, and they’ll usually measure longer than the fish from tip to tip.

The Pictus is still a catfish. They’re a voracious ambush predator, which makes them hard to house as community fish. They do best alongside semi-aggressive fish of at least their size. I’ve had one go through a school of 18 Tiger Barbs in about a month. They have a very wide mouth and can swallow much larger fish than you’d assume at first glance.

The Pictus also has a secret weapon: venomous barbs. The barbel on the fish’s back has a very mild venom that activates if you get stabbed. In my experience, it’s very mild and hot water breaks it down quickly. Just be careful when netting them and moving your hands around them in the tank. These mini-carnivores make great pets, you just have to be careful who you house them with. 

3. Plecostomus

Max Size: 18”

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Omnivore/detrivore

Special Requirements: Driftwood

The Plecostomus may not be at the top of your mind when you’re considering catfish, but they fall into the category. The Common Pleco is a 12-18” fish with a sucker mouth, armored scales, and an incredibly strong body. They’re perfectly adapted to their natural environment in rapid portions of rivers and streams.

Plecos are common aquarium fish, although many people end up regretting the purchase due to their size. They’re used as bottom feeders and glass cleaners. Their rasping mouths make short work of algae and detritus. In a properly balanced tank they make a great cleanup crew.

Just remember to keep any Pleco you may bring home with wood. Even the more exotic species seem to require a bit of driftwood for their digestion. Studies seem to pinpoint lignin as being the responsible chemical, rather than the fiber one would assume. There are many species of catfish, but the humble Pleco is sure to remain a favorite for a long time to come. 

4. Whiptail Catfish

Max Size: 8”

Care Level: Moderate

Diet: Omnivore

Special Requirements: High Oxygen

Farlowella actus, the Whiptail Catfish, is a bizarre creature that happens to fall under the armored catfish category. These creatures look like an elongated version of the other catfish in the same family, such as Plecostomus. They’re a bit hard to find and have some special care requirements, but they’re definitely among the more weird and wonderful catfishes available.

These are social catfish, best kept in groups of at least 3. If you have the space, however, you’ll find that Whiptail Catfish are one of the few oddballs that can make it in a community tank. While many oddballs can fit in with modification, Whiptails just have some modest water requirements. Their water should be soft and in the 6.0-7.0 pH range for the best results.

Whiptails require a lot of oxygen in their water. They also prefer faster circulation of water than most fish, but you can work around that as long as you have an air pump. Other than that they’ll readily eat anything provided and they prove remarkably undemanding as long as you’re able to

5. Bumblebee Catfish

Max Size: 3”

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Predator

Special Requirements: None

Another small catfish which is suitable for many tanks is the Bumblebee Catfish. These catfish have distinctive vertical stripes like their namesake, albeit in brown and white instead of brighter colors. They’re one of the more commonly kept catfish, especially suitable for community tanks.

These catfish tend to be shy and a bit reclusive. They’ll need plenty of hiding places and shade to make them feel secure, but they’re suitable for keeping with other fish as long as they can’t fit them in their mouth. You may not see them much if you only view the tank during the day. Their nocturnal nature makes them much easier to observe with a moon light in the tank.

These are great beginner catfish, avoiding most of the family’s pitfalls. They don’t have any specialized care requirements, aren’t overly voracious predators, and they’re non-aggressive. All of these make them one of the favored catfish in aquariums and they’re a fast favorite among those who’ve kept them.

6. Asian Stone Catfish

Max Size: 1 1/4”

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Omnivore

Special Requirements: None

How about an oddball catfish that can fit in even the smallest tanks? That’s precisely what we have with the Asian Stone Catfish, Hara jerdoni. These tiny catfish have a wide pair of pectoral fins, resembling wings, to go with their natural camouflaged texture. These small, peaceful catfish are a favorite among nano keepers.

These fish are highly social, requiring a group of others to display proper behavior. Groups of at least six are recommended, and a school can easily fit in a 10-gallon aquarium. These fish are pretty active, a smaller group that’s acting sedate has problems. There aren’t any special care requirements, other than providing a planted tank, to speak of.

You may also see them called min-catfish or dwarf anchor catfish. Their distinctive, fascinating shape makes them easy to recognize. Combined with their incredible ease of care, this makes them a top-tier choice for being kept in smaller aquaria. Just avoid keeping them with other bottom dwellers, they don’t do well when in direct competition for food.

7. Glass Catfish

Max Size: 3 ¼“

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Omnivore

Special Requirements: Shaded Hiding Spot

The Glass Catfish has transparent skin, allowing you to see the spine and innards of the fish. For that reason they’re fascinating specimens, and they’re also quite easy to care for. Please note that we’re discussing the more common Kryptopterus vitreolus. The other catfish referred to as a “Glass Catfish” is Kryptopterus bicirrhis, a 6” long specimen with most of the same qualities. K. bicirrhis are rarely seen available for the aquarium trade.

In the wild, these fish swim in gigantic schools in open water. While most catfish are bound to the bottom of the water column, Glass Catfish swim freely in the mid and upper levels of the tank. Their transparent bodies seem to afford them some camouflage in their natural environment.

These fish need at least six per group to be happy, so you’ll need a tank of the right size. You’ll also need a shaded hiding place for them, plants and driftwood are the best way to create the effect. They’ll prefer to swim here during the day, leaving at night to forage for food.

8. Milky Way Wood Catfish

Max Size: 3 ½”

Care Level: Moderate

Diet: Omnivore

Special Requirements: Tight spaces

While not the most popular breed of catfish, the Milky Way Wood Catfish or Tatia galaxias is an interesting oddball. They spend most of their time pressed into the cracks of wood, tunnels, and other tight squeezes which makes them hard to observe. When they emerge in the evenings you’ll find that they’re a small, reddish-brown catfish with white spots. Their patterns can be quite beautiful.

Despite their manageable size and behavior, they’re not very popular catfish due to their hiding habits. You probably won’t see them every day unless you spend time specifically looking for them after the lights are off. Most people prefer to observe their fish as often as possible, which has left this beautiful species out in the cold.

Keep in mind that this is a species with skin over its eyes. If you’re not familiar with them it’s easy to misdiagnose the fish based on their “cloudy” eyes. This is perfectly normal and not something to be concerned about.  If you choose to keep one then you’ll find that a moon light is the best way to observe them. Without one, you won’t see this fish very often. Even if it’s the only inhabitant of the tank.

9. Bristlenose Plecostomus

Max Size: 5”

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Omnivore/Detrivore

Special Requirements: None

Bristlenose Plecostomus are actually an entire genus, Ancistrus. These are smaller than the Common Pleco and often find use in smaller tanks as a clean-up crew. They still reach 5”, they’re not small fish. Compared to the incredible full-grown size of the Common Plecostomus, however, they’re much easier to make room for.

Bristlenoses are active and hungry. They’re best thought of as simply a smaller version of the Common Pleco. Small Pleco are a great find, and Bristlenoses remain the best option for a few reasons. The first is simply that they’re the right size for small to medium tanks.

The second is that many of the more exotic small Pleco species aren’t just expensive… they’re also carnivores. Beautiful fish like the Zebra Pleco aren’t great algae cleaners, leaving aside the incredible price tag. The humble Ancistrus is favored by many aquarium keepers, especially those with medium-sized community tanks. For nano tanks, there’s a better suckermouth option.

10. Otocinclus Catfish

Max Size: 2”

Care Level: Medium-Advanced

Diet: Herbivore/Biofilm

Special Requirements: See Below

Otocinclus Catfish are some of my favorite fish, not just catfish. Unfortunately, most people have no idea how to keep them alive which has given them a reputation for being touchy. That’s really not the case, but you do have to have enough knowledge to maintain a tank that will keep them alive.

Otocinclus catfish do eat a bit of algae here and there, but they’re actually looking for something else. Keeping Otos alive requires a mature tank. Note that I said mature and not cycled. A tank should be running with stable parameters for at least three months before you introduce them. Otherwise, you run the risk of them starving to death slowly.

That’s because Otos primarily eat biofilm. This thin film of bacteria and microscopic creatures eventually coats everything in an aquarium. Without it? Your Otos have no real source of food apart from a couple of algae nibbles. It’s unfortunate that most of those captured will die in the wrong conditions while owned by well-meaning individuals, but preventing their starvation is easy if you’re aware of the need for a mature tank.

11. Striped Raphael Catfish

Max Size: 9”

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Omnivore

Special Requirements: None

Easy-going and friendly, the Stripe Raphael Catfish is an excellent choice for larger community tanks. They’re easily recognized by the bold stripes running down their sides, particularly as juveniles. As they age this will lose some, but not all, of its distinctness.

It’s thought the stripes are a form of protection, Namely, it identifies the juveniles as cleaner fish. Cleaner fish are those which will clean the skin and gills of other fish, providing them with valuable protein and nutrients while the “client” receives some maintenance.

In the aquarium, these fish are easy to keep. The only real problem is that they’re not bred in captivity, which means that they’re all wild-caught. Wild-caught fish, ethical issues aside, should always be quarantined since they’ve been exposed to wild pathogens. Other than this minor quibble, however, the Striped Raphael Catfish is an excellent choice for most larger community tanks.

12. Tiger Shovelnose Catfish

Max Size: 35”

Care Level: Advanced

Diet: Carnivore

Special Requirements: Very Large Tank

I always hesitate to recommend monsters, but if you’re going to pick up one of the catfish not suitable for most home aquaria the Tiger Shovelnose is a respectable choice. The females top out at just shy of three feet, although larger specimens have been found on occasion. They’re more important to aquaculture than they are to the aquarium trade.

On the other hand, you can also consider them as entry-level monster fish. Monster fishkeeping is almost a separate hobby since the tanks start at around 500 gallons and only go up. Most of these fish are over 30” in length, with some getting much larger. The Shovelnose is on the smaller side, but every monster keeper starts somewhere.

The Tiger Shovelnose Catfish is not a good fish for most home aquarists. They’re too large, require too much food, and are generally a pain to keep. On the other hand, if you’d like to eventually own things like Arowana, Arapaima, or Alligator Gar then you’ll find these fish to be an invaluable stepping stone on your way to keeping the largest of freshwater fish.

13. Syndodontis Catfish

Max Size: 4-6”

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Omnivore

Special Requirements: None

Syndodontis Catfish are common ornamentals in aquariums. More importantly for keepers, this genus encloses the majority of species described as “Upside Down Catfish.” As their name implies, these catfish will swim inverted around the tank. It’s a fascinating sight, since almost no other fish will actually swim that way.

This is thought to be an adaptation to the way they eat in the wild. They primarily graze on the underside of leaves and driftwood and the angle of their mouth requires them to invert to do so. It’s a reasonable explanation overall, but it still doesn’t explain just how weird it looks the first time you observe them.

Other than their unique behavior the various species in this genus are easy to care for. Standard tropical water parameters will do it and they’ll eat pretty much anything. The only thing to watch out for is feeding time, they can be slow eaters and lose out on food to other fish in the tank. It’s a small price to pay for the joy of watching them flit around the tank while upside down.

14. Walking Catfish

Max Size: 14”

Care Level: Moderate

Diet: Predators

Special Requirements: Legality Requirements, Enclosed Hood

Walking Catfish aren’t odd looking, it’s their behavior that sets them apart. They look like the prototypical catfish for the most part, just like the big brown ones that many people fish for. They have a few adaptations that have made them both fascinating creatures and a legal headache for would-be keepers.

Walking Catfish can “walk.” Or rather, they prop themselves up on their pectoral fins which allows them to move between different bodies of water. They’re a massive problem in Florida, able to walk themselves into enclosed bodies of water, eat everything in them, and then move on. They’re technically illegal to keep in most of the United States but I’ve seen them pop up occasionally for the last decade or two.

If you happen across one their care isn’t too hard. You’ll need a completely enclosed hood to prevent them from jumping and a tank of at least 55 gallons to contain their 14” adult size. Other than that they’re simple fish to keep. Just be aware of both the legal issues and the fact that you won’t really be able to safely observe their walking behavior.

15. Banjo Catfish

Max Size: 6”

Care Level: Easy

Diet: Omnivore

Special Requirements: Sandy Substrate

Another oddball catfish is the Banjo Catfish. These strange-looking critters are a whole family of fish in actuality. The most common one seen in the trade is Bunocephalus coracoideus, which reaches about 6” in length. Try to positively ID any Banjo Catfish you’re considering before picking them up, some of the species get mixed up and can end up being much larger.

The strange shape is just a shape. Other than that these are remarkably “normal” catfish. They’re bottom dwellers, they prefer to eat meaty foods but will go after detritus, and they’re generally peaceful nocturnal fish. They may not be a good fit for community tanks, however, as they’re slow to find food and eat.

They do display burrowing behavior, which is fascinating to watch. This lets them hide from predators and surprise prey when they suddenly emerge from the substrate. As with any other catfish, be aware that smaller fish will be eaten. It’s not that Banjo Catfish aren’t peaceful, simply that they’re hungry.

Species to Avoid

While the above species are suitable for most people without requiring too much effort, there are some catfish that simply aren’t suitable for the majority of people’s aquariums.

Unfortunately, they’re also found in a lot of fish stores and newbies can make a serious mistake by picking one up.

The following three are the commonly seen catfish that you want to avoid:

  • Redtail Catfish
  • Irridescent Shark
  • Channel Catfish

They’re simply too large for the average aquarist to own. All three will eventually require custom aquaria to be built to house them due to being over 4’ long. They’re also voracious ambush predators.

I’ve covered the redtail catfish before, so take a look at redtail catfish guide if you want to know what it’s going to require to be able to care for these fish later after they’re no longer cute 2-3” catfish.

A Whole Bunch of Cats!

Catfish remain fascinating, varied, and beautiful in many cases. They’re an excellent choice for the aquarist who decides to devote the time and energy to caring for them. While they’re not compatible with every fish, many cats are staples in the aquarium trade. Whether it’s a corydoras or a pictus, catfish rock!

So, which are you planning to add to your tank?