Pictus Catfish: The Complete Care, Species, & Breeding Guide

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If you’ve always wanted to care for a fish and have perhaps graduated from the easiest fish to care for (the guppy) and would like something just a shade more exotic, then you might want to look at the pictus catfish. Much more docile than their mammalian counterparts yet named for the interesting ‘whiskers’ surrounding their face, catfish are beautiful specimens which would add immense grace to your at-home aquarium.

Let’s discuss the ways we can best care for pictus catfish.

Species Profile

Often deemed ‘unmistakeable’, the pictus catfish does have a striking appearance which makes it much sought-after in the world of amateur fish procurers. It has an energetic personality, which means that it won’t ‘just float there’, but instead that as its owner you’re in for hours of delight as you watch the fish gambol about its tank.

The coloring of the catfish is beautiful as well! Known as both the Pictus Catfish and the Angel Catfish, this fish hails from South America, where it was first found by Franz Steindachner an Austrian zoologist in the late nineteenth century.

Pictus Catfish Habitat

As they first came from South America and they are quite active, we can make a few inferences based on its initial habitat as to how to customize its tank. Since they like to swim fast, catfish usually do best in larger tanks—around one hundred gallons or so. Keeping them in a smaller tank would stress them out unnecessarily.

The South American reference comes in with their requiring warmer temperatures for their water. You may have to employ a water heater and a few satellite thermometers as well as routine checks to ensure that the tank is kept up to livable standards for your catfish!


Catfish are easy to tell apart from other fish. They’re named for the long tendrils or ‘whiskers’ that come from the front of their face, much like a cat’s whiskers; but their coloring and patterning is also extremely identifiable. They have white bodies with black spots—to continue with the feline connections, they are much like a fish version of snow leopards.

The catfish have a white barbell—something akin to an exterior spine—which goes all the way down the side of the fish, almost from its head, down to its caudal fin. That’s another easily identifiable characteristic of a catfish.

Its whiskers are similar to the antennae of an insect or the tongue of a dog; they use them for sensory proprioception. For example, when the water around them gets muddy, catfish are able to use their whiskers to help them navigate anyway.

Telling the difference between male and female catfish can be tricky, as they are virtually identical. However, when the female catfish reaches an age of sexual maturity, they will tend to be just a little bit larger and rounder than their male counterparts—possibly so that they’re ready to carry their prospective young.

Tank Conditions

As they hail from South America, a pictus catfish’s tank should be warm and bright during the day (and dark at night). Since catfish are usually found swimming through sandy riverbeds, adding sand to the bottom of their tank will also help them feel at home. Remember to get them a tank that’s large enough for zipping around in!

Because they’re river fish, you should also try to simulate the current of a river in their tank. (This is another reason that a very large tank is crucial!) To do this, you will have to invest in a high-quality filter—however, this will be one of the largest investments you will make. After that, fish are relatively low maintenance.

Luckily, a heavy-duty filter will serve at least one other purpose when you have pictus catfishes on hand! Catfish are notoriously good at producing large amounts of waste. Because their waste is inherently toxic to them, you’ll have to help filter it out — which, for these fish, is something you’ll be doing anyway.

As far as tank accessories go, because these catfish are from the South American forest rivers, they’re used to lots of driftwood and tree trunks to swim around and hide behind. Giving them moss, rocks, and driftwood in their tanks will go a long way towards making them feel at home.

Lastly, the catfish is mostly a nocturnal fish. If you want to see them active during the day, when we humans are awake, you’ll want to keep the tank very dimly lit or underlit—this will help them feel safe coming out when you can see them.

As far as specific water conditions go, you’ll want to keep the temperature relatively warm (between 75-81 degrees Fahrenheit) and the pH between 7.0 and 7.5.


In the wild, pictus catfishes are omnivores and scavengers. Whatever they can find to eat, they will. In domesticity, this is convenient but also a major responsibility on your part. They’ll eat anything you put in the aquarium—which makes giving them the food they need quite easy, but also raises the danger of them eating something that they shouldn’t if you aren’t diligent about keeping strange objects out of the tank.

As far as what you should be concentrating on feeding them, remember that the catfish likes to spend a lot of time circling the bottom of their tank. Therefore, the usual lighter-than-air flakes won’t do very well for them—they won’t notice they’re there! Fish food distributors have solved this problem by manufacturing sinking pellets specifically for catfish. Pick up a quantity of good quality sinking pellets for your catfish, and you can’t go wrong.

You can also change it up every now and again by giving them some brine shrimp or beef heart, which they’ll nibble on to their heart’s content for hours; or frozen worms, or any of an array of vegetables. Anything they don’t touch should  be removed from the tank to reduce chance of bad bacteria growth.

Another good asset of them being scavengers is that they will eat any naturally growing algae that grows out of your substrate. You don’t have to worry about cleaning this out at all!

Because catfish are very active, they do have very large appetites. If your brand of fish food has a range of appropriate amounts of food to give to catfish, it’s better to err on the larger side of the spectrum—otherwise the catfish’s natural high activity levels will turn into high levels of aggression.

The flip side of this large amount of food is that your catfish will be naturally producing high levels of waste. As mentioned above, investing in a high-quality water filter will go a long way towards helping take care of this, but you should also test the water periodically to make sure that its levels are in a good place, and prioritize switching out 25% of the water on a weekly basis.

Pictus Catfish Tankmates and Compatibility

A good rule of thumb is that a 150 gallon tank can support up to 4 catfish. This might seem like a lot—it is!—but remember that catfish are very active and beautiful; your return on investment will be high.

Pictus catfish aren’t known for being incompatible with other fish—in fact, they’re quite friendly, and they love having other fish to swim around with. There are significant caveats or warnings, however, that go along with this observation.

  1. Firstly, pictus catfish require large amounts of food, and they will become aggressive if they go hungry. If you aren’t giving them the food that they need and you do populate their tank with smaller fish, they will assume that the smaller fish are food and kill and eat them.
  2. Pictus catfish are fast! One of their favorite activities is zooming around their tanks at high speed—part of the reason that they’re such big eaters. It’s not a good idea, therefore, to include several larger or slower fish in the cage along with the pictus catfish, as the catfish might harm the larger and slower fish with their sharp fins as they swim around.
  3. As a general rule of thumb, you should make sure that if you’re including any breeds of fish that aren’t catfish in your tank with the catfish, the catfish should be the smallest fish in the tank. As noted elsewhere, catfish aren’t necessarily carnivorous, and are quite peaceful. However, if you lapse your feeding schedule, any smaller fish will be the first to feel the repercussions of your negligence.

Because of these stipulations, many people wonder if it’s worth keeping several different breeds together. Of course it is! Living in the wild, pictus catfishes would naturally be associating with many different types of fish. However, in domesticity, you might not want to deal with the fallout of the food chain. Know that depending on what you want to have in your home, having a mixed array of fish, only catfish, or even just one singular catfish, are all completely fine options—catfish can live separately or together.


Because the pictus catfish is a popular freshwater fish, they are very difficult to breed in the environment of a home aquarium. One of the biggest reasons this is the case is that catfish need lots of room in order to reach sexual maturity; they just aren’t able to grow to the size they need to be in order to reproduce when they’re at all cramped. And their definition of ‘cramped’ is very different from what others perhaps may be.

If you’re looking to breed catfish, the long and short of it is that you’ll need a very large tank of about 200 gallons in your home. This might be difficult! However, it’ll be necessary if you’re looking to have your catfish reproduce.

However, know that even if you invest in the right size of tank, the chances are still very low that you’re going to be able to observe breeding. Very few people who have catfish at home have been able to observe even the signs of breeding maturity, let alone the process of actually breeding.

However, we do know that in the wild, it’s a process wherein the female catfish lays eggs, and then the male catfish comes along to fertilize them.

If you’re serious about trying your hand at breeding catfish in domesticity, ultimately, know that your chances are very low, and it starts with having a gigantic amount of room in your home for a good sized tank. Then, it would be a good idea to get in contact with a community of fish breeders and others who like to prioritize the quality of their fish meetups—perhaps even professional breeders, too; that way you can get a good idea of what you need to do to succeed for your fish.

Pictus Catfish Diseases

An interesting fact is that catfish don’t have scales. Unfortunately, this makes it much easier for them to contract various diseases, so you definitely need to make sure that you keep the water in the specific windows for pH and temperature mentioned above. However, if you prioritize keeping the water in the right window for their overall health, pictus catfishes usually don’t contract any kind of regular diseases. They’re very easy to keep healthy and safe once you get into a routine.

The Challenges of Keeping Pictus Catfish in Your Aquarium?

One easily identifiable challenge of keeping a pictus catfish in your aquarium is simply the fact that the catfish’s fins get extremely sharp—much like the claws of a cat. While this will certainly impact how you carry the fish—in a plastic box, not in a net or bag—it might also impact any non-catfish tank mates or other aquarium accessories that you leave in with your fish. The other difficulty, assuming you aren’t trying to breed, is simply that they are omnivorous, and that you must feed them regularly. If you don’t, they will become aggressive and eat anything in sight.

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Jeff Colt

Jeff Colt

Hello, I'm Jeff- an aquarium enthusiast with over 25 years of experience caring for a wide array of tropical fish, including koi, goldfish bettas, cichlids and more! For me: Aquariums are like jello - there's always room for more!

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