How to Care for African Cichlids: A Complete Fact Sheet, Breeding, Behavior, and Care Guide

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From brilliant blues to oranges, reds, calicoes, stripes, and spots, there is no end to the colors and patterns you will find displayed by African Cichlids. There are well over 1000 different species, not counting the ongoing hybridization in natural settings as well as in home and breeder aquariums. 

There are two main species of African Cichlids available for home aquariums; Haplochromus (Haps), and Mbuna Cichlids. In these, and other kinds of African Cichlids, juvenile fish are silvery or gray colored. 

As male Haps mature, they will take on brilliant colors and bright patterns in accordance with their species. Females, on the other hand, will usually remain grayish, or develop much duller coloration. Insofar as body shape, Haps are usually a bit longer than tall and wide.

Everything about them says vitality and robust power!

Close up of Electric Blue Hap african Cichlid

Both male and female (to a lesser extent) Mbuna African Cichlids will develop bright colors. Males will grow larger than females. Mbunas usually have a slightly elongated, yet classic fish (like the goldfish crackers) shape with streamlined upper fins. 

While there are some complexities involved in taking care of African Cichlids, they are still easier than saltwater fish. African Cichlids are hearty, colorful, enigmatic freshwater fish without the water chemistry problems associated with saltwater fish. 

Quick Intro To African Cichlids

FamilyCichlidae
Scientific NameDepends on the species. There are several thousands, including hundreds of captive bred hybrids available for sale to freshwater aquarium keepers.
Other NamesPeacock Cichlids, Utaka Cichlids, and thousands of other types of Cichlids.
Care LevelModerate to Difficult because most African Cichlids are very aggressive. The sheer number of hybrids on the market also makes it difficult to get good answers about water chemistry and other needs.

Natural Habitat, Identification, and Where to Buy

The Cichlid family is found in many parts of the world including South America. “New World” or South American Cichlids, however, have very different needs from their African relatives. 

African Cichlids live in freshwater lakes, streams, rivers, and ponds throughout Africa. Some dwell among the rocks, while others prefer to swim in freshwater or along sandy beaches. 

Insofar as home aquariums go, most African Cichlids come from Lake Malawi, Tanzania. These Cichlids are divided into two main groups; Haps (which also loosely include Utaka Cichlids and Peacock Cichlids), and Mbuna Cichlids. There are also “non-Haps” and “non-Mbunas” that are harder to obtain. 

Here are a few options for buying African Cichlids on Amazon:

Since Haps and Mbunas live in different settings or have different nutritional needs, getting good care information can be confusing. For the purpose of this article, I will focus mainly on Haps and Mbunas.

Zebra mbuna cichlid

Optimal Water Conditions For African Cichlids

Temperature76 – 82 degrees Fahrenheit
Water Flow RateTurbulent with a high turnover through the filter
pH7.8 – 8.5 for Lake Malawi dwellers. Stream dwelling African Cichlids do better in 7.0 or neutral pH.
HardnessModerately hard
Aquarium Salt RecommendationsAfrican Cichlids will do fine in a tank with aquarium salt. Depending on the species, you may also need to add baking soda and Epsom salts to increase the mineral content of the water. There are also commercial additives that you can purchase that create a mineral profile that matches the native waters.
Tannin RecommendationsIt is best to avoid tannins because they will lower the pH. If you decide to add driftwood to the tank, be sure to boil and scrub it first to remove as much tannic acid as possible.
Other Water Chemistry NeedsMay need magnesium and other mineral additives.

Tank Setup

Minimum Tank Size50 Gallons
Optimal Tank Size100 – 250 Gallons
Optimal Tank ShapeHaps do better in tall tanks that allow them to move easily between upper and lower levels in the tank. Mbunas prefer a wide, shallow tank with plenty of rocks to swim in and around.
Recommended Filter TypeOverhead canister. Use at least double the recommended filtration for the tank size. African Cichlids can get quite large. Some will also dig up plants or consume them, while others will hunt algae eaters and other creatures that help keep the tank clean.
Extra Air Flow and How to Provide ItUse extra bubble up filters with fully opened valves. You can also use airstones and bubble curtains to increase water turbulence. Decrease air flow if the Cichlids show signs of air poisoning (rapid darting, shaking, or rolling).

Throughout the tank life, you should test the water weekly for pH, hardness, salinity (if you have Cichlids that need it), ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates.

You can use nitrate/nitrite absorbing pillows as well as zeolites in the filters.

I recommend one bubble filter (with a mix of 50% zeolite/activated carbon mix and nitrite absorbing pad) to every 20 gallons of water in addition to the canister filters and their proprietary media.

Creating the Landscape

One of the biggest differences between Mbuna and Haps revolves around the settings they prefer to live in.

Mbuna Cichlids live among the rocks. They rarely stray away from areas where can hide in and explore caves or tunnels.

Haps, on the other hand, usually prefer open waters and areas that have a sandy substrate.

Best PlantsHap Cichlids usually won’t eat plants, however some species may dig in the substrate around them. Mbuna Cichlids are primarily herbivores, so they will snack on most plants with the exception of Anubias and Java Ferns. Mbunas also love to dig in the substrate and may even create tunnels if the substrate is deep enough. You may want to try some fast growing floating live plants, as well as slower growers ones placed in a net pen or cage.
Best LightingHap cichlids do not like strong light. Mbunas need places to hide and a bit more shade.
Best DecorationsHap Cichlids will do well in an aquarium with robust mosses and rounded rocks. Since Haps can zoom about quickly, it is important to give them plenty of open space to swim. Mbunas will do best with a lot of rocks and a deep, sandy substrate. You can also create tunnels and caves for them to explore. Since they are also powerful swimmers, there should be enough room around the rocks to enable a robust swimming pattern.
Decorations to AvoidSharp objects or anything the fish can scratch against or bump into while being chased.
Juvenile giraffe hap cichlid

Physiological Considerations

Maximum SizeHaps: 4 – 7”

Mbunas: 3 – 8”
Rate of GrowthSome may mature in as little as a year, while others take longer. A great deal depends on the species, its lifespan, and adult size.
Life Span7 – 10 years in a home aquarium.
TemperamentJust about all African Cichlids are aggressive. Even though Haps are considered more aggressive than Mbunas, Peacock and Utaka Haps are less aggressive than Mbunas.
Preferred Tank RegionAll regions.
Scale ThicknessSome fish have very thin scales, which means they are limited in antibiotic choice. It also affects some things about how you do the water changes and filter choices.
Gill ConsiderationsCichlids require fast moving, clean water to keep their gills in good condition and free of disease.
Swimbladder ConsiderationsSince Haps aren’t deep bellied fish, they tend to have fewer swimbladder problems than Mbunas. That being said, both must still be monitored carefully for dietary deficiencies that can cause swimbladder problems.
Fin Shape ConsiderationsEven when they fully open, the fins on African Cichlids tend to be close to their body. Clamped fins, however, is still a sign of disease in them, as it is in any other fish. Despite their relatively small fins, African Cichlids are very powerful and fast swimmers.

Society

For the most part, males of all African Cichlid species are more aggressive than females.

Haps will form schools.

Try to keep a maximum of 1 male to every 4 females.

Since Haps are aggressive to their own kind as well as other species of Cichlids, it is best to keep a species-specific tank.

Mbunas usually don’t school. They are also highly territorial and will chase off both other males and females that don’t have eggs in need of fertilization.

For breeding, keep just one Mbuna male of each species to a tank and surround him with plenty of females from the same species. Unfortunately, even with that arrangement, Mbuna males may attack, injure, and kill non-fertile females.

Interestingly enough, you can keep different species of Mbuna males in the same tank as long as their colors and patterns are different enough. They are far more inclined to display gender based territorial and mate aggression when other fish in the tank look like them. 

At first glance, you would think that it is safe to mix Mbunas and Haps because they look different and you can create both rocky areas and open swimming ones.

The fish, on the other hand, have a different view entirely. Mixing these fish can result in them fighting to the death. Don’t mix Mbunas and Haps.

Mating related behavior and aggression can be hard to distinguish in African Cichlids if two genders are involved.

Both behavior patterns include chasing, jaw locking, fin splaying, and nipping. These behaviors may be less pronounced in exchange for males shaking when a fertile female is around.

That all being said, an injured fish may also shake, as well as one that is over taxed from trying to get away. You will need to pay careful attention to the females to see if they are ready to lay eggs to help distinguish aggression from mating behavior.

Managing aggression in African Cichlids is notoriously difficult. Here are some things you can try:

  • Use dividers to isolate aggressive fish from others.
  • If you must add new fish to the tank, especially Cichlids, be sure to move the plants, rocks, and other decorations. This will give the new fish time to adjust even as the established fish work to figure out new territory.
  • Feed Mbuna fish smaller meals several times a day. These fish in particular become aggressive when they feel there is not enough food. Smaller meals spread out will give them something to do other than chase and attack each other.
  • Try to keep fish together that are around the same size. If you have one smaller fish, it may be easier to move that one to its own partition instead of moving the bully.
  • Increase the size of the aquarium and add more items that can be claimed as territory. Usually, when everyone has their own space, it is more likely they will stay out of each other’s way. 
  • Watch carefully to see how food particles move around the tank. If all the food tends to aggregate in one area, try to correct that with airstones or other means to have a more even distribution. 
  • As mentioned earlier, some people recommend overstocking Cichlid tanks so that bullying is spread out over multiple fish. Personally, I don’t recommend this method because of bioload issues, but you can give it a try if nothing else works.

Gender, Breeding, and Reproductive Considerations

Unless you know the reputation of the breeder, it is very hard to tell if the Cichlids in your tank will produce viable offspring.

Sadly, hybridization in the wild and captivity makes it almost impossible to determine if juvenile fish will be fertile.

If you are serious about breeding Cichlids, purchase adults certified to be fertile from a reliable breeder. Cichlids do not mate for life, so there is no point to looking for breeding pairs. You will need 4 or more females to one male, and then do what you can to manage aggression.

Mbunas and Haps differ somewhat in how they mate and raise their young. Male Haps will build a nest, and then wait for the females to lay eggs in it. From there the male will fertilize the eggs. 

Next, the female will pick the eggs up in her mouth. She will keep them there until they hatch and the fry use up their yolk sack. During this time, which can take up to 30 days, the female will rarely eat. Once the fry are ready to leave her mouth, they can still return if danger is around.

Mbuna males will shiver or dance to attract the attention of females are about to lay eggs. Males will also become brighter in color. After the male chooses a territory, he will encourage the female to lay her eggs in that area. 

As the female lays eggs, the male will remain close by. Since males have egg shaped markings near their anal fin, females may try to pick them up by mistake. At that point, the male will spray sperm into the females mouth. Once all the eggs have been picked up and fertilized, the male will chase the female out of his territory. Similar to Haps, Mbuna females are also mouthbrooders.

If you are concerned about brooding females needing more privacy, then simply let them swim into a separate partition in the tank. Do not net them or try to move them to another tank as it will stress them out and may cause them to drop the eggs.

Depending on the species, you may have as few as 10 fry or as many as dozens.

Because these fish will defend the fry, simply letting other fish eat them is not a good idea. Before you breed Cichlids, make sure you can take proper care of them, or you have a place to sell them.

Nutritional Needs

In their natural habitat, Haps are mainly carnivores. They will eat some plant material, but prefer a high meat protein diet.

Mbunas on the other hand are herbivores that eat algae, plants, and plankton. If they eat too much animal protein, it can make them very sick and kill them. 

Best Sustenance Food TypeHaps: Spirulina and pellets specifically made for Hap African Cichlids. Peacock Haps will need sinking pellets, while other Haps will do fine with floating fish food.

Mbuna: Algae wafers and other plant based pellets. Try to keep animal protein to a minimum as it can cause Malawi Bloat (an often fatal intestinal blockage).

Check out our list of the best cichlid foods here.
Additional Foods for Optimal HealthHaps will do well with the addition of fresh or frozen brine shrimp, worms, and other other animal protein. Mbunas will enjoy zucchini, lettuce, and spinach.
Special Foods and Considerations for Best Color and GrowthHaps will have better color with fresh or frozen bloodworms and other meat. Mbunas will display better color if you feed them yellow squash.
When and How Often to Feed Fish Based on Life CycleAfrican Cichlids can over eat. It is best to feed them several small meals a day. Since females may not eat while carrying eggs, you might want to give them a few extra meals in the day or two before they mate to help build up their system.

Finicky Fish Management: Cichlids will go off their feed for much the same reason as other fish. Look for ammonia surges and water chemistry problems first.

If you don’t find anything there, look for signs of illness such as scratching, lethargy, clamped fins, or gill pumping. Aggression from other fish can also cause problems.

Finally, Cichlids can also become bored if you just feed them staple foods. Try fresh foods or live frozen options to see if it helps.

Malawi cichlid white orange

Common Diseases and How to Avoid and Treat Them

For the most part, Cichlids fall prey to the same diseases as other aquarium fish.

They may be slightly more susceptible to TB, swimbladder disease (Mbunas), cotton fungus, ich, and gill flukes. 

Cichlids are also more susceptible to Hole-in-Head (Hexamita) than most other tropical fish. Since this is a parasitic infection, I recommend feeding anti-parasite food containing Metronidazole at least once or twice a week.

You should also watch carefully for the classic signs of Hexamita that include pits or depressions in the head and face area. If you see those, use an antibiotic that will get rid of the infection. Just make sure it is safe for Cichlids.

How to Avoid Species Specific Diseases

The best way to prevent these and other diseases is to keep the water chemistry good and keep injuries and fighting to a minimum.

Gill flukes often plague fish that originate in fast moving waters, so airstones and bubble curtains are essential to curbing this disease in Cichlids.

Best AntibioticsSince Cichlids can tolerate salt fairly well, you can use salt baths for a number of illnesses. Use 4 teaspoons of aquarium salt to 1 gallon of water. Let the fish stay in the bath water for 5 to 30 minutes, or return to main or hospital tank as soon as the fish shows signs of distress. You can also use most commercial antibiotics including penicillin, sulfur, erythromycin, malachite green, tetracycline, and anything else that is safe for Cichlids.
Treatments to AvoidDo not mix medications from the same manufacturer unless the package says it is safe to to do so. It is also best to avoid mixing antibiotics made by different manufacturers. Usually, Cichlids tolerate medication much better than the biofilter in the tank.
Food Recommendations When SickAnti parasite foods and other medicated foods.
Hospital Tank or Isolation Within the Community Tank SpecificsInjured fish might do better in isolation. For specific diseases, it will be best to use a partition to keep sick fish apart. The water itself will still need to be treated, so there is no point to removing the fish.

4 More Things to Know About African Cichlids

  1. Several species of African Cichlids are endangered because of farm runoff and over fishing in their native habitat.
  2. It is difficult to get true native species African Cichlids because they cross breed so easily.
  3. African Cichlids have specialized teeth. Species that consume plant based foods have a different shaped teeth from ones that consume meat.
  4. African Cichlids are aggressive enough to bite you if you put your hand in the tank! Always wear aquarium safe gloves when putting your hands in the tank.

African Cichlids are some of the most beautiful and evocative fish you will ever have the good fortune to care for.

While they can be challenging, they offer an opportunity to expand your aquarium keeping skills.

As you progress in keeping Cichlids, you may want to look into breeding programs for endangered species and see if you can help with restoring them.

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