Pictus Catfish 101: Care, Size, Tank Mates, Lifespan…

The pictus catfish is one of our favorite freshwater fishes for a number of reasons.

They’re cute, easy to care for, not aggressive, and we love their long barbels! There’s something about this fish that really adds a playful but natural feel to your tank.

We’ve talked to many pictus cat owners and they all give the same glowing review. It doesn’t take long for you to fall in love with this fish.

In this guide, we’ll highlight the essentials of pictus catfish care and some other info that you’ll definitely find useful. By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll be an expert and ready to own one yourself!

Species Summary

The pictus catfish (scientific name: pimelodus pictus) is an extremely popular freshwater fish among aquarists and has been so for quite a while. This is primarily due to the ease of care and the distinct “catfish” look it brings to your tank.

This fish is from the Pimelodidae family and originates from the Orinoco and Amazon river basins in South America. However, it has been known to drift a little further away from this hotspot on occasion and has been found in Peru as well. It didn’t take long after their initial discovery for them to be added to freshwater tanks.

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Pictus catfish are quite active swimmers, especially when compared to their more mellow catfish relatives. A lot of new owners don’t expect this and are surprised when they see the speed these fish display on a regular basis.


The average pictus catfish lifespan is between 8 and 10 years. This is rather long when you compare them to other popular aquarium catfish like the Otocinclus.

Although the pictus catfish can live for quite a while, this is assuming you provide them with a good level of care. A poor diet, inadequate water conditions, and even breeding attempts can all shorten their lifespan significantly.

That’s what makes good pictus catfish care so important. In our opinion, if you’re keeping an animal in captivity it’s your obligation to go the extra mile to make sure they thrive.


When you first look at a pictus catfish the first thing that jumps out at you is their barbels. Some people will also call them whiskers, but we’ll refer to them by their proper name throughout this guide.

These barbels give them a very distinct “catfish” look and make them stand out in almost any tank. It’s not uncommon for them to grow to match the length of their bodies. It’s also fun to watch them sway while your fish zips around your tank!

Pictus catfish care tips

The purpose of these barbels is to help them navigate and feel their way around dirty water. While this isn’t something they’ll need to use much in your aquarium (as long as you’re doing their job) it still provides them with additional spatial awareness.

The bodies of the pictus catfish is a shiny light silver that extends evenly all over their body. Their belly is a bit lighter but not by much. These fish also don’t have any scales.

There are dark dots that scatter all over their bodies with fairly even spacing, although these are less present on their stomachs as well. You can find these black spots on their dorsal and caudal fins too.

The caudal and dorsal fins on a pictus catfish are semi-translucent with the dorsal fins being a bit more clear than their caudal fins. From the right angle, it looks pretty neat!

Author Note: The pectoral fins and forked tail of the pictus catfish are quite sharp. This can cut your hand or other fish if brushed in the wrong way.

Pictus Catfish Size

The average pictus catfish size is roughly 5 inches in length (maximum). It’s very uncommon for these fish to exceed this size when fully grown, but it is possible.

The quality of care and diet play a big role in their size. Also, the state of the fish when you purchased it will also significantly impact how large they can get.

Pictus Catfish Care

Pictus catfish care is not that difficult if you know the basic guidelines to follow. These fish are easygoing and low maintenance, which is great for the kind of aquarist who doesn’t want any hassle.

Tank Size

The ideal pictus catfish tank size is 50-55 gallons. We prefer 55 as the minimum because these fish will definitely appreciate the extra space! Plan to add 40-50 additional gallons for each extra pictus cat you want to keep.

The reason the recommended tank size is a bit large despite the fact that these are small fish is simple: they need room to roam. Pictus catfish are very fast, active, and busy fish (more on this later).

If you keep them in a tank that’s too small it will cause stress and a lack of enrichment. Both of these can have a significant negative impact on their overall health.

Water Parameters

Since pictus catfish care is so straightforward, you’ll be spending a lot of your time paying attention to the water parameters and levels of your tank. Straying outside of the recommended ranges below can cause serious problems for your fish.

  • Water temperature: 70°F to 80°F is the commonly used range, but we recommend aiming for 75°F-80°F if possible.
  • pH levels: 7-7.5 should be your target, although we’ve heard from people who have managed with slightly lower since these fish like soft water.
  • Water hardness: 5-15 dH

Make sure to run consistent tests to make sure that water levels stay within these recommended ranges. Being frequent and consistent with your tests can help you catch a change before it becomes dangerous.

What To Put In Their Tank

The habitat these freshwater aquarium catfish should mimic their natural environment to keep them comfortable, stress-free, and healthy.

The first thing that we recommend is adding some plants to your aquarium. In their natural habitat, pictus catfish are regularly navigating and swimming through a reasonable amount of vegetation. Adding some plants like Hornwort will go a long way when it comes to making their tank feel like home!

Other additions like rocks and driftwood are also a good idea. These fish need hiding places where they can go to feel safe, and these will mimic the riverbeds where they spend their time in the wild.

A pictus catfish hugging the substrate

Author Note: Don’t go overboard with these. Although they’re necessary if you want to create a habitat where your pictus feels comfortable, they also need room to “stretch their fins.”

These fish LOVE to swim and are very fast. If you fill up too much of their tank with plants, rocks, and driftwood they won’t have enough room to swim around comfortably.

Potential Diseases To Look Out For

The main potential diseases that could affect your pictus catfish are the usual suspects that all aquarists fear. Fortunately, the chances of them plaguing your fish are very small if you maintain the water quality.

Ich is the most common disease that can affect pictus catfish, so you should keep an eye out for that primarily. Since there are so many helpful resources out there on how to treat it, we won’t go into detail here.

Our biggest piece of advice when it comes to preventing diseases is to be consistent about doing the simple stuff. This applies to pictus catfish care just like any other fish.

Do things like making sure the water quality and parameters are under control by performing frequent water tests. Also, ensure that they’re living in a spacious and stress-free environment. All of these things are easy for you to control, and will significantly reduce the chance of your fish becoming ill in the future.

Food & Diet

Pictus catfish are pretty easy to feed, but it’s important to understand their natural and ideal diet so you can make sure they’re getting the nutrition they need.

In the wild, pictus catfish are omnivores and scavenge and spend their time searching for a wide variety of snacks in the water. This can be plant life and algae, or various meat and protein sources.

Because of this, your job will be more about ensuring they get a balanced diet than actually encouraging them to eat. As long as it’s edible they will probably give it a shot!

Author Note: It’s important to note that this will prevent them from being tank mates with certain fish such as neon tetras or any tiny fish they might mistake for food. You don’t want a crime scene on your hands!

Since these fish spend most of their time at the bottom of the tank so it’s important that you provide them food that will drift down to their level. This means that any pellets should sink so they actually have a chance to eat!

In addition to pellets, you’ll want to supply them with some high-quality sources of protein too. Some common options include:

You can feed them a mix of frozen and live food for the sake of variety. Frozen foods are more convenient, but live foods tend to provide more enrichment and encourage some additional activity.

Behavior & Temperament

Pictus catfish are extremely mellow fish that don’t want to cause any trouble. This is one of the reasons why they’re so popular with freshwater aquarists. You can really put them anywhere!

Pictus catfish closeup as it swims toward the camera

Due to their peaceful nature, you’ll find that these fish spend a lot of time hiding out in the lower half of the tank. You might not see them all some days! This behavior is what makes them feel comfortable and safe, which is why you need to provide them with ample hiding places where they can have some privacy.

The funny thing about pictus catfish is that they’re shy and peaceful, but also quite active. This might seem confusing at first, but here’s the best way to explain it.

Yes, there might be times when your fish is camped out in a hiding place and shows no interest in leaving. However, when it’s feeding time or something interesting happens in the tank you might see them zip around at lightning speed! Then they’ll camp out again.

It’s a very up and down sort of thing when it comes to their activity levels, and in our opinion that makes it kind of fun. When you happen to see them during a burst of swimming it’s pretty exciting.

Pictus Catfish Tank Mates

The list of potential pictus catfish tank mates is rather long due to their peaceful nature. In fact, it can be tough to find tank mates that aren’t a good fit.

The most important thing to keep in mind when picking pictus catfish tank mates is size. As we mentioned briefly in the food section of this guide, your pictus might eat fish that are significantly smaller than it.

This likelihood increases significantly when they’re hungry (obviously) but in our opinion, it’s best to steer clear of much smaller tank mates in general.

You also want to avoid any fish that are overly aggressive and might go after your pictus. Species like African cichlids or the Jack Dempsey fish are examples of tank mates that aren’t a good fit.

A few examples of good tank mates are:

You’ll also want to be aware that the sharp spines on their fins can lead to them accidentally cutting other fish. This is uncommon but it has been reported to happen. As always, make sure you’re checking up on all the fish in your tank.

Author Note: Some of the best pictus catfish tank mates are their own kind. These fish love company and will usually be more active when shoaling. If you have the space for it, we recommend getting a few instead of just one!

If you have specific questions about certain pictus catfish tank mates feel free to ask us. We’re happy to help!


Compared to the other elements of pictus catfish care, breeding them is notoriously challenging. In fact, our position is that you shouldn’t waste your time trying it at all.

Here’s why:

Right out of the gate you’re faced with a major roadblock. Sexing pictus catfish is ridiculously tricky. If you aren’t sure what gender your fish are, it will obviously impact the rest of the breeding process!

If you manage to navigate that, there’s another bump in the road that’s even worse. In order for these fish to actually reach sexual maturity, they need to spend their lives with a significant amount of open water. We’re not sure why this is, but there’s a proven link.

This means that unless the aquarium you’ve been using is WAY over the minimum tank size, your pictus catfish likely can’t reproduce.

You have to be thinking so far ahead and have room for a massive tank setup in order to even attempt this. Assuming that isn’t the case, you’re pretty much out of luck.


Pictus catfish care is something that anyone can do. As long as you have the right tank size, tank mates, and water conditions, you’re going to be just fine.

These fish are a treat to own and one of our favorite freshwater creatures. They’re very pretty, have that distinct catfish look, don’t cause trouble in your tank, and can be very fun to observe.

We’ve heard from countless owners who just can’t get enough of them and would get even more if they had enough space. If you’re on the fence about getting one for yourself, we highly recommend it!

If you have any stories about your pictus catfish or questions about care don’t hesitate to contact us. We love connecting and learning about what other aquarists are up to!

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