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How To Raise The Redtail Catfish – The Goliath Of The Aquarium

Are you looking for a new addition to your freshwater aquarium? Perhaps you want a fish that will get along well with other fish, help to keep your tank clean, and add a diverse new element of interest to your tank.

If so, you should consider the Redtail Catfish. Although this is a large fish species that is not suitable for all home aquariums, it is an interesting, large fish that is sure to turn heads.

Ready to get started? Here is everything you need to know about raising the Redtail Catfish – and all the reasons why you should do so.


Redtail Catfish Background

Redtail Catfish 7
Photo by Russ Glasson

This fish is native to the large streams, lakes, and rivers of the Amazon. It can be found all throughout South America, and while it is quite large and therefore not suitable for most home aquariums, it can be found in many fish and pet stores.

This fish has a reputation for being difficult to raise. While this is true to an extent, it is true only in that Redtail Catfish tend to be much larger than other aquarium species. A member of the Phractocephalus genus, it is the only species that has not gone extinct in this group. It is known by many names, including RTCs, the antenna catfish, the banana catfish, and the flat-nosed catfish.

Native to South America, this fish is found in the wild in countries such as Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela. With a long life span of over fifteen years when cared for correctly, this fish offers more bang for your buck than just about any other kind of fish. It is often donated to public aquariums as it can quickly grow too big for most aquarium hobbyists’ tanks.

Since they grow so quickly, they are often deceptive when you first purchase them. When young, they are only about five centimeters, but grow quite rapidly and aren’t restricted by the size your tank. Many zoos and aquariums now won’t even accept Redtail Catfish because they are so common.

Redtail Catfish Appearance And Behavior

Redtail Catfish 2

Despite their size, these fish remain some of the most beautiful and vibrant. They have long barbels, or whiskers, lining their mouths, along with bright red tails. A dark greyish brown in colors, these fish also have dark spots and yellowish white bands that extend down the length of their bodies.

The bodies of these fish are shaped like cylinders. They have flat stomachs and a compressed tail. Both the caudal and dorsal fins are reddish orange. The fish has three pairs of lengthy barbels, two of which are on the lower jaw and one that is one the upper jaw.

When you first purchase a juvenile catfish, you might be fooled into thinking it does not grow very large. Think again! Although these fish start out at only a few centimeters in length they quickly grow well over two feet within a year. They can grow about an inch per week when they are young –  a growth rate that far surpasses that of other fish and may cause them to rapidly outgrow their aquarium setting.

When left in nature, they can reach lengths in excess of five feet; although they usually remain smaller in home aquariums, staying at around four feet, they will become massive when left to their own devices. Wild-caught Redtail Catfish in the wild have been recorded at lengths of over five feet and over 120 lbs!

Redtail Catfish, despite their size, tend to be very shy and reclusive. You should provide plenty of caves for them to hide in, but you will need to make sure your decorations are not too small. Redtail Catfish will eat just about anything, and decorations are no exception!

These fish are mostly shy, and will move quietly and slowly about the tank. It is not unheard of for these fish to hide in dens or caves. They will usually stay at the bottom of the tank, but as they get older, they may lie completely motionless for long periods of time.

If you notice your fish swimming to the top of the water, gulping air, and then swimming back to the bottom, this is a good sign that the water quality is your tank is deteriorating. If that is the case, you should perform a water change immediately. In general, a water change of about thirty percent a week is required to maintain the health of your tank and your fish.

Redtail Catfish Tank And Water Requirements

Redtail Catfish 3
Photo by Bri_J

As you might expect, the biggest consideration you need to make when setting up a tank for your Redtail Catfish is that it is big enough. You need a massive tank, such as one you might find at an aquarium or a zoo. Only buy a Redtail Catfish if you know you have a tank that is big enough already.

Don’t allow yourself to be tricked or coaxed into buying a smaller tank and then telling yourself that you will get a larger tank when your fish gets bigger – because these species grow so rapidly, you probably won’t have time to do this. Redtail Catfish are not restricted by the size of a tank – if they are in a tank that is too small, they will continue growing in the cramped quarters until they eventually die.

At a minimum, a Redtail Catfish needs a tank that is at least 1000 gallons. This is a massive tank – it would be at least three feet by four feet by twelve feet. At this size, it is not a tank that would fit in most people’s homes. As a result, many people decide to house their catfish in indoor or outdoor ponds, which tends to work better for these massive fish. Remember – 1000 gallons is a minimum, and that’s just for one fish.

Redtail Catfish will eat anything that fits in their mouths, so you need to make sure your tank is relatively sparse. Try to avoid any unnecessary decorations or gravel, and make sure any equipment (like filters or lighting) are secured and out of the reach of your Redtail Catfish.

These fish will eat stones and gravel, so you don’t have a lot of options when it comes to substrate. The best route is to go with a bare-bottom tank. Although this does not look as ornate as a gravel or rock bottom, it is the safest avenue to pursue if you decide to raise Redtail Catfish. It is also easier to clean. If you are adamantly opposed to a bare-bottom tank, you could also use a layer of sand.

Redtail Catfish prefer to hang out at the bottom of your tank, but will also occasional swim to the middle of the water column. They like low lighting and since they are native to a tropical environment, they need exceptionally warm waters.  Your tank’s temperature should hover between 68 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you live in an unpredictable or chilly environment, you will need to add a water heater. Try to keep the temperature of your water as regulated and stable as you can, and maintain a pH between 6.0 and 7.5.

Filtration is also important for Redtail Catfish. The best option will be a sump filter, which can be purchased commercially or made at home on your own. These can be pretty expensive, so make sure you can afford this financial commitment before you decide to raise a Redtail Catfish.

Decorating A Redtail Catfish Tank

Redtail Catfish 4
Photo by Mael rimbault

Try to avoid any decorations in the tank of your Redtail Catfish. These fish will eat anything they can fit inside their mouths. Furthermore, adding decorations is an expense that you simply don’t need – it is entirely unnecessary. Redtail Catfish can live in peace in a sparsely decorated tank. They do not require live plants or ornaments, and including these in your tank can actually cause health problems.

If you absolutely must include decorations, make sure they are heavy enough so that they cannot be moved. You could use large pieces of driftwood, which juveniles enjoy hiding behind, or other decorations that are equally large and heavy to prevent injury or accidental ingestion.

What Do Redtail Catfish  Eat?

Redtail Catfish 5
Photo by Bobby McCabe

Redtail Catfish are far from being picky eaters-  something you might expect given the size of this fish! They will eat just about anything that fits in their mouths, which is why it is important to choose the tank mates of your Redtail Catfish carefully.

In the wild, Redtail Catfish will eat just about anything. They consume a wide variety of food, including fruit, fish, invertebrates, and plant matter.

These fish are omnivores, but prefer to eat meat-based foods. You should feed them a diet that consists of a basis of sinking carnivore pellets. From there, you can add in other supplemental foods like meat and fish (be sure to cut these into small pieces), crayfish, shrimp, and worms. You can even make your own fish food, which will ensure that your catfish are consuming the healthiest diet possible.

You can feed Redtail Catfish live foods, but this is not necessary. Feeder food are usually grown in crowded conditions, which means they often have very little nutritional benefit. They can also carry parasites and diseases, which will not only affect your Redtail Catfish, but can also spread to other fish in your tank. This can cause major issues in your aquarium that can be nearly impossible to treat.

You should also consider the added expense of live feeders. These are quite a bit more expensive than are other alternatives, and since they don’t offer a high level of nutritional benefit, they aren’t really worth it.

Because Redtail Catfish will eat anything with which they come into contact, it’s important that you avoid overfeeding them. You should try not to feed too much in one feeding, as your fish will become sluggish and tired they need ample amounts of time to digest their food, so if you are feeding them too much, you may notice changes in their behaviors.

Redtail Catfish 1

Watch your fish carefully once you introduce them to your tank. This is the best way of determining whether you are feeding them too much or too little. You should only feed juveniles once every other day, but when they get older, you can feel them just once a week. Watch your fish for signs of hunger. When they are still digesting, they will move more slowly, but when they are ready to be fed again, they will become more active.

It can be difficult to avoid overfeeding your Redtail Catfish because they are so much fun to feed. Many individual can be trained to accept food, and since they’ll eat just about anything, this can be problematic if you aren’t well-versed in how to feed them appropriately.

Make sure you don’t have anything in your Redtail Catfish aquarium that you don’t think they should eat. For example, these fish will eat anything they can get into their mouths – and that includes things like stones, pieces of your filter, other fish, and even gravel!

These fish are not aggressive toward other fish species, but will sometimes become territorial with their own kind. They will eat small fish as well as crabs and crustaceans. They usually won’t eat plants, but it is not unheard of for them to try to fit them in their mouths.

Redtail Catfish Tank Mates

Redtail Catfish are very shy, so they can be housed with other tank species and will usually not be aggressive toward them. However, the biggest thing you need to be aware of is that Redtail Catfish will consider anything they can fit into their mouths as prey. Although they won’t try to fight your other fish, they will definitely try to eat them!

The best course of action is to only keep Redtail Catfish in tanks with their own species. If this is not possible – or if you are adding Redtail Catfish to a community tank – do not, under any circumstances, keep these fish with organisms that are smaller than it. You need to make sure that your other fish and aquatic inhabitants do not become prey.

Redtail Catfish can eat anything that is half the size of them – they will even try to eat things larger than this! This can be fatal to both creatures, as it often causes the Redtail Catfish to choke. These natural predators will attack and eat small fish, so you want to avoid housing a Redtail Catfish with any species of fish that is smaller than it.

Some options for other fish you can house with your Redtail Catfish include those such as datnoids, stingrays, and gars. Some other catfish species may also be suitable. Keep in mind that you can safely house Redtail Catfish with each other, too. The chance of breeding is low, but remember that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish a male and female Redtail Catfish from each other at the juvenile age – so you might have an incidence of accidental breeding regardless.

Common Redtail Catfish Diseases

Redtail Catfish 6
Photo by Selbe.

Redtail Catfish are hardy, but they are prone to the same diseases as are most tropical fish. If you maintain your aquarium and perform regular cleanings, you should not have too many problems. Redtail Catfish are particularly susceptible to high levels of nitrates in the water.

These can infect the fish’s barbels and make it impossible for them to navigate around the tank. They might also experience difficulties in normal feeding patterns. To avoid this, try to maintain nitrate levels that are below 20 ppm. This can be done through consistent and through water changes.

Remember that since Redtail Catfish do not have scales, they should not be treated with any copper-based medications or potassium permanganate. You can use treatments like pimafix or melafix, as well as malachite green or formalin, but you may need to half or quarter the dosage. All catfish, especially Redtail Catfish, are especially sensitive to medications.

It’s better to prevent disease in your Redtail Catfish tank by giving them the proper environment and a well-balanced diet. The more close you can get to providing the natural habitat of this fish, the healthier your fish will be. Remember, a stressed or unhealthy fish is more likely to pick up a disease. You should also quarantine all new plants, decorations, or fish that you are adding to your tank so that you can ensure diseases from other areas or tanks are not being added to your safe, healthy environment.

Breeding And Life Spans Of Redtail Catfish

Redtail Catfish 8
Photo by Russ Glasson

Although the Redtail Catfish has an exceptionally long life span and is hardy when provided with the proper conditions, there are very few reports of this fish being bred in captivity. This is likely due to its size as well as the difficulty in maintaining  tank that is large enough to allow for a breeding pair to reproduce. Even commercial breeders report difficulty when breeding them in large ponds.

In South America, there are reports of this fish being bred successfully by the use of hormones. Because they are used for a source of food in this region, this is a common method of breeding catfish. These are not usually sold in the aquarium trade, but still often make their way in by mistake.

If you are looking for a fish species to create a breeding population, the Redtail Catfish is probably not the choice for you. The difficulties presented by its size, as well as by the challenge sin telling apart the genders, can make it nearly impossible to do so.

Is A Redtail Catfish For You?

If you are looking for a large fish species that will provide you with years of entertainment, you should consider raising the Redtail Catfish. Remember, however, that these fish are not for the faint of heart – if you are interested in raising one of these fish, you need to have an extremely large tank and the resources necessary to care for it.

If you are committed to providing the elegant Redtail Catfish with the life it deserves, consider raising this species. You’ll likely find – quite quickly! – that this fish is an absolute joy to raise. Plus, you’ll have fun watching it grow!

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