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African cichlids care guide

African cichlids are bright and interesting additions to any home aquarium. With unique origins and behaviors, there is a lot to learn about these creatures before adding them to your fish tank. We will break down all you need to know in this care guide, including:

  • Important information about African cichlids and their behavior.
  • The different types to choose from.
  • Arranging your fish tank for your cichlids.
  • How to care for your cichlids.
  • How to spot any health issues in your cichlids.
  • The mating process of African cichlids.

Let’s get started!

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Lake Malawi CichlidLake Malawi Cichlid
Toby Hudson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About African Cichlids

African cichlids are common fish found in most pet stores. These are freshwater fish belonging to the larger cichlid family. Cichlids are known for being brightly colored fish found worldwide.

Pair this with their affordable price and you can see why they are one of the most popular choices when it comes to household pet fish.

These fish originated in three African lakes: Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, and Lake Tanganyika. The natural habitat of the African cichlid has warm, clear waters full of vegetation and sandy substrates. In these habitats, the African cichlids live happily in the shallows, scavenging for food in the sand.


African cichlids can measure anywhere from 2 to 12 inches long. The biggest African cichlids are big mouth haps, while the smallest are called multies. Most African cichlids are shaped like torpedoes, with rounded fins and triangular tails.

Males tend to have brighter colors, while females have rounder bellies when seen from an aerial view.

If well taken care of, these fish can live anywhere from 6-10 years.

African cichlids come in a special array of colors and patterns. Some of these include:

  • Peacock cichlids: Commonly found in red and blue, but can also be purple, yellow, and orange.
  • Bumblebee cichlids: These fish sport unique striped patterns, often of black stripes on a yellow body.
  • Kribensis cichlids: These have a unique grey and yellow color with a “blush” pink color on their sides and stomach.

Personality and behaviour

African cichlids are most active during the day, exploring their tank and looking for cavities to hide and claim as their own. They are quick and curious creatures, always darting about.

Although attractive in color, some people may be thrown off by the cichlid’s aggression. This type of fish is particularly territorial, which may frighten off potential fish owners. Not to worry, though, as there are ways to address this characteristic so that you can enjoy having cichlids without worrying about any aggression.

To begin, we recommend having only one male African cichlid per tank. If you have plenty of space and want multiple cichlids, buying one male and 3-4 females is an ideal number to establish a safe, non-aggressive space. Since males tend to fight over territory, this removes the need for their aggression.

A second strategy you should implement is to add plenty of hiding places and bottom-of-the-tank décor to keep the fish busy while exploring.


You can purchase most African cichlids for between $6-$30 online or at your local pet stores.

Choosing Your African Cichlids

When buying your African cichlids, you’ll need to decide which colors you’re looking for, how many you can hold in your tank, and (if available) how many males or females you would like.

In addition to the uniquely-colored cichlids mentioned above, the most commonly found African cichlids are:

  • Mbuna cichlids: These come in blue, yellow, or orange bodies and have black stripes similar to that of the bumblebee cichlid.
  • Maingano cichlids: These have blue bodies with one horizontal black stripe and black-fringed fins.
  • Zebra cichlids: These have black and white stripes mixed with blue, orange, red, and/or yellow bodies.
  • Giraffe cichlids: These interesting cichlids have brown giraffe-like spots, yellow bodies, and blue heads.
  • Electric blue cichlids: These are a vibrant blue color you can’t miss, and their heads are paler than their bodies.
  • Electric yellow cichlids: These are bright yellow with a whitish underbelly.
  • Buffalo head cichlids: These are camouflaged fish with prominent foreheads, found in black, blue, grey, and green camouflage colors.
  • Demasoni cichlids: These have dark blue bodies paired with light blue vertical stripes.

Male Dwarf CichlidMale Dwarf Cichlid
Elma from Reykjavík, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Arranging Your Fish Tank

African cichlids come from unique African lake environments. The closer you can replicate their natural habitat, the longer and healthier lives they will live.

Tank Size

Cichlids require a large space per fish for territorial reasons.

If you plan to buy more than one cichlid, you’ll need at least a 70-gallon (250 liters) tank to keep things peaceful; however, some pet owners follow the rule of one 30-gallon tank for one cichlid, plus 5 extra gallons per additional fish.

Do note that these recommendations are for the smaller African cichlid types.

Tank Temperature

Coming from African lakes, these fish require warm, tropical waters to thrive. The temperature should always be between 71.6-82.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The pH levels in the tank should also be limited between 7- 8.5. If measuring water hardness, aim for 12-30 dGH.

Male Red Zebra CichlidMale Red Zebra Cichlid
Maha Dinesh, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tank Substrate and decor

The substrate for your African cichlids’ tank should be fine-grain and sandy. This will allow your fish to search for food without the risk of injury. If you have any rock piles in the tank, ensure they are stuck together to prevent them from accidentally falling on one of your cichlids.

Remember that the more the African cichlids have to explore, the more likely they are to keep their aggression to a minimum. This means that decorating your tank is essential.

You can add rocky outcroppings, deep grass, and some hideaways to your tank for your cichlids.  

Tank Mates

Since African cichlids are notoriously territorial, choosing tank mates should be done carefully.

If you’d like to add different species of fish to your tank, make sure they are significantly larger than the cichlids (and non-aggressive), so that the male cichlid does not see them as competition. Large, non-aggressive bottom-dwellers are also good options.

Some tank mates that might pair well with cichlids include African catfish, red tail sharks, rainbow sharks, zebra loaches, and giant danios. Try not to buy any fish that are the same color as your male, dominant African cichlid.

Feeding Your African Cichlids

African cichlids are often omnivores, munching on both meats and greens they find on their habitat’s floor. Because they search for food on the substrate, it’s important to buy food that sinks to the bottom of your tank.

This food can include algae pellets, spinach, peas, lettuce, sinking fish flakes, brine shrimp, larvae, and bloodworms.

You can feed your African cichlids either 3-4 times per day with a 2-minute serving, or twice a day with as much food as they can consume in 5 minutes.

Electric Blue Ram CichlidsElectric Blue Ram Cichlids
BlueRam92, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

African Cichlids Health

Cichlids are susceptible to certain diseases. Many are treated with home remedies while others require a purchased or prescribed medication for the fish tank’s water or within the fish food itself. Most illnesses can be avoided by providing optimal tank conditions and a healthy diet for your African cichlids.

If you see any signs of these illnesses, be sure to purchase the corresponding remedy as soon as possible.

  • Injuries: This could happen from a fight between two male African cichlids or a rock or tank decoration falling on the fish.
  • Swim bladder disease: Occurs from bacterial parasites in older fish.
  • Malawi bloat: Is very common among cichlids. You will notice a swollen abdomen, loss of appetite, and rapid breathing. Malawi bloat can kill a fish in two days so an urgent response is vital. You can treat this with metronidazole-dosed fish food.
  • Cotton wool disease: Appears as a fuzzy growth on the scales, head, or fins. This is a fungus caused by poor water conditions and can be treated by an antibiotic.
  • Hole in the head disease: Is caused by a parasite and poor water conditions and is also treated with metronidazole-dosed fish food. Symptoms include a head depression, loss of appetite, and lateral line lesions.
  • White spot disease (Ich): Is a frequent illness that causes spots all over your cichlid. It can spread quickly, so treat it as soon as it’s spotted through medication (Malachite Green) in the water, adding aquarium salt, and/or removing any carbon in the filters.
  • Gill flukes: Is caused by a parasitic flatworm and has various home-remedy and professional (Methylene Blue) treatments.

Mating Your African Cichlids

Many African cichlids reproduce in captivity. They must be at least 9 months old to be sexually mature enough to do so.

You should be able to tell the sex of your cichlid through its color, behavior, and size. Dominant (male) cichlids are brighter and have longer fins than females. Females usually have yellow fins and behave submissively around the dominant male.

Most female cichlids are mouth breeders. They lay their eggs – usually near a flat stone – where the male will then fertilize them. The female returns, collects the eggs in her mouth, and holds them there in hiding for about three weeks until they hatch.

Cichlid offspring are called fry. The mother will care for the fry for about two weeks after hatching. If possible, separate the fry and the mother from the other cichlids in the tank until the offspring are large enough to join the adult fish. Be sure to feed the fry food specific to their age and size.


African Cichlids are an ideal beginner's fish, and they can be easily kept.

Follow the recommendations given to create a beautiful home for these colourful creatures! Just make sure not to keep them lonely - it is important that there are proper tank mates with which they can maintain their friendly behaviour.

The water should also be changed regularly, as well as adding lots of vegetation and driftwood into the tank, to keep them happy.

Happy Fish Keeping!

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