Puffer fish don’t just belong in the ocean! These creatures can also be found in freshwaters. Not only are they fun to raise, they are quite enjoyable to look at, too.
While raising puffer fish definitely is not for the faint of heart, this is an endeavor that should be attempted by every fishkeeper at least once in his or her life. These friendly, lovely fish are great pets and they are also quite diverse, too.
Not sure where to start? Our ultimate guide to the freshwater puffer fish will not only give you more information about how to raise one of these illustrious fish, but also the most popular types to choose from, too.
Let’s get started!
What is A Freshwater Puffer Fish?
Technically, the term “freshwater pufferfish” could refer to any one of a variety of species. Some freshwater puffers require fresh water at all times, while others need to be transitioned to a brackish environment. Therefore, you might find pufferfish that are fully suited to freshwater, fully brackish, or fully marine.
As you can see, this family of fish is quite diverse. Many of these fish are wild-caught, so internal parasites are commonly found. They can also be quite sensitive to nitrogen levels in the tank. However, that’s pretty much all freshwater puffer fish have in common with each other – all other care requirements and specifications will vary drastically between individual members of the species.
In general, you will want to keep your freshwater puffer fish alone. These fish can be quite aggressive, and even the pea puffer, one of the smallest species of pufferfish that only grows to about an inch long, is known to kill fish that are larger than itself.
In addition, these fish have sharp beaks that they used to chomp through the dense shell of mollusks. As a result, they can really injure their tankmates. Therefore, you should exercise caution when introducing pufferfish to an established tank. Although some can be kept with members of its own species, in most cases, you will want to keep them by themselves.
Freshwater puffer fish come from all over the world but tend to live in waters that are densely planted and very warm. There will also be mollusks here, too. The mollusks help limit the growth of the puffer fish’s beak so that the puffer can free it up to eat.
The Most Common Freshwater Pufferfish Species
Here, we will review the most common types of freshwater puffer fish species that you may want to raise in your home aquarium.
This pufferfish is one of the most unique types of pufferfish. Captive bred pea puffers are hardier than the ones caught from the wild environment. These fish are not prone to internal parasites and tend to live longer than their wild caught counterparts. There are also serious reductions in natural populations as a result of the aquarium trade – yet another reason why it is recommended that you purchase a captive bred pea puffer.
Pea puffer fish are also more likely to thrive in your aquarium. These fish are used to water changes, while wild caught puffers are not.
You can tell male and female pea puffer fish apart by their unique colorations. While both are very small and brown with dark brown spots, the males have wrinkles around their eyes that appear to be a metallic green. Males also often have dark stripes down the centers of their stomachs.
When you are purchasing your pea puffer fish make sure you get one that has a full belly without any abnormal-looking bulges. Fish who have sunken stomachs need to be treated for internal parasites. Keep in mind that all wild caught fish, not just pea pufferfish, are prone to internal parasites.
These fish are special and unique from other pufferfish in that they can be housed in groups. However, they are quite territorial – you will want to provide at least five gallons for every pufferfish you have, and make sure your tank is heavily planted. These fish do not get along well with other fish – they can easily destroy a community tank with their sharp beaks. They can not only bite your other ish, but they will take full chunks out of them with their sharp beaks. They can even decapitate other fish!
Don’t let their small size fool you – these one-inch fish can be quite ferocious. However if you are able to provide a tank that has more horizontal than vertical space, you will be better off. These fish establish their territories based on horizontal space, so you can avoid problems by setting up your tank in this fashion.
Pea puffer fish prefer tanks that are warm – usually around 77 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They are easy to care for in regards to feeding – you might want to feed them snails to substitute for the mollusks that are a regular part of their diets. Usually, the pea puffers will just bite off their heads instead of crushing the shells.
However, in captivity, your pea puffer fish will be most likely to eat worms. You can feed any kind of worms – from white worms to blackworms or even tubifex worms. They usually won’t eat dried or pelletized food, so you will need to feed live foods only.
Congo Puffer Fish
These pufferfish are some of the most beautiful fish you will find. They can change color and while they need some crustaceans in their diet, they also need substrate. You should make sure your Congo pufferfish, also known as a Potato pufferfish, has a deep sand substrate that is at least three inches deep.
This is because Congo puffer fish are ambush predators. They will spend most of their free time buried in the substrate, allowing a small portion of their body, along with their eyes, to be exposed above the sand. They will change color to match the substrate and are very skilled at adapting to the various colors.
You do not want to keep your Congo puffer fish in a community tank – this voracious predator will kill anything that moves and your other fish won’t know it’s happening until it’s far too late. In the wild, these creatures eat other fish, and there’s no reason to believe that they will do anything else once you get them into your aquarium.
Congo puffers like to eat bloodworms and shrimp. Bloodworms tend to be quite fast, so you should avoid feeding these with every meal. Shrimp should be exceptionally large with shell-on. They can eat large ramshorn snails, pond snails, Malaysian trumpet snails, and other small pest snails. They will bite directly through the shell and eat the entire snail.
These fish tend to be quite a bit larger than pea pufferfish, usually coming in at around six inches long. They can be kept in aquariums around 30 to 40 gallons, but a 40 gallon breeding tank will be the best setup for these fish.
When you are setting up the fish tank for your Congo puffer fish, make sure it is filled with plenty of decorations, like pebbles, driftwood, vegetation, and rocks. These fish are very intelligent and each will have its own unique personality. Some can respond to training! Each Congo fish will be quite different, but all will be super fun to raise.
Fahaka Puffer Fish
This Fahaka puffer fish has a unique, distinctive beauty that has made it a prized member of the aquarium hobbyist world. They are not designed for the average fish keeper but instead for someone who is more advanced and wants to maintain a relatively large aquarium.
These fish need to be housed in aquariums that are at least 120 or 125 gallons. A larger tank, even, may be necessary, depending on how big your puffer gilets. If it grows to 18 inches, you will need an even larger tank – the tanks described above are only about 18” wide, so your fish won’t have room to turn around.
Again, this fish is not for the faint of heart. The feed can be quite expensive, and because the teeth of this fish must be ground down – a dangerous endeavor both for you and for your fish – you need to provide this grinding action with naturally through foods.
You can feed your Fahaka puffer fish with foods like crabs, worms, mollusks, shrimp, and clams. These can be sourced directly from your grocery store, but you need to make sure that they are uncooked and unseasoned in any way. You may also feed them crayfish, feeder crabs, or snails. They can eat different foods at varying stages of their lies.
These fish don’t have much interest in worms – including bloodworms, white worms, or blackworms. However, as they age, they will eat some nightcrawlers, earthworms, and red wigglers. Again, these fish grow quite large – reaching well over a foot in length and sometimes growing to a foot and a half. They prefer warm temperatures of 76 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and need a pH of 7.0 to 8.0.
The Eyespot puffer, also known as the figure 8 puffer fish, is named as such due to the black spots on the back of this fish that look like either two eyes – or the figure 8.
Like the pea puffer, this fish is quite small, usually not growing larger than three inches. However, it also requires live crustaceans to keep its teeth ground down.
Some people argue over whether these fish are freshwater species. There are many people that believe that these fish live for longer periods of time in brackish water, while others claim that freshwater is ideal. They can live in both types of water, but prefer fresh waters.
These fish can not usually be kept in a community tank. Thee fish can go after other species in the tank, although there are some fishkeepers who claim that they have been able to minimize the aggressive demeanor of this fish.
In some cases, you may be able to keep the eyespot puffer with docile fish like tetras and mollies. This is because these fish are calm and schooling fish. They can move quickly to get out of the way of the more aggressive puffer fish.
You should feed these foods hard foods every single day. Good options include clams, shrimp, and mollusks. You will need to feed them live foods, which can be an issue in a large community tank setting in which they may chase their tankmates and fight them for food.
You can keep these fish in tanks that are around 15 gallons in size, but they should be at least 20 inches long. The temperature should be maintained between 75 and 7 9 degrees Fahrenheit, and the pH should be steady at 6.5 to 7.5.
These fish need to be provided with plenty of plants, driftwood, rocks, and caves to provide them with ample hiding spots. They are small fish and frequently preyed upon in the wild. Therefore, you will need to give them plenty of places to hide.
These fish are quite striking to look at. They have striped gray bodies and vibrant red eyes. There is a great deal of sexual dimorphism between males and females of the species – the two genders have different patterns and females often appear to be more vibrantly colored.
Another small species of pufferfish, this one usually only reaches a couple of inches long. A fully freshwater fish, they are aggressive to fish of other species as well as to their own kind. Therefore, it is not recommended that you house them in a community setting. In rare cases, you may be able to keep a male and female pair in a 20 inch long tank.
These fish should be fed shrimp, snails, and mollusks to keep their teeth ground down. These can be sourced from the grocery store and may be fed frozen. When you feed them frozen, you receive the additional benefit of hardness – frozen foods will take longer for your fish to gnaw down.
Since red-eye puffer fish are so small, you need to make sure that the aquatic snails aren’t overly large. The pea puffer will bite the head of the fish instead of the shell, but the red-eyed puffer will do the exact same thing to larger snails.
These fish should be kept in warm waters of no cooler than 77 degrees FAhrenheit. They grow to about their inches long, so a 20 gallon tank is ideal. These fish can be quite timid, so making sure you put your fish in a well-decorated and well-planted aquarium can ensure that you get to see their unique behaviors more often.
The Mbu puffer is similar to the Fahaka in that it is not ideal for the beginning aquarium hobbyist. These fish grow to be quite large and eat tons of shellfish – meaning you are going to be spending more money feeding this rare fish.
This fish requires substantial funds to care for. It can reach nearly three feet long and often goes by the nickname of the “giant pufferfish.” Eventually, you may need to build them a custom aquarium, and even just starting out, you will need a massive tank just to keep these fish contained.
The Mbu puffer has the potential to grow to over three feet in length – though they rarely grow larger than two feet long. All Mbu puffer fish are wild-caught as they cannot be bred in aquariums. There is rarely space for more than one three-foot long fish in a single aqiaurm, plus it can be quite difficult to sex them.
Mbu puffer fish are unique in that they can be housed with other fish – perhaps not just other Mbu puffer fish. You can house them with guppies and similar fish if you have a large enough aquarium.
Like other puffer fish, these fish have an issue with the development of their beaks. You will need to provide them with lots of hard foods to keep their beaks filed down. Give them shrimp, snails, crayfish, and mollusks, just as you would with other puffers. You may want to feed them hard foods that are till frozen to help expedite this process for you.
The ideal tank size for this fish is a hotly debated topic. Some people argue that you will need a custom aquarium so that it can be as wide as possible but relatively short. These fish prefer horizontal space to vertical swimming areas – therefore, a long, wide tank will not only be more ideal for the living requirements of this fish, but it will also be easier for you to clean.
These fish are known for shredding prey – this is a cool behavior to watch, but it can mean more work for you when it comes to cleaning out your tank. Keep these fish in warm waters – no cooler than 76 degrees Fahrenheit – and at a pH of 6.0 to 8.0.
How To Care For Pufferfish
Again, all pufferfish species will be a bit different when it comes to their unique care requirements. However, there are some basic tips you should keep in mind when you are first getting started.
Water parameters will vary between species. However, what they all have in common is that it is more important to maintain stable parameters rather than to strive for perfect ones. For example if your water is just a little bit too soft or the pH is a tad bit low, it’s better to keep them how they are than to experiment with changing conditions. You need to acclimate your puffer fish by using drip acclimation when adding him to the tank, too.
This involves floating the bag with the fish at the top of the tank. You can open it, take out some of the water, and begin slowly adding aquarium water. This is a great way to adapt your pufferfish slowly to the tank environment. To add aquarium water, put a pitcher above the bag and use some airline tubing to drip only a couple of drops per second into the bag.
Once the water in the bag has doubled in size, you can remove half and then let it double again. Then you can add your fish to the tank. Try not to add any of the water from the store as it might contain pathogens or even medications used to treat other fish.
Pufferfish are exceptionally sensitive to nitrite, ammonia, and nitrate. While all fish can be harmed by excessive quantities of these, pufferfish are particularly vulnerable. This is due in part to the fact that they are usually wild caught. Wheel aquarium-raised fish are used to some level of nitrites and ammonia, those that are wild caught are not. These compounds are not usually found in the wild so you need to make sure you are careful about keeping your tank clean and fully cycled.
When you set up your puffer fish tank, make sure you are careful about the substrate you choose. Most pufferfish prefer a sandy substrate, which is what you will find in the wild. You may be able to add pebbles or rocks to make them feel more secure, particularly for the Congo puffer, which will try to blend in to the rocks.
You can add live plants, too. Since these fish are carnivores, they won’t eat your plants. However, a planted tank can make your fish feel much more at home. You might want to choose some easy to care for plants like Java Moss, Hornwort, Amazon Sword, or Christmas Moss. Pufferfish will appreciate a planted tank, and many fish keepers consider a planted tank to be not just an ideal, but an absolute necessity. Plants can help remove toxins from the water and really make your fish feel right at home.
It is extremely important that you take the time to cycle your tank. Puffer fish will die if there are any nitrates or ammonia in the tank. If you use pure ammonia, you must do it at a slow rate of 4 ppm. Once nitrites appear, you can dose at 2 ppm. If you want to cycle the tank with other methods, you can, but the ammonia method is usually the easiest.
If you are waiting for your tank to cycle, you can go ahead and set it up. However, you should not add fish until it is fully cycled.
Breeding Your Pufferfish
A great joy of many aquarium hobbyists is the ability to breed the fish that they are raising in captivity. Unfortunately, most pufferfish cannot be bred in captive situations. The ones that have are rare, and the process in how this was successfully done has not been documented well. The pea, red-eyed, and figure 8 puffer fish have all been bred in captivity – although this has been done with limited success.
These pufferfish are all egg layers, so you will need a spawning surface like a spawning mat. Some of these fish will breed in group tanks but others need separate spawning tanks. You do not need to condition them in any way, since they are already being fed high-protein diets.
When breeding pea puffers, spawning can occur naturally. The male will lead the female to a secure area and they will spawn. The spawning area is usually a group of plants. They can be removed to a separate tank or you can remove the plants on which the eggs are laid. Young pea puffers will be quite tiny and will be too small to even eat baby brine shrimp. However, after a few days they will be able to. You can also give them baby ramshorn snails.
Figure 8 puffers are believed to breed the best in brackish waters. Males will exhibit some level of parental care of the eggs and fry, but the babies will need live food like pea puffers. You can feed baby brine shrimp, worms, snails, and daphnia as they get older.
Finally, red-eyed puffers have an elaborate mating ritual which is quite entertaining to watch. The male fish will attempt to entice the female, and if he succeeds, she will release her eggs over a spawning mop or plants – the male will then fertilize them. The males also exhibit some level of parental care, guarding the eggs until they hatch.