Redtail Catfish 101: Tank Mates, Diet, Size, and More…

If you like the idea of caring for the Redtail Catfish, and you are committed to providing your fish with everything it needs for a healthy and happy life, then they will make a very unique and beautiful addition to your home aquarium or pond.

This care guide will give you all the information you need in order to educate yourself on everything about the beautiful Redtail Catfish so that you can decide for yourself whether you are ready for the commitment of caring for a Redtail Catfish.

Redtail Catfish Care Guide

Species Profile

The Redtail Catfish belongs to the Phractocephalus hemioliopterus species and is a member of the pimelodid catfish family, which are the long-whiskered catfish. It is, in fact, the only living member of the Phractocephalus species left.

They are often referred to as an RTC, the flat-nosed Catfish, the banana catfish, as well as the antenna catfish.

A native to South America, the Redtail Catfish live in the Amazonian freshwater river basins, streams, and lakes in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, as well as other nearby countries. 

Redtails Catfish Appearance

The South American Redtail Catfish is considered to be the most attractive fish of its species. It’s caudal and dorsal fins have an orange-red color, which gives it its name. Along the sides of the dark grey and brown body, there is a wavy band of pale yellow or white that stretches down the length of the body. For juveniles, this band reaches all the way to the mouth, but in adults, it breaks up close to the mouth.

The body is cylindrical in shape, a flat, white belly, and laterally compressed red tail. It also has two pairs of unusually long barbels (whiskers) located on the bottom jaw and one pair located on the upper jaw. 

Beginning life around 5cm in size, the Redtail Catfish starts out small but grows larger quickly when it’s taken care of and well-fed and can grow an impressive inch every week when they are young. By the time they are a year old, most are approximately two feet long. They can reach up to 1.8 m (5ft, 11in) in length, and they can weigh around 80 kg (180 lbs).  

Beware of your pet store telling you that the Redtail Catfish will stop growing when it reaches 12 inches in your aquarium. Do not believe the lie that a fish will not outgrow its tank; they will, and they do. This is a dangerous myth amongst the hobby aquarist. They can grow to over four feet in home aquariums, even more massive when left to grow wild in nature.

Because of the large sizes they can grow to, the Redtail Catfish is considered by anglers to be a game fish. A challenge to catch, they can use their size and strength to put up an impressive fight and test the competency of any angler. The International Game Fish Association’s world record for weight belongs to Gilberto Fernandes from Brazil with a catch of 56 kg (123 lbs, 7 oz) that was 63 inches long.

Behavior

When the Redtail Catfish is young, they can be nonsocial, shy even. In order to help them overcome their shyness, you could provide areas for them to hang out in, such as caves and dens. It would help if you also kept the tank out in the open where you will be spending a lot of your time so that they can become accustomed to seeing you and interacting with you. 

These fish like to swim at the bottom of the aquarium. As adults, they may stay motionless for long periods of time. Due to their stealth capability and fully evolved receptors, the RedTail Catfish is a predator that will wait patiently for its prey.

These fish have a nasty habit of putting things in their mouths and sometimes swallowing them, which results in them regurgitating the object later. This habit is dangerous for the fish and can sometimes cause them to choke and die. Do not put anything in their tank that will fit into their mouths.

They are territorial with their own kind as well as others from the catfish family. However, they can be good community fish if they are in a tank with fish that are their same size. In the vast public aquariums, the Redtail Catfish can exist peacefully in large groups, but it’s because they are in tanks that are large enough for the fish to have its own territory.

They are not venomous, but they are highly predatory towards anything that is smaller than them, especially shrimp, crabs, and other crustaceans.

Redtails Catfish Tank Mates

Redtails Catfish are natural predators who will attack and eat smaller fish. Because of this, they are best housed on their own. However, if you do decide to get another fish, you need to pick one that will not fit into the Redtail Catfish’s mouth. 

They don’t have any problems eating something that is half their size, and sometimes, the more aggressive ones will try to eat something that is nearly their size but slightly smaller. This habit is dangerous and could cause them to choke and perhaps even die.

Because they will eat any fish that is smaller in size than them, other fish should include ones that are as big as the Redtail Catfish, or bigger. Suitable tanks mates include Datnoids, Stingrays, and Gars. It is also ideal to raise them together from the time they are juveniles.

Food & Feeding

The Amazon natives will not eat the Redtail Catfish because the meat is black in color. The natives will only eat white meat according to Aquarium Fishes of the World (1998) by Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod. The native Amazonians have been crossbreeding the Redtail Catfish other fish species in order to develop a viable food fish. Some of the fish they have hybridized are the Tiger Redtail Catfish.

As for what they eat themselves, the Redtail Catfish are not picky about what they eat. In fact, if it will fit in their mouth, they’ll try to eat it. They will eat stones, gravel, filter parts, aquarium decor, and basically anything that is loose.

Although these fish are omnivorous, they do prefer meatier foods, high in protein, such as cut meat and fish, cockles, mussels, lance fish, crayfish, earthworms, shrimp, and sinking carnivore pellets. Adult fish will also quickly eat an entire white fish, as well. 

In order to ensure your Redtail Catfish is being fed the best possible diet, you could also consider making their food yourself. You should include fruits and vegetables regularly to even out their diet. 

It’s also worthy to note that crustaceans are wonderful color enhancers that will bring out the signature red in the Catfish’s tail.

Another feeding option is live feeds, although they are not necessary. They tend to be more expensive compared to other sources of more nutritional and healthier choices. Before buying the feeders, make sure you are getting them from a reputable source. 

Quite often, feeders are grown in crowded and unsuitable conditions. These conditions can cause them to have very little, sometimes no nutritional value. The feeders could also harbor parasites and diseases, which could potentially affect your fish. Live feeders can also more expensive.

Do not feed them the meat from mammals. Meat such as chicken and beef heart contain lipids that they can’t metabolize properly. Excess deposits of fat, as well as organ degeneration, can occur as a result of feeding them these kinds of meat. 

Be careful that you do not overfeed. After each feed, they become quite sluggish while their body digests their food correctly. The juvenile Redtails Catfish needs to be fed every other day, while the adults will only need to be fed one large meal a week.

When you become more familiar with them, you will begin to notice signs of them being sluggish and active. As you learn their habits, you will also learn when the best time to feed them is. You can also train them to eat food from your hands.

Breeding

Redtail Catfish juveniles are impossible to distinguish males from females. When they are housed together in a home aquarium, they will not breed. There are no documented cases of these fish are being successfully bred in an aquarium. This might have to do with the Redtail Catfish’s territorial nature when it comes to other Catfish. However, by using hormones, some South American fisheries have accomplished breeding these fish. Some of them make it into the aquarium trade, but most are used primarily as a food source.

When in their natural environment, they will breed the same way as other Catfish do. It is also oviparous (meaning it lays eggs that hatch later). They like to have places to nestle down into the weeds and rocks. They also prefer the water temperature to be around 75-80℉ (24-27℃) 

The female Redtail Catfish will choose a secluded place that is also a flat surface to lay her eggs. The spot should be well guarded from predators. The female can lay anywhere from a couple of hundred eggs to roughly 21,000 eggs in just one spawning. Redtails Catfish that are younger and smaller will lay fewer eggs than the full-size adults. They are the ones that lay the greatest amount of eggs.

In order to fertilize the eggs, the male will then spray the spawned eggs with his sperm. The eggs will then hatch in approximately ten days. We are not sure whether it’s the male or the female that safeguards the eggs while they hatch, but one of them does. The male will then guard the fry for another week before they are ready to strike out on their own.

Tank Setup

Because of the size, the Redtail Catfish can grow to, the absolute minimum tank size should be 1,000 gallons, which should be 12x4x3. But when the fish becomes an adult and reaches its full size, a 1,500-gallon tank or larger will be needed. Remember, this is just for one fish! For this reason, a lot of people choose indoor ponds instead of aquariums, which are more appropriate for this size of fish.

The juvenile Redtail Catfish grows very fast, up to one inch a week, within the first two years of its life. Because of this, they will need a large tank within a year. However, upgrading to a larger tank can be stressful for your fish. To help ease the stress, you can transfer the tank water from the old tank to the new tank to make sure the water parameters stay the same, and your fish doesn’t go into shock. 

You can even have material transferred from the old filter to the new filter to help with cycling the tank. The nitrification cycle should be completed prior to transferring the fish.

If you choose to display any decor in the tank, make sure it doesn’t have any parts that could be swallowed by your Redtail Catfish. The decor will need to be as large as your fish to keep them from putting it in their mouths and trying to eat it. 

Because of this habit, they are likely to destroy any decor you put in your tank, or at the very least, rearrange the entire tank. If you do decide you want decor in your tank, your best bet is to go with large branches and big rocks that won’t fit in their mouths. A tank with nothing on the bottom is best. However, if you don’t like that look, you could put sand down on the bottom of the tank. But you should take into consideration that an empty tank will be easier to clean.

Since these are not social fish, the lighting should be more subdued. If this isn’t an option, make sure you have plenty of caves or dens for the fish to find comfort and hide in.

These massive fish have been known to try to eat heaters and filters, which could kill them if they succeed. It’s best to use external heaters and filters so that the fish won’t be able to get to them.

The water temperature should be between 68.0 to 79.0° F (20.0 to 26.1° C), with the pH range between 5.5-7.2. The hardness range should be around 3 – 12 dGH. Also, the water should not be brackish.

Diseases are much more common in unclean environments, they do best with a large sump filter system that will keep the water circulating and clean. If the water is not clean, they will swim to the top and gulp air before swimming back to the bottom of the tank. When you see this happening, you will know that the quality of the water is deteriorating, and you will need to check your water parameters. It is necessary to change the water by 30% each week. This will help keep your fish healthy and happy.

How to Care for the Redtail Catfish

The Redtail Catfish may be a hardy fish, but they susceptible to the same diseases as other tropical fish. Because they are a kind of resilient fish, diseases are usually not an issue in a well-maintained aquarium.

However, there are some conditions that can harm them, such as high nitrate levels. This can cause infection on the barbels, which makes it difficult for them to eat and navigate normally. The water nitrate should remain at levels below 20 ppm with regular water changes.

As always, use all medications with caution. Catfish are extremely sensitive to medicines. It’s best to treat them with melafix and pimafix because they are a scaleless fish. Do not try to treat them with copper-based medications or potassium permanganate. Formalin and malachite green can be used, but only at one-half to one-fourth of the recommended dosage. 

By giving your Redtail Catfish a well-balanced diet and the proper environment, you can proactively prevent your fish from contracting any diseases. Keeping them in a habitat that is close to their natural habitat will avoid unnecessary stress and result in happy and healthy fish. Keeping them stress-free is essential because a stressed fish will be more susceptible to diseases. 

Be careful what you put in your tank. Anything you add can bring diseases to your tank. Plants, substrate, decorations, and even other fish can harbor harmful bacteria. You must properly clean and quarantine anything that you add to an established tank in order to avoid adding a disease to the tank.

Should You Keep a Redtail Catfish?

The Redtail Catfish may start out small and cute, but they grow big, and they grow quickly. When they are fed well and taken care of properly, they will promptly outgrow most aquarists’ tanks. Once that happens, one option the aquarist has is to donate the Redtail Catfish to a zoo or public aquarium. However, these organizations do not always accept large, privately kept fish. 

If cared for properly, the Redtail Catfish can live approximately twenty years or more. Because of their long-life span and their size, they are mainly kept by experienced, professional aquarists. If you are not confident that you can care for the Redtail Catfish for the duration of its life, you might consider looking at smaller fish.

So, the question is, can you provide the Redtail Catfish with the best life possible for the duration of their life? This includes a tank that is large enough for them to swim around in as full-size adults, or preferably an indoor pond. You will need to commit to taking the time to properly feed them and change their water regularly, as well as researching and caring for the fish.

Michele Taylor
Michele Taylor

Hello, fellow aquarists! My name is Michele Taylor, and I am a homeschool mother of six children, which includes five boys and one girl. Growing up, our family had a large aquarium with angelfish, goldfish, and lots of different varieties of neons.

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