redtail catfish care guide header

In general, catfish are an interesting type of fish for keeping at home in ponds and aquariums. Some species are far more suitable for an aquarium, such as a Corydoras or Otocinclus cats. But today, we’re taking a look at a species of catfish ideal for ponds and giant aquariums: the redtail catfish.

Why are these guys good for ponds and massive aquariums? Well, to be direct, these are giant redtail catfish. They require a minimum of 1000 gallons.

So, if you’re ready to consider some larger bodies of water for your home fishkeeping hobby or you’re just curious about redtail catfish care (similar to pictus catfish), you’ll find pretty much all you need to know – in a nutshell – below.

redtail catfish

Quick Intro to Redtail Catfish

Scientific NamePhractocephalus hemioliopterus
Common NamesSouth American redtail, banana catfish, flat-nose catfish, antenna catfish, RTC
Care LevelDifficult – due to size and tank requirements

Natural Habitat, Identification, and Where to Buy

This giant and incredible fish naturally lives in South America, where it’s known by a few other names. In Venezuela, for example, it’s known as the caiaro, while in Brazil, this large freshwater fish is known as a pirarara. 

The name, as you can guess from the photos, comes from the distinct red dorsal and caudal fins.

redtail catfish along bottom of tank

The redtail catfish can be found throughout Colombia, Guyana, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, and Ecuador in the Amazon and Rio Orinoco basins. They thrive in large rivers and streams as well as flood plains, rapids, lakes, and lagoons.

Interestingly enough, despite being South American naturally, they’ve become an invasive species in certain regions in Asia as well as in Florida, Nebraska, and other warmer places.

CARE NOTE: It’s important to note that Asian redtail catfish care is very different – mainly because the two species are incredibly different. This is an Amazon redtail catfish care guide. Please consult information for the Asian variety if that’s the species you’re interested in caring for.

The redtail catfish is reasonably easy to identify, thanks to the red fins, but other factors can also set it apart from other varieties of catfish. The body has an arrow-shaped, cylindrical shape to it, with a flat belly and laterally compressed tail.

The redtail catfish also has a mouth that’s as wide as it’s body, sort of appears to be shovel-like, and has long whiskers/barbels that come out of the bottom (chin).

Their eyes are set on either side of their heads at the top. They also have a horizontal white stripe that starts below the lower part of their mouths and run down the length of the entire body.

The stripe on juveniles of the species are unbroken, while the stripe is broken on older fish, just near the mouth. The rest of the body is gray to brown in color, with small, darker spots, and beige bellies.

And though they are rare, you may come across an albino redtail catfish. They have the same body shape, but the coloration is that of an average albino fish – white-ish, with red or pinkish eyes.

It’s important to understand that despite being sold as small fish, they grow quickly, and within a year or two, they reach a massive size of three to four feet in length. This means that though they are peaceful fish overall, they will ultimately turn into eating machines that devour smaller fish.

Redtail catfish are not suitable for small aquariums or even large ones. They are best suited to ponds and giant aquariums like those found at Shedd Aquarium. In fact, many people wind up donating them to such places because they realize they can no longer care for them at home in their 50-gallon fish tanks.

If you have a large enough pond or 1000+ gallon fish tank and are ready to buy one of these amazing fish, you can find them on many websites for sale. A few include:

Optimal Water Conditions for Redtail Catfish

Redtail Catfish Temperature68-79℉
Hardness3-12 dGH

Tank Setup

Minimum Redtail Catfish Tank Size1000 gallons (you read that right)
Optimal Tank Size2500 gallons
Optimal Tank ShapePond or commercial aquarium
Recommended Filter TypeLarge sump filtration systems are the only realistic options, based on the aquarium size required
Extra Air Flow and How to ProvidePowerful filtration and water pumps

The South American redtail catfish lives in large rivers and streams and other large bodies of water naturally. This means that the ideal redtail catfish aquarium is actually going to be a pond or large, commercial style aquarium containing at least 1000 gallons, ideally 2500+ gallons.

While ideally we’d like to think we’ll buy the larger tank when the fish needs the larger size, realistically speaking, very few people actually do. So it’s important to have the right aquarium or pond before purchasing these interesting fish.

If you have the budget and space, an indoor pond is an interesting way to accommodate such a fish while adding immense intrigue to your home. Of course, most of us don’t have that kind of ability, so the next best thing is an outdoor pond, if you live in a warm enough climate.

Creating the Landscape

These fish are scavengers and will eat practically anything they come in contact with. This means that they should have fairly sparse tanks. They need low lighting, no décor, and should not have plants, gravel, or smaller stones in their tanks.

redtail catfish swimming in dark water

Redtail cats will eat stones or gravel so go with a bare bottom aquarium or pond, or, if you can’t stand the look of bare bottom, use sand.

If you do opt to add some decorations, make sure they are too large for them to eat and heavy enough that the fish cannot break or move them. Treated driftwood is your best bet for these guys.

Best PlantsNone
Best LightingLow lights
Best DecorationsNone…but if felt required, add in treated driftwood and objects too large for the fish to eat
Decorations to AvoidGenerally speaking, avoid all décor items, including and especially substrate other than sand, décor items small enough to eat, and live plants, unless you want them to supplement the fish’s diet.

Physiological Considerations

Maximum Redtail Catfish Size3-4 feet in captivity, or 6 feet in the wild
Redtail Catfish Growth RateUp to an inch a week until full-size at approximately 2 years of age.
Redtail Catfish Lifespan20 years
Preferred Tank RegionBottom to middle
Scale considerationsCatfish do not have scales
Gill ConsiderationsGeneral care required – i.e. clean tank, proper feeding, etc.
Swimbladder ConsiderationsOverfeeding is a big issue for these guys, which can easily lead to swim bladder conditions. It’s important to keep their aquariums clean and free of waste and excess food.

Redtail catfish are enormous. In captivity, they can grow up to four feet in length (some have reported five-footers), and in the wild, up to six-feet. They have pretty long lifespans, too, though the full 20 years is dependent on the quality of care they receive, as well as having enough space to truly grow and thrive.

They can grow up to over 100 pounds, by the way, which is pretty massive – and a huge part of why you need the proper equipment and aquarium setup.

In actuality, redtail catfish care is pretty easy.

The reason we – and many others – list them as “difficult” is multi-faceted.

The fish are hardy, but being so large, they require massive aquariums. They also need to live without ornaments, live plants, etc. to avoid them becoming ill from their environment. Many people get them when they are small and think they’ll acquire the right setup over time, but never do and wind up donating them to aquariums or releasing them into the wild.


Another one of the aspects that makes keeping redtail catfish a challenge is the way they interact with other fish. That is, generally redtail catfish eating fish in tank is a common issue across the board. They simply don’t get along well with smaller fish, despite being peaceful in nature.

redtail catfish tankmates must be fish of a similar size. When housed with these appropriate mates, they tend to be very relaxed and low energy, and non-aggressive. They should not be housed with their own species, either, however, as they will be territorial.

The fish that may do all right with them include:

  • Gars
  • Stingrays
  • Datnoids
  • Black pacu
  • Giant gourami
  • Iridescent sharks
  • Large Oscars
  • Common plecos – May do all right
  • Sailfin – Also may do all right
side view of redtail catfish

Gender, Breeding, and Reproductive Considerations

There are several factors that make breeding redtail catfish extremely difficult. In fact, it’s so challenging that even professional breeders report difficulty. The likelihood of a hobbyist finding success is very slim, and from what we’ve read, unreported as of yet.

First off, producing baby redtailed catfish will be difficult because it’s challenging to sex the fish. No significant differences have been noticed visually for identifying which is the male and which is the female.

It’s also difficult to breed redtail catfish because of their territorial nature with their own species. Since it’s difficult to sex them, it’s difficult to house them safely together, even for breeding purposes.

What is known about redtail breeding is that they are oviparous, meaning that they lay eggs that later hatch, which is like most catfish species. They prefer rocks and weeds for laying their eggs, and water temperatures between 75 and 80-degrees Fahrenheit are needed for success.

The female will choose a secluded spot that she can guard against predators. Here, she will lay the eggs on a flat surface – anywhere from a few hundred to 21,000 eggs at once. Next, the male will fertilize the eggs by spraying them with sperm. The eggs will then hatch about 10 days later.

One parent will guard the eggs and it is believed that the males protect the fry for about a week after birth before abandoning them to the wild.

Nutritional Needs

Redtail catfish food technically could be anything a redtail can get ahold of. They will seriously eat anything they can get in their mouths.

But since we’d like them to be healthy, limiting the items in their tanks is important and making sure the food is nutritious is vital.

The redtail catfish diet is omnivorous and intermittent.

Your redtail catfish feeding should look like a weekly feast of plant matter, fruits, invertebrates, and fish.

Ideally, you’ll provide them with things like algae wafers, saltwater fish filets, earthworms, shrimp, marine shellfish, and even feeder fish. If you do opt for feeder fish, make sure to get them from a breeder, however, as the ones you’ll find at most pet stores are often unhealthy carriers of illnesses.

Best Sustenance Food TypeFeeder fish, algae wafers, saltwater crustaceans, saltwater shellfish, marine fish filets
Additional Food for Optimal HealthFruits, vegetables
Special Foods and Considerations for Best Color and GrowthA solid balance between plant matter and animal protein via fish filets, crustaceans and shellfish. Crustaceans in particular help coloring pop.
When and How Often to Feed Fish Based on Life CycleOnce weekly for adults, every other day for juveniles.

For these guys, overfeeding is a huge issue. They eat anything in their tanks, which can problems all on its own, but adding too much food and feeding too often only adds to the issue. Juveniles should be fed every other day, while adults should be fed once or twice weekly.

Common Diseases and How to Avoid and Treat Them

The most common ailments to cause issues for redtail catfish include:

  • Fin rot: Treat with fish doxy or amoxicillin
  • Ammonia poisoning: prevention is critical! But if they do get ill, reduce the pH levels and make water changes to regulate
  • Red pest disease: treat with a combination of monacrin, acriflavine, and tetracycline

Generally, redtail catfish care is easy, if they live in the proper pond or large enough aquarium. They tend to be fairly hardy fish, though, of course, they are susceptible to freshwater fish diseases. They are also prone to obesity, largely thanks to their natural size and nutritional needs and owners often overfeeding them.

Best AntibioticsMalachite green/Formalin, but only use 1/4 to 1/2 the recommended “standard” dose
Treatments to AvoidPotassium permanganate or anything copper-based
Food Recommendations When SickIncrease crustacean and plant matter intake.
Hospital Tank or Isolation Within the Community Tank SpecificsStandard treatment
redtail catfish care guide

3 More Things to Know About Redtail Catfish

  1. The barbels on redtail catfish snouts are super sensitive and have chemical reception cells that act as an additional sense of smell for them.
  2. They communicate with each other by making a clicking sound, warning each other of potential dangers.
  3. And while we’re considering these fish for hobbyists, in South America, they are caught and eaten, thanks to their huge size – which can easily feed several families in one sitting.

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