how to care for discus fish

If you are looking for some beautiful aquarium fish that stand out, is beautiful and distinct, then the Discus fish may be what you are looking for. This popular fish is known for its bright colors and large circular shape.

This discus fish care guide can help you learn all you need to know about them!

Beware, however, this is not a fish for beginning aquarists. To make sure your fish stays at optimum health, there is a need for strict practices. This includes keeping a clean tank, perfect water temperature, and a balanced pH level.

While you do not have to be a professional fish keeper to own Discus, it is important to know the requirements before investing in them.

Quick Intro to Discus Fish

Scientific Name:Symphysodon
Other Names:The King of Tropical Fish
Care Level:Moderate to difficult

Natural Habitat, Identification, and Where to Buy

orange and red and white spotted aquarium creature

In the wild Discus fish, which are in the cichlid family, are native to the Amazon River as well as its flood plains and tributaries throughout South America.

The fish range from the Putumayo River in North Peru down to the Rio Negro in Brazil. This breed of fish is known for loving calm and clean water found in lakes and black water rivers.

Discus fish are not located in the main body of the Amazon River itself because the water is too deep and too fast for them.

Their natural habitat is soft and acidic water that had a pH ranging between 6.0 and 6.5 and water hardness in the ranges of 0° and 3° dH.

Since the Amazon tends to have warm water, the fish are used to temperatures ranging in between 77° and 84° Fahrenheit (25° to 29° Celsius).

Three species of discus fish occur in the wild three species of discus occur naturally. and each of these species is in a different geographic area.

The Heckel Discus is in the eastern and central part of the Amazon, around the Rio Negro in central Brazil. Of the three breeds, this fish prefers water to be slightly warmer than the others.

The Common discus has three subspecies, all located in various regions of the Amazon.

The Symphysodon aequifasciatus is a green variant is located in the central Amazon in locations such as the Putumayo River in Peru or Lake Tefé in Brazil.

The Symphysodon aequifasciatus haraldi is colored blue and can be found in the central-eastern region of the Amazon.

Optimal Water Conditions for Discus Fish

Water Temperature:82 to 88° Fahrenheit
Water Flow Rate:Moderate
Water Hardness:4.0

Tank Setup

Minimum Tank Size:55 gallon
Optimal Tank Size:75 gallon
Optimal Tank Shape:Rectangular
Recommended Filter Type:HOB, internal for smaller, canister filters for filtration in larger tanks

Since the discus fish originates in the flood plains of the Amazon basin, they are used to water levels changing – rising and falling along the shallow flood plain.

The fish are found in the breaks of the water flow, like in small pools or inlets, even among pools between fallen trees. These pockets of water protect them from the currents and keep them from washing away.

With all of this in mind, it’s important to create an appropriate environment for them, replicating their conditions at home.

This begins with higher temperatures between 82 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit. These higher temperatures are necessary for keeping them healthy.

They also need slightly acidic water with a pH between 6 and 7.

Creating the Landscape

discus fish

To create the right aquarium environment for your discus fish, you should consider adding some driftwood in vertical positions.

These add to the natural feel of the fish tank, allowing the fish to feel at home. Just be sure that the edges of the wood are smooth. You don’t want them to injure your fish.

They should also have soft to medium substrate textures, meaning you need smooth gravel and sand or polished stones.

Top Tip: You should not use crushed corals with these guys. They forage in the substrate and will be injured from the sharper sediment options.

Discus also do best in a well planted tank. The plants add oxygen to the water – helping your fish – but also add the much needed covering they need.

Best Plants:Java fern, Anubias, Echinodorus (Swords), Jungle Vallisneria, Heteranthera, Hygrophila, Spatterdock, Dwarf Tiger Lily, African Bolbitus, Bucephalandra, Cryptocoryne
Best Lighting:Dim lighting
Best Decorations:Driftwood, rocks, “caves” and other places to hide around
Decorations to Avoid:Anything with sharp edges or corners that could catch their tails or fins

Physiological Considerations for Discus Fish

Size:Up to 10 inches
Lifespan:10 years
Preferred Tank Region:Mid-level, occasionally top
Gill Considerations:No special considerations
Swimbladder Considerations:Overfeeding and water that is too cool can both cause swim bladder issues for your discus fish.
Fin Shape Considerations:No special considerations

The name of the Discus fish comes from the general shape of their body. While they all have a similar disc shape not all Discus look the same, with some have more of a triangle or round shape.

Even with the difference, all Discus fish are thin and flat in appearance. These fish are known for having rounded dorsal and anal fins that help contribute to their general shape.

These fish can grow to be 8-10 inches long, making them one of the largest fish common for home aquariums.

Author Note: The Discus fish is popular because of the various and brilliant colors they are known for. When they are bred in captivity, they will have brighter colors.

Types of Discus

Close up view of gorgeous blue diamond discus aquarium fish isolated. Hobby concept. Sweden.

Discus are known for their varied looks and vibrant colors. The various breeds and types of Discus are broken down based on their colorations.

A commonly seen type is called the checkerboard, this Discus has a mottled turquoise over a deep red base. Other well-known varieties include white albinos with red eyes and Red Alenquer that have deep reds and light blues.

The great thing about Discus coming in such an array of colors is that you can build your shoal to maximize the impact of the fish’s color.

  • Red Anaconda
  • Red Anaconda
  • Scorpion Snake Skins
  • Red Spotted Snake Skin
  • Blue Diamond
  • Red Spotted Musical Angel
  • Striated Cobalt
  • Leopard Snakeskin
  • Red Leopard Turquoise
  • Snow White
  • Marine Blue
  • Red Turquoise
  • Red Snakeskin


While searching for appropriate tank mates for your discus, there are two things to keep in mind: other fish need to be able to live-in high-water temperatures, and that the fish cannot move faster.

Discus are known for taking their time while eating, so if you put them with fast bullet-shaped fish, they will go hungry.

Due to how difficult it can be to make sure your discus are happy, the easiest way to make them happy is to start with just the discus.

Once your first fish are happy with the temperature and eating healthily, you can consider adding other fish such as Bristlenose Pleco or cardinal tetras.

While discus fish are known to be peaceful and a schooling type fish, there is a pecking order when it comes to determined who gets to eat.

While this breed of fish likes to occupy the middle of the tank, they are known to dip down the bottom and go to the top of the tank for food. This means it is vital to monitor to make sure all your fish have an opportunity to eat.

While this fish enjoys the option of being able to free swim, they also like to have items such as driftwood to hide behind. However, if you have only a single discus and a lot of hiding spaces, your fish may not be seen often.

This is because they are fish that is used to traveling in a school. By picking fish with the right kind of temperament, it will make it easy for all your fish to travel confidently around your tank.

When picking friends for your discus, you can also choose certain types of snail and shrimp.

Top Tip: But it is important to remember that if the snails and shrimp are too small, they get eaten or damaged by your fish when they are feeling hungry.

  • Cardinal Tetras
  • Sterbai Cory Catfish
  • Bristlenose Pleco
  • Neon Tetras
  • Rummy-nose Tetras
  • Ember Tetras
  • Gouramis
  • Bolivian Rams
  • Pencil fish
  • Marbled Hatchet Fish
  • Neon Hatchet Fish
  • Corydoras
  • Angelfish

Gender, Breeding, and Reproductive Considerations

tiny school

Until recently, there have only been a few examples of where Discus have been bred in captivity.

While it used to be only the most dedicated of fishkeeping enthusiasts had any luck, things have changed and there has been widespread success.

While Discus will reproduce while living in freshwater aquariums, there is a need for prep time that could take months or up to a year.

For a Discus couple to spawn, there is a need to have a depth of at least 15 inches. While 15 inches deep is a minimum, a more humane tank would be a 36in by 18in.

To help encourage breeding in your fish, the appropriate water temperature is a must. The ideal goal is for your aquarium to try and replicate the rainy climate of the Amazon summer, so a temperature of at least 82 F is suggested.

Another thing to consider with your water is the pH and dH levels. The water in the amazon collects a lot of substrate and mud during the summer rains.

So the ideal pH number is to stay around 6.5 and to have a DH number between 1-4. Additionally, it is vital to keep the nitrates in the water at a minimum, which will require water changes weekly along with siphoning out any wastes.

Due to how easy it is for the levels to change if you want to make sure your fish mate, it is imperative to check the various water levels daily.

As far as diet is concerned, make sure your fish are being fed protein-rich foods but also make sure they maintain a balanced diet.

There are recipes that professional breeders use available online so that you can make your own custom blend of fish food.

Top Tip: For ease of laying eggs, you can place a clean upturned clay pot in your discus tank. Or if you prefer, professional plastic cones can be purchased online.

Nutritional Needs

In the wild, discus has a primary diet that consists of green plants like algae or fallen foods. A full third of diet comes from arthropods like crustaceans and insects and invertebrates like amphipods and copepods.

While it’s possible to completely recreate their natural diet, there are plenty of options in making sure your fish eat healthily.

It’s important to make sure your discus gets fed every day. Once you feed your fish, they will eat their fill in about five minutes.

Author Note: Any food left after that five-minute window should be cleaned up. If the extra food is left, the fish may become sick from eating it later or it may cause the water to change in a way to triggers an adverse health reaction.

If you have multiple Discus, make sure each fish is getting fed. This breed maintains a pecking order and the smaller fish may become starved by the large fish taking all of the available food.

If a bigger fish is taking all of the food, one option is to place food on both sides of the tank.

A common mistake made by new Discus owners is to give them food that is too big. Discus have mouths that are smaller than average for fish.

If you see your fish begin to eat food, spit it out and then begin trying to eat again, the fish may be having difficulty with the food size.

Discus do not like to eat from the surface of their tanks. They prefer to eat food that is located in the middle of the tank. One option for helping them have food at their ideal height is to use food that is in granules.

It is important to provide a variety of foods to help keep your fish healthy. Even though this breed is known to be omnivores, they do well with diets that are based heavily on consuming animal and animal products.

Live or frozen bloodworms are a good choice because they are small enough that discus can be eaten easily and also can be put on a small feeding cone.

Other commonly used foods are Hikari Discus Bio-Gold and Hikari Vibra Bites, and micro worms.

An example of a  good food combination for your fish’s health can be a mixture of beef heart, blood worms, flakes, and pellets to help make sure that all the minerals and vitamins are provided.

If you decide to use frozen beef heart, keep in mind that it can easily pollute the tank and clog up filters.

If you are concerned about your fish’s color, it’s suggested you use a granulated food that is well balanced. A diet such as tropical fish flakes or spirulina combined with shrimp pellets or algae can help make up for any lack of vegetable matter.

  • Blood Worm
  • Mosquito larvae
  • Hikari Vibra Bites
  • Sera Discus Granules
  • Tetra Discus Granules
  • Hikari Discus Bio-Gold
  • Frozen and live brine shrimp
  • Live or freeze-dried blackworms
  • Live micro worms
Best Sustenance Food Type:Live food, mosquito larvae, brine shrimp
Additional Food For Optimal Health:Copepods, amphipods, algae wafers
Special Foods and Considerations for Best Color and Growth:A varied diet of processed and frozen live foods
When and How Often to Feed Fish Based on Life Cycle:Twice daily for adults, three times for fry – timed according to your schedule

Common Diseases and How to Avoid and Treat Them

Discus fish, like all freshwater fish, have some common ailments that can affect them more often than others. There are five specific diseases that you could face with them.

Let’s take a look at the symptoms, these issues, and how to treat them.

Internal Parasites

The most common cause of internal parasites in Discus is due to Hexamita. Hexamita is a small intestinal parasitic diplomonad.

The main cause for this condition is the fish having eaten something containing the parasite.

The main symptoms of this parasite are a growing hole in their head, thinning despite eating sufficient food, and putting out a white-colored fecal matter.

If your fish are exhibiting these symptoms, the best way to help them is by giving them metronidazole.

The best-recommended course of treatment is to add it to the fish tank every eight hours for three days because the medication’s effectiveness in water ends in eight hours.

The typical solution is one gram of metronidazole for every twenty gallons of water.

Cloudy Eyes

Another one of the most common ailments that Discus fish deal with its cloudy eyes. The number one cause for this ailment is physical trauma.

There are a variety of means by which this can occur, two fish have a physical altercation, hitting their head against driftwood or even being frightened.

Another common cause of eye clouding can be if the tank’s Ph balance crashes. The Discus fish has a protective layer that covers its eye and offers protection so this sudden change in your tank should not cause permanent damage.

There is a common treatment that involves using a little salt and stress coat from API that has Aloe Vera. If, however, this does not prove enough to heal the fish’s eye, then it is important to have a vet take a look, or the fish risks losing its eye.

Fin Rot

Another common ailment that your fish may encounter is fin rot. Fin rot is a type of bacterial infection that is comparable to an infection that humans may get on their extremities such as fingers or toes.

The most common cause of this is a high organic load in your tank.

One of the most common causes of this infection is a buildup of anaerobic bacteria in your gravel. The most common solution is to use Oxytetracycline and make sure to do a deep clean of any rocks or wood in your tank.


Bloating is a common illness that happens with something that is eaten and spoils in the stomach before the digestive system can break it down.

The result is a painful condition when the stomach is filled with gas. For fish, the number one cure for this is Epsom salts.

When being used in your fish tank, approximately one tablespoon per 40 gallons of water should be used. Keep in mind that once you add Epsom salt to the tank that it will stay until you do a water change.

After adding the salts, it is important to bring the temperature of the tank up to 86-88 degrees and this will help the fish pass the bad food from their bodies.

Best Antibiotics:Triple Sulpha or Tetracycline, Quick-Cure, Acriflavine, Clout
Treatments to Avoid:Products containing malachite
Food Recommendations When Sick:Protein-rich foods
Hospital Tank or Isolation Withing the Community Tank:Should be placed in an isolation tank to keep them from spreading illness or getting worse from further exposure

7 Facts About Discus Fish

  • The discus fish originates from the Amazon River basin.
  • This fish well known among aquarists and has been called the king of aquarium fish.
  • A notable characteristic of the discus fish is that their colors will flare and become distinct if the fish feels threatened or startled.
  • While this is an attractive fish, it is also known for being one of the most challenging fishes to care for.
  • These fish are known for easily becoming sick. This requires hobbyists to take extraordinary measures to keep safe.
  • Another challenge of discus fish is that they require ample room for swimming due to growing upwards of 7 inches.
  • In the wild, this species stays together and swims in groups. So, to keep your fish happy, you’ll want to stock them with others of the same species.

FAQs on Discus Fish

How do discus fish behave?

Discus Fish are a calm and peaceful fish at times; however, they are known to become aggressive towards other fish of their species.

This aggression kicks up when it is the season for them to find a mate and spawn.

Therefore, if you wish to breed this fish, removing shy or weaker fish species during this time is essential, or they may get injured or killed.

Or, if you’re able to, set up a breeding tank and separate out the breeding pairs.

Due to the risk of aggressiveness and injury to other fish, experienced fishkeepers will only mix their discus fish with certain other species.

As far as tank mates go, some of the more popular choices involve Cardinal, emperor, neons, and rummy nose tetras. They also play well with clown loaches and dwarf cichlids.

How difficult is it to breed discus fish?

Discus kept in your aquarium are known for being relatively easy to breed. Fish will pair up and spawn quickly if you have the correct genders already in the tank.

However, it is essential to ensure the parents do not eat their eggs. Ideally, this means a breeding tank, from which the parents are removed as soon as the eggs are laid.

When the fry is hatched, they will eat mucus secreted by their parents until they can free swim.

How Many Discus should be kept in a tank?

The minimum number of Discus in a tank should be six because they are schooling fish with a need to socialize.

Each fish grows between 5-and 8 inches, and for six, you will need a minimum of 55 gallons for each fish to have enough room.

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