Neon Tetra Care: Tank Mates, Breeding, Lifespan & Disease

Neon Tetra have a reputation for being one of the better community fish out there. It’s well deserved too! Taking care of Neons is a basic affair but there are some tips and tricks that will help keep you on top of things. It’s just a matter of how far your skills as an aquarist are developed.

So, let’s dive in and I’ll give you the inside scoop on Neon Tetra care, so you can enjoy these fish as they thrive!

neon tetra

Neon Tetra Quick Care Sheet

  • Common Name: Neon Tetra
  • Alternate Common Name(s): n/a
  • Latin Name: Paracheirodon innesi
  • Care Level: Easy
  • Tank Size: 10+ Gallons
  • Size: 1 ½”
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Behavior: Peaceful Schooling Fish
  • Lifespan: 10 years
  • Reproduction Type: Egg Scatterers 
  • Water Temperature: 68-82°F (20-28°C)
  • pH: 6.0-8.0
  • Water Hardness: 2-10°dH

Origins of the Neon Tetra

Neon Tetras hail from the Amazon River Basin. There, they excel in dark, acidic water environments but find themselves in clear water environments as well. The only place they’re completely absent is in white water areas, which would quickly overpower these small fish.

Neon Tetras have been a staple in the aquarium trade for so long that their care isn’t really connected to their natural environment anymore. You can still stick them in a blackwater biome, and they’ll love it, but it’s not a necessary part of their care.

Most fish adapt well to aquarium environments, as long as they’re able to be bred in captive conditions. It just takes a few dozen generations to get them there.

When I first began keeping aquariums Neon Tetras were still regarded as a bit fragile. I never personally noticed any trouble in their care, even in hard water with a high pH.

It appears to have been a holdover from the first few captive generations which needed a very low pH to thrive and breed, their ideal waters can go as low as 4.0 and have virtually zero water hardness.

These days? They do very well in a “normal” tropical aquarium and are often regarded as a hardy aquarium staple.

Wild collected specimens can be found on occasion but shouldn’t be sought out. If you happen to stumble upon a batch of them, you may run into some issues. The vast majority of the trade comes out of commercial farms in Southeast Asia these days. These fish should be kept in a blackwater tank for the best results.

The biggest thing that you should transfer from their natural environment?

Plants, and lots of them. These will help them feel secure in their new home and let them thrive. Water conditions aren’t crucial, any cycled, tropical conditions will suit them just fine.

Ideal Tank Setup

You’re not going to run into a lot of trouble keeping Neons but some basic design principles can help you make a tank that’s specifically accommodating for them. The following suggestions will get you on the right track.

Please be aware Neon Tetras should always be kept in groups of six or more. These are schooling fish and it will seriously affect their quality of life to not have others of their species to school with.

Equipment

Nothing special is required for Neon Tetra. Just make sure that you have a large enough tank (10 gallons or more) to host a school of at least six.

Other than that the usuals will be fine:

  • HOB or Canister Filter- Rated appropriately for the tank. Neons don’t like ultra-high flow but you’re not likely to create bad conditions for them unless you’re going to extreme filtration measures.
  • Heater- Any will do, I recommend finding one that has an indicator light but as long as the wattage is right for the tank and you’ll be good to go.
  • Nutritious Substrate- I highly recommend keeping Neons with plants, you’ll need a live substrate to do this.
  • Hardscape Elements- Doesn’t matter if it’s a plastic castle or driftwood, you just need a few caves for added security for the fish.
  • Lighting- Minimal LED lighting or lighting suited for the plants you’re putting in the tank are both fine.
  • (Optional) Fake Plants- If you don’t want to bother with live plants, then you’ll need a good collection of fake plants to fill up the tank. Good silk plants will cost more than plastic ones but provide a better overall look.

As long as the tank is appropriate for tropical fish you’re on the right track.

You’ll also need an aquarium test kit to help you cycle the tank properly.

Cycle the Tank First

The one caveat is that Neon Tetras have a low survival rate for a fish-in cycle. It’s doable with extreme attention to detail and tons of water changes, but most of us don’t have time to babysit our tanks for hours per day.

Cycling a tank is simple:

  1. Set up the tank as normal but don’t place any fish inside. Put a tiny pinch of fish food in there.
  2. Add a tiny amount of food daily and test for ammonia.
  3. When ammonia reaches undetectable levels on the test, begin testing for nitrite.
  4. When nitrite has reached zero, switch over to daily testing of nitrate.
  5. When nitrates are in a decent range (ie: <30ppm) you can add your Neon Tetra.

The whole process will take you a couple of weeks, but it’s the safest way to introduce your fish to the tank. If you choose to do a fish-in cycle you need to be able to test twice daily and immediately perform a 25-50% water change if ammonia or nitrite are at detectable levels.

It’ll also take about a week longer since you keep messing with the chemistry and bacteria in the tank.

Just cycle your tank properly before you add your fish. It’s the best way to do it for everyone involved.

Your tank doesn’t have to lie idle either, I often use the cycling time for a tank to help find the best positions for plants and hardscape elements. You can move either with no problems since you don’t have to worry about fish or stirring up too much stuff from the bottom of the tank.

It’s not a bad idea to keep a pre-cycled tank with minimal equipment running somewhere as a quarantine either. That’ll let you get the fish and identify problems while the bacteria are getting established in their proper tank.

Plant Ideas

Plants are essential for your Neons. They don’t have to be real, but the extra cover given by them will help provide a sense of security that helps the fish thrive.

If you’re new to aquarium keeping, I recommend trying the following plants:

  • Anacharis
  • Java Moss
  • Hornwort
  • Water Sprite
  • Any Anubias sp.
  • Any variant of Java Fern

All of the above are pretty much impossible to kill and will serve as a great introduction to keeping aquatic plants. You should tie down Anubias sp. and Java Ferns to hardscape elements, the other four on the list will grow both floating and planted in the bottom of the tank.

Vallisneria sp. or Cryptocoryne wendtii is another great specimen to add with small schooling fish like Neons, but they require a bit more care.

Neon Tetra Disease

Neon Tetra Disease (NTD) is a parasitic condition that was first identified in Neon Tetras. They’re not the only fish that can catch it.

The organism responsible is called Pleistophora hyphessobryconis. It’s a bit of a mouthful, which is why we just call it NTD. This infection is invariably fatal, so knowing the early signs can save you a lot of trouble. 

It appears the spores of the organism need to actually be ingested for the infection to take hold. Thus it can be introduced by live foods, or by the rest of the school nibbling on their dead friend. The latter happens with most fish, which is why we consider it so highly contagious.

The first sign that something is wrong is restlessness, which will manifest in the fish as nighttime swimming and not swimming with the rest of the school. 

Remove any fish showing this symptom immediately

Do not pass go, and do not leave them in the tank out of misguided compassion. NTD is highly transmissible and you’re doing no one kindness by “mercifully” letting the fish die in their home. You’ll just end up with even more dead fish that way.

Throw them in a room-temperature goldfish bowl if you have to, but it really is best to have a quarantine tank somewhere.

Not every fish shows signs early, as the condition progresses you can expect the following:

  • Decreased energy
  • Formation of cysts
  • Color loss
  • Difficulty swimming

Since the parasite literally eats the fish from the inside out, it also destroys their immune system and makes them vulnerable to secondary infections. It’s not uncommon to see an infected fish with fungal or bacterial symptoms as well.

Any fish infected will die. NDT is one of the main reasons that you need to carefully watch any small schooling fish carefully and observe their behavior. Prevention is the best way to go.

Preventing NDT

Prevention measures are pretty simple.

The most common way for the disease to be introduced to a tank is with a new fish that’s infected but not showing symptoms.

NDT is the best argument for quarantine tanks that I know of. It doesn’t cost much to keep a 10-gallon tank somewhere with just a filter running after cycling. You can leave it bare or add a substrate if you’d like. My quarantine tank used to be front and center in my display because it was just an aqua garden with a few cherry shrimp that happened to be a quarantine tank when needed.

The other consideration is live foods. Neon Tetras don’t actually need any sort of live food in the tank, even wild-caught specimens will readily flock to eat some flake. Any time you introduce live foods into the equation you’re running a risk.

The most common culprit appears to be tubifex worms, but the spores can be carried by any feeder animal. Either avoid live foods or culture your own.

I’ll be frank, even with my concerns about live foods I’ve never gone to the lengths to culture my own and still fed them regularly. I was careful about sourcing.

That’s a good example of why it’s important to form a real relationship with your LFS if you’re planning on being a serious aquarist. I knew I could trust the guys at the LFS I frequented, there were other stores that didn’t earn that trust from me so I didn’t purchase live food (or fish, if I could help it) from them.

Treatment of NTD

NTD, when caused by the parasite, is incurable and will kill the fish. Once cysts and other obvious symptoms emerge you may want to euthanize those fish to prevent a painful death.

Clove oil, added at a rate of .5mL/L of water is the most painless and easiest way to euthanize fish if you’re forced into that unfortunate situation.

That said, you may want to try adding an antibacterial to the quarantine tank first. Some bacterial infections closely mimic NTD but can be killed with standard treatments. 

If the fish’s condition begins to improve you can be cautiously optimistic but I’d wait until there are no signs of the disease for a couple of weeks.

True NTD is invariably fatal, but if you get lucky it may be another infection that mimics the symptoms.

Suitable Tankmates

Tankmate selection for Neon Tetras is pretty simple:

  • Size- The fish shouldn’t be large enough to fit Neons in their mouth. They’re basically free-swimming food for 6” or longer. Likewise any catfish other than Corydoras sp. Are incompatible due to their enormous mouths.
  • Attitude- Neons can exist with some semi-aggressive fish like Betta but shouldn’t be mixed with anything that’s aggressive and fast swimming or it will cause problems.

Neons are kind of bumblers when it comes to chasing down live food, you can keep them with most fish and invertebrates without any issues. 

The only thing I’ve seen them chase down and eat successfully was shrimp fry, and even then they didn’t put a dent in the numbers. I only noticed due to direct observation.

Essentially: Neons are compatible with any fish that can’t eat them and won’t chase them endlessly. If you’re placing them in a community tank those are the only qualities you really need to check with the rest of the fish.

Some suggestions:

They’re also quick enough to stay away from most larger, predatory invertebrates like crayfish or freshwater crabs, but I wouldn’t call them compatible.

Breeding Neon Tetra

Neon Tetra are a bit hard to breed at home, but the problem is usually ignorance of conditions rather than re-creating them.

Even though Neons have adapted well to tank life, you still need to create a different environment for them to breed. Very soft water with a pH of 5.0-5.5 is required, and you should seed the water with tannins.

Tannin seeding can be done with almond leaves, driftwood, or leaf litter. Creating blackwater environments is a bit tricky the first time. Once the tank is in the right condition you can begin stocking.

Sexing Neons is a pain. Theoretically, the females are a bit plumper and their blue line is “bent” compared to the straight blue line of the males. 

In practice, it can be hard to observe a school of fish that closely. I recommend just making sure you have at least 10 fish in the tank, which should give you a good mix of the sexes.

A screen should be included at the bottom of the tank, a few inches off the bottom. This will separate the adult fish from the eggs after spawning, and keep them from eating their own eggs. It’s not 100% necessary but it gives you a bit of wiggle room.

Triggering spawning is an issue for some people, even if they prepared the tank as described above. There are a few tricks to try and get them started:

  • If the water has a measurable hardness level, try adding RO water to the tank to lower it. This mimics rainfall.
  • Likewise, a small change in pH towards the acidic end of things can trigger spawning by mimicking the same thing.
  • Dimmed lights seem to cause spawning in some cases.
  • Meaty foods, like frozen bloodworms, can also help most fish trigger spawning. Sometimes they need the extra energy boost.

Once you’ve noticed eggs on the bottom of the tank you should move the adults back to their main tank and remove the screen from the bottom of the tank.

For most people, the difficulty is just in triggering the spawning conditions, not in caring for the fry. You can feed them infusoria, green water culture, and baby brine shrimp as soon as they’ve hatched.

All of these are readily available commercially if you don’t care to culture them at home.

Neon Tetra hit maturity at about 12 weeks, growing quickly once they’re out of the initial baby stage. 

Plan ahead if you don’t have room for 60-100 fish for each female in the breeding tank.

The key here is to mimic wild conditions as well as possible to trigger breeding. Lowering pH and hardness, feeding meaty foods, and changing the lighting will usually solve the problem if your fish aren’t spawning.

Flashy Colors, Easy Life

Neon Tetra care isn’t complicated, but past complications still creep up and they have a disease named after them that can push people away. They’re an easy beginner fish that look great and do well with a wide variety of other small fauna that find their way into our aquariums.

Their flashy colors have made them a fast favorite, the only question for most of us is how many we can fit in our setup!