Can Pleco and African Cichlids Live Together?

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You know plecos as the best aquarium cleaners with a timid attitude and a peaceful demeanor.

Then you have African cichlids, which distinguish themselves through violence, shoaling behavior, and mean and colorful looks.

Cichlids are also a bit messy, given their voracious eating behavior, so they could use the assistance of a pleco. The problem is that plecos share the same living space as cichlids do, as they’re bottom dwellers, while cichlids are almost bottom dwellers.

Given the cichlids’ territorial aggression, can they cohabitate peacefully with plecos?

Let’s have a look!

Do African Cichlids Get Along with Plecos?

Knowing how ravenous African cichlids can be, you wouldn’t say that they would be good tankmates for your plecos. Especially given the plecos’ more timid and peaceful nature.

Fortunately, cichlids can actually coexist with plecos in peace for 2 primary reasons:

  • Different active hours – African cichlids are diurnal fish, which means they are most active during the daytime. Plecos become more active during nighttime, spending their day in hiding for the most part. So, the interactions between the 2 will be minimal.
  • Different size – Some species of plecos can grow up to 2 feet and require some serious space to remain comfy and at peace. Such a fish won’t have anything to fear from their tankmates, not even cichlids.

Plus, your assistance also comes in handy in this sense. If you plan on housing cichlids and plecos together, you must carefully plan the tank’s layout to prevent aggression and tensions. We’ll get into that shortly.

Types of Plecos that Can Live with African Cichlids

As you might have suspected, not all pleco breeds are viable tankmates for African cichlids. You need to stay away from small, long-finned plecos because larger cichlids will eat them.

Also, avoid fancy plecos since they cannot adapt to the cichlids’ water parameters. The 2 best types of plecos I can recommend are the common pleco and the Ancistrus pleco.

Both of these breeds can reach approximately 5 inches in captivity and showcase darker colors with spotted patterns for an increased camouflaging effect.

These plecos are hardy, adaptable, and will stay out of your cichlids’ way.

Avoid specimens like gold nugget pleco, zebra pleco, snowball pleco, and others like them. These species are both extremely colorful and possess long fins, which your cichlids would love to nip on.

The same problem comes with monster plecos like royal pleco and sailfin pleco.

Although these scavengers can reach 17-19 inches in optimal conditions, they are easy targets for cichlids due to their peaceful attitude and long, flashy fins.

Keeping Plecos with African Cichlids

Now that you’ve determined the type of pleco you need, it’s time to get to work. You have several key factors to consider when crafting the ideal pleco-cichlid habitat:

The Size of the Fish

Cichlids are notoriously aggressive and can sometimes showcase predatory behavior. They are more likely to attack smaller fish and will eat them if possible.

Given that many pleco breeds are below 3 inches, you need to choose your plecos carefully. The same goes for cichlids.

You can’t pair 3-inch plecos with 12-inch cichlids, and hope everything will work out because it won’t.

Fortunately, you have approximately 1,500 cichlids breeds available, with sizes ranging between 2 and 12 inches. Some are even larger than that.

Stick to a 4-8-inch cichlid and pair them with a pleco at least 4 inches in size. This will prevent the cichlid from displaying predatory behavior and lower its interest in messing with the pleco.

The Aggression Level of Cichlids

While most cichlids are aggressive and territorial, they’re not all identical. These intelligent fish have different personalities and temperaments, some being less aggressive than others.

You should aim for more peaceful cichlids and stay away from the aggressive types that are more likely to attack your plecos.

Some of the best fits include:

  • Electric yellow lab cichlid – This one grows up to 5 inches and can adapt to a community tank quite well. Electric yellow cichlids are completely yellow with black dorsal, pectoral, and anal fins and black eyes.
  • Yellow tail acei cichlid – This species can grow up to 7 inches and also ranks as semi-aggressive. It won’t bother your plecos too much, so long as they have plenty of space at their disposal. Yellow-tail acei cichlids are usually bright blue or even black with yellow tails.
  • Blue orchid peacock cichlid – This one can reach 9 inches in captivity and is mostly peaceful, so to speak. Most specimens are completely blue, but they also showcase a lot of variation. Some have lighter tints, while others are darker with light-blue fins.

Stay away from cichlids like the Butterikoferi, which can grow up to 16 inches and rank as extremely aggressive. It won’t hesitate to eat your small plecos with their meaty lips and large mouths.

A critical note here – the notion of ‘peaceful’ doesn’t apply to African cichlids. So, when I say peaceful African cichlids, I actually mean semi-aggressive.

This means you should always expect some tension in the tank, no matter the type of cichlid you’re getting. This is where the following points become of critical importance.

Water Parameters

Make sure that both your cichlids and plecos share the same living conditions. Not all plecos require the same water parameters, and the same goes for cichlids.

Plus, you should always maintain the water quality in peak conditions. While plecos can easily adapt to a suboptimal habitat, the same can’t be said about cichlids.

Improper water conditions with high ammonia, inadequate temperatures, or fluctuating parameters will stress your cichlids out fast.

As you may know, fish stress is related to increased aggression and a higher predisposition to parasites and bacteria.

Feeding and Diet

From a meal preference perspective, there are no problems to mention. Both cichlids and plecos are omnivorous, although plecos tend to consume more plant matter than cichlids.

All is good in this area. But there are 2 other areas where you need to exert extra caution and attention:

1. How You Feed the Two Species

Cichlids inhabit the lower and middle areas of the tank, while plecos inhabit the lower one exclusively.

This means that plecos’ food needs to traverse the cichlids’ dwelling area to reach the catfish.

Needless to say, hungry cichlids won’t let that happen and will consume all of the sinking food before reaching the substrate.

This can cause the plecos to starve, causing them to leave the substrate in search of food and cross into cichlid territory more often.

So, you should always feed cichlids and plecos separately, preferably in different areas of the tank. This way, they can both eat well without stealing each other’s meals.

2. How You Feed Cichlids

Cichlids mostly eat once per day, although some species may require 2 meals daily.

They don’t need as much food due to their long intestine, which takes longer to digest the food.

This is why you should also have a fasting day per week, not to overburden the cichlids’ digestive system

The problem is that cichlids don’t know of this issue. They will happily eat more than they should, which tends to happen when feeding your plecos. This is an even bigger incentive to feed cichlids and plecos separately.

Also, assess your cichlids’ appetite and feeding requirements. The goal is to keep your cichlids full and happy at all times to prevent them from getting too aggressive due to improper diets.

Tank Size

The tank’s size is probably the most important aspect on today’s list. The tank size is important both for plecos and cichlids, but for different reasons. With plecos, it’s the fish’s size that matters the most.

Common plecos can reach 15 inches in captivity, so they require at least 80 gallons as adults.

This is because they are quite active at nighttime, patrolling their environment in search of food and for exploration purposes.

When it comes to African cichlids, it all boils down to territorial needs and community space. You want to keep African cichlids in larger groups, as this keeps them calmer than those living in pairs or solo.

Depending on the cichlid breed, you may need to invest in an 80-100-gallon tank to accommodate them properly.

Such an environment is ideal for a group of 7+ 5-7-inch-long cichlids, especially if you consider their territorial behavior. Cichlids use their environmental layout to decide their territorial boundaries.

So, you require a variety of rocks, caves, and different structures to provide your African cichlids with relevant aquatic landmarks they can use.

If not, your cichlids will become confused about their territories and get into scuffles a lot more frequently.


While plecos and African cichlids are not compatible on paper, you can still make it work.

Follow today’s guide, figure out the sweet spot in terms of water parameters, tank size, fish size, and dietary needs, and your cichlids and plecos can become great tankmates.

This being said, always remember that cichlids have different temperaments and personalities. Some are more aggressive than others, so things might not always work as intended.

Always monitor your fish’s interactions to prevent unwarranted or unhinged aggression.

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.
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