How to Care for African Cichlids?

Disclosure: I may earn a commission when you purchase through my affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. – read more

African cichlids are classified in the Cichlidae family and include thousands of species. Most of them have been found in various parts of Africa, which is how their name was given.

These species mostly inhabit the lakes Tanganyika, Malawi, and Victoria, which are all freshwater lakes in East Africa. The cichlids from Lake Malawi are the most popular with aquarists.

Their popularity is attributed to their vibrant patterns and colors, which makes them more pricey than other tropical fish. African cichlids are also very active and will brighten up any aquarium.

African Cichlid Aquarium Requirements


Before keeping African cichlids, you should know the kind of environment they are used to in the wild. Wild African cichlids create hiding spaces between rocks, and you will need to recreate this habitat.

The aquarium requirements of the cichlids include:

Tank Size

Bigger is always better with the tank size for African cichlids. The cichlids come in different sizes. Species under six inches in size will appreciate a 30-gallon tank. Include an additional three gallons for every other cichlid that you add.

Small African cichlids include the Dwarf Julidochromis and Neolamprologus.

If you intend to keep several medium-sized cichlids, invest in a 75-gallon tank. Large setups will fit the bigger species, including C. moori and C. frontosa.

Ensure that the tank has a large bottom area relative to its volume. Research the African cichlids you want to buy, because some can get very large while others are territorial.


african cichlids aquarium

African Cichlids Aquarium

African cichlids will welcome appropriate plants and decor.

Choosing the best plants for the cichlids can be difficult because they tend to nibble on plants. They can be seen trying to root up plants, and only plants with a particularly stable root system will withstand the aggression. Avoid plants with weak root systems. African cichlids also prefer alkaline water, which rules out plenty of aquarium plants.

There are several plants that you can, however, consider to plant in your tank. They include plants with sturdy root systems, including the Java fern, Java Moss, Java Fern, and Anubias. The Hornwort is also ideal, primarily because it is a floating plant, and it divides the tank into territories to minimize aggression on the part of the cichlid.

The jungle val is also a good aquatic plant to keep as it will thrive in any condition. It also has strong roots, although it will grow better in sand instead of gravel.

African cichlids can be quite territorial, which is why you will need to provide them with rocks to mark territories. Species like the Mbuna cichlid will claim a cave between a rock and a plant and fight off other fish that come close.

Avoid sharp rocks, however, as they can harm the fragile bodies of your pets. Consider rocks like lava, ocean, slate, and limestone rocks. Supplement the rocks with the decorations of your choice, provided they are marked safe for use in an aquarium


The natural habitats of African cichlids are rich in limestone and are highly alkaline. The substrate you choose for your tank should add buffers to the water to maintain the PH at higher concentrations than those in most freshwater aquariums.

The best substrate for these aquatic pets is crushed coral or sand. African cichlids are mostly seen burrowing in the substrate, and there is a chance they will hurt themselves in coarse or rough substrates. Sand is ideal because it is smooth, although it might not be the best choice for the aquatic plants you have.

Silica is quite popular with aquarists who keep African cichlids. This sand substrate is smooth and fairly affordable. If you want a substrate that hides waste and debris, consider Tahitian Moon Sand. Its dark hue also adds elegance to a setup.

Other popular substrates with African cichlids are Black Beauty and Play Sand.

Gravel is not recommended for African cichlids because it can be sharp and increase the chances of your pet getting injured.


An aquarium with African cichlids should be well-filtered by a filter that does mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration.

If your tank is overstocked, over-filtration in the form of dual filtration is recommended. Two canister filters will serve a large setup, as the waste can quickly build up. Dual filtration is ideal for tanks larger than 90 gallons. African cichlids love to rummage through the substrate, and will constantly dig up dirt and debris, which is why you need a strong filtration system.

Most aquarists who keep the cichlids rely on hang on back filters, which are effective in medium-sized tanks.

The filter you choose should also boost the aeration of the aquarium. Aeration is vital because the cichlids rarely seek the water’s surface, where most of the oxygen circulates. The best filter should not create strong currents, however.

Sponge filters can also be used, and you should avoid under gravel filters if you have a sand substrate.


The kind of lighting you get will depend on the kind of African cichlids you keep. Most of them inhabit murky conditions in the wild, and some like the Nyassa peacock mostly hideaway among rocks. Species from Lake Victoria prefer murkier waters when compared to those from Lake Malawi. Research on the habitats of the cichlids you have and mimic those conditions.

Fluorescent lights can be used because they do not give out heat, which helps to control the temperature.

African Cichlid Water Parameters

African Cichlid Water Parameters

African Cichlid Water Parameters

The water conditions for African cichlids include:


African cichlids thrive in temperatures between 75 to 85 °F. Higher temperatures will boost their metabolism and make them more aggressive and competitive for food. Warm water is also ideal for breeding African cichlids.

Lower temperatures will make the pets docile but ensure the temperatures do not fall below 20 °C.

When selecting a heater, opt for one with five watts of power per each gallon of water. Position the heater close to the filter.


African cichlids from the lakes Victoria and Malawi will prosper in a PH range between 7.4 to 7.9. Lake Tanganyikan cichlids prefer higher alkaline levels between 8.3 to 9.3.

You can use rock, marine coal, and sand to raise the PH and buffer the water. Some pet stores will also stock Cichlid Buffer additives to buffer the water.

Water Conditions

The water hardness of your tank should be 10-15 dh, which mimics the hard limestone environment in the wild habitats of the African cichlids.

Ensure your tank is free of ammonia and nitrite spikes by doing frequent water changes and equipping your tank with a strong filtration system.

African Cichlid Tank Mates

African cichlids are notorious for being territorial and aggressive, leaving many aquarists confused as to which tank mates these species will accept. It is best to avoid companions that prefer to swim in open spaces as they will be vulnerable to attacks. Additionally, avoid small fish which can be mistaken for food.

The tankmates to consider for your African cichlid include:

Clown Loach

Clown Loach

Clown Loach

The Clown Loach, also called the Batia Loach, is an ideal addition to an African cichlid tank. It typically grows to four and a half inches and thrives in temperatures between 72 and 86 °F.

The Clown Loach likes to hide, and its semi-aggressive temperament will keep the African cichlid in check. It will mostly be seen at the bottom of the tank, so avail a lot of rocks and decorations at this level.


There are numerous catfish species that will co-exist peacefully with the African cichlid. They include the hi fin catfish, spotted catfish, and the spotted Raphael catfish.

The scavenger prefers a tank full of plants and rocks like the cichlids. It can, however, grow to almost a foot in length and will need a large setup. For algae-eaters, avoid dropping algae wafers into the areas occupied by the cichlids to prevent conflicts between the pets.

Cichlid Species

Aquarists should only rear cichlids from the same continent in the same tank. African cichlids do not make good companions for South American cichlids because their immune systems differ. One type of cichlids can easily make another sick.

Most popular African cichlids are sourced from the Great Rift Valley Lakes. They are comfortable around other African species, including the buffalo head cichlid, which lives in the Congo River. Dwarf Cichlids from West Africa are also good companions.


African Red-Eyed Tetra

African Red-Eyed Tetra (sourceCC BY-SA 4.0)

African cichlids can be kept with some tetra species. The African Red-eyed Tetra will prosper in similar tank conditions with African cichlids. Its large size demands a large setup, while its feeding requirements are the same as those of the cichlids.


Pleco Fish

Pleco Fish

Plecos are notable as algae-eaters, which will reduce the waste in your aquarium. Plecos prefer temperatures between 72 to 78 °F and a PH of 6.5 to 7.5. These pets love the bottom space of aquariums and will generally stay out of the cichlids’ way.


Giant Danio

Giant Danio
(sourceCC BY-SA 4.0)

You can’t put small species of danios together with African cichlids.

However, giant danios are ideal because they inhabit the middle and bottom layers of the tank.

These danios, however, likes colder temperatures between 64 to 74 °F. They typically reach four inches (10 cm) in length and will appreciate a lot of live plants.




The Rainbowfish is very easy to care for and will make a good tankmate for an African cichlid tank. They prefer temperatures between 72 to 77 °F. It reaches a length of four inches, and you should get a mature one to counter the aggression of the African cichlid.

Fish to avoid keeping with the African cichlid includes species that are small, docile, and aggressive. These include angelfish, Corydoras, guppies, and discus fish.

Feeding African Cichlids

Feeding African Cichlids

Feeding African Cichlids

The most suitable diet for your cichlid will depend on which type it is. The species are quite diverse, with some of them being micro-predators, omnivorous, carnivorous, and herbivorous.

The wrong diet will negatively impact your African cichlid. The Tanganyikan Tropheus, for example, is exclusively herbivorous, and it will get severely bloated to the point of death if given live or frozen meals. Some suitable herbivorous foods include spinach and peas.

Electric yellow cichlids are omnivorous, and they will welcome both plants and fish. Insectivores species include the Peacock cichlids.

Carnivorous cichlids can be sustained with krill, brine shrimp, shrimp pellets, and tropical flakes. These species also need some vegetable matter as supplements.

African cichlids will appreciate flake foods purchased from stores, including algae wafers, live foods, and frozen meals. Wafers and pellets are particularly ideal for bottom-dwelling cichlids.

Spirulina flake is favored among aquarists because of their high nutrition content. It is 65 to 70% protein, in addition to having concentrations of chromium, iron, vitamin B-12, and anti-oxidants.

To boost their health, rotate their diets every day, and only give them meals they will finish in two minutes. Feed them twice a day. They are aggressive eaters, and you should be concerned if they are not enthusiastic during their feeding session.

African Cichlid Common Diseases

African cichlids can be vulnerable to numerous diseases if the water conditions are not ideal, including:

Malawi Bloat

Malawi Bloat is especially common in fish that eat organic matter. Its signs include abdominal inflammation, rapid inhaling and exhaling, lack of appetite, sulking at the tank’s bottom, and discolored feces.

If it advances, Malawi Bloat will cause liver and kidney damage. The first step in addressing Malawi Bloat is doing a water change, and dosing the tank with Metronidazole.

Hole-in-the Head Disease

This disease is primarily characterized by a depression in the head, in addition to in-appetite and weight loss. The affected cichlid can also grow lesions on the lateral line, which will attract systemic infections in due time. The cause of the disease has been linked to a parasite called Hexamita, poor water quality, and mineral imbalance.


Fish tuberculosis is particularly deadly, and it can kill all of a tank’s residents in a short time. It is also risky because you can contract it via open wounds and sores, and you should thus use quality rubber gloves. Affected pets will appear lethargic with symptoms like a sunken stomach, white blotches on the skin, loss of appetite, and frayed fins.

Cotton Wool Disease

This disease manifests as fuzzy white growths on the scales, head, and fins. It is caused by a naturally-occurring fungus in tank water, which becomes a concern in poor water quality.

Your fish are particularly vulnerable to fungal infections if there is uneaten food waste and decomposing organic matter in an aquarium. The cotton wool disease is very contagious, and it can be kept at bay by maintaining good water parameters.

Breeding African Cichlids in Aquarium

Breeding African Cichlids in Aquarium

Breeding African Cichlids in Aquarium

Most species of the African cichlid will breed easily under suitable water parameters. They are prolific breeders in aquariums, and cases of incidental spawning are common.

When preparing to breed your cichlids, ensure you are feeding them sufficiently to boost their vitality.

All cichlids lay eggs, which they will guard in a cave until they hatch. The males can be observed digging caves near hiding spots and will attract the female by flicking water with his tail. The female will follow him to the nest if she is ready.

Some African cichlids are mouthbrooders and will keep the fertilized eggs in their mouths till they hatch. Do not disturb the female during this time to allow the eggs to fertilize.

She may avoid eating during this period. She can hold onto the eggs for 21 days, after which she will release the baby cichlids into hiding spaces.

The cichlids will have 10-30 eggs, out of which you can get even one fry. To maximize survival rates, allow for many hiding spots, and the female will eventually abandon the fry. Promote the growth of the fry with a lot of nutritious food.

Are African Cichlids Aggressive?

African cichlids are more aggressive in comparison to tropical community fish. The level of aggression depends on the type of cichlids. Malawian species in the genus Maylandia and Melanochromis, for example, are very aggressive, and males will kill each other over territories.

The least aggressive species include the Electric Yellows and Rusty Cichlids.

African cichlids will generally display a level of aggression, although you can promote a peaceful aquarium. Ensure you provide room to roam in addition to placing plants, rocks, and other decorations as a way of marking territories.

Do African Cichlids Jump Out of the Tank?

It is recommended to cover an African cichlid tank. Since they are territorial, a fight or conflict will lead to attempted jumps.

What is the Lifespan of African Cichlids?

The species will have varying lifespans. While some will only live for three or four years, others can live for ten years in the right conditions.

Do African Cichlids Have Teeth?

African cichlids have teeth, although their nature will depend on their diets. Algae-eaters, for example, have small rows of teeth to scrape off algae from rocks.

Scientists are currently examining the dentistry of the cichlids because their teeth regenerate every 100 days or so to replace damaged or lost pieces.

Are African Cichlids Suitable for Beginners?

African cichlids can be quite challenging to keep, primarily because they are aggressive. They also need a mature tank, which is well separated with plants, rocks, and other decorations.

The cichlids are more suitable for experienced fishkeepers and will discourage anyone looking to keep a peaceful community tank.


African Cichlids are made of up hundreds of species, each of which has their own needs and requirements.

Any aquarists looking up to keep African cichlids should do extensive research on the specific species they want to rear while keeping in mind that they are aggressive.

Author Image Fabian
I’m Fabian, aquarium fish breeder and founder of this website. I’ve been keeping fish, since I was a kid. On this blog, I share a lot of information about the aquarium hobby and various fish species that I like. Please leave a comment if you have any question.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *