Ultimate Guide On Raising Dwarf Cichlids | Best Dwarf Cichlids Countdown

Oct 23, 2021

dwarf cichlids

Credits: Elma (Creative Commons license)

Cichlids are just as notorious for their behavior as they’re famed for their striking looks. In the wrong hands, cichlids can be quite a handful. I remember being on the fence when getting my first pair. If you feel the same way, this article is for you. I’ll introduce you to dwarf cichlids that are a lot easier to keep than their bigger cousins but are just as rewarding!

This comprehensive dwarf cichlids guide will introduce you to some beautiful species for your community tank and tell you all about raising them the right way. 

It’s going to be a long ride. Buckle up!

Introduction To Dwarf Cichlids 

To be honest, the term ‘dwarf cichlids’ has very little to do with scientific terminology and explanation. It is, in fact, a colloquialism used to refer to smaller cichlids. 

Now, the definition may vary from one aquarist to another. However, for this article, let’s go with the description given by Dr. Paul Loiselle. According to him, any cichlid species that reaches the average maximum size of 4 inches (10 centimeters) or less can be called a dwarf cichlid. 

So, going by this definition, there are at least a couple of hundred dwarf cichlid species, if not more, from South America and Western Africa. 

Despite the same name, ‘dwarf cichlids,’ we cannot and should categorize these fish into one big, vague category. Mind you, this is a super diverse group when it comes to things like aggression, water conditions, and compatibility.

To describe dwarf cichlids in just one sentence, I’d say these fish pack all the beauty and quirks of their larger cousins but in a smaller and more peaceful package. 

For example, they are far less susceptible to harboring destructive habits like digging substrates and destroying plants. 

That’s why they’re incredibly famous among aquarists. 

Now, let’s have a look at their natural habitat distribution. 

South American Dwarf Cichlids Habitat Distribution

Also known as New World dwarf cichlids, South American dwarf varieties are widely found across South and Central America. They inhabit diverse regions ranging from rain forests to savannas. 

They usually live in shallow waters of the bank zones of standing or slow-flowing waters in the wild. The typical features of these water bodies are a sandy substrate and ample dead leaves from the trees. 

And although aquatic plants are missing from their core habitat, grass and other bank vegetation do extent into the water. The leaves, twigs, and small wood pieces serve as hiding places for these dwarf cichlids. 

South American water can be mainly categorized into black water, white water, and clear water. Thus, a notable difference exists in terms of pH level. And although it’s possible to raise dwarf cichlids in hard water, they need soft water to breed successfully. 

African Dwarf Cichlids Habitat Distribution 

The natural distribution of African dwarf cichlids is just as diverse as that of South American cichlids. They mainly inhabit streams and rivers, including the colossal rift lakes of Malawi, Victoria, and Tanganyika. 

Likewise, West African dwarf cichlids usually inhabit the waters of streams and rivers along the coastal zones. These waters can vary quite significantly from fresh to brackish and soft to hard. 

Dwarf cichlids belonging to the rift lakes are used to extremely clear and stable waters. Thus, they don’t do too well with sudden parameter changes. 

Once again, when it comes to emulating the ideal environment, it’s impossible to keep all species in the same basket. For instance, Lake Malawi has alkaline water that’s highly mineralized. So, you’ll need to keep that in mind when creating a habitat for dwarf cichlids from Lake Malawi. 

Similarly, you should remember that Lake Tanganyika has super stable and oxygen-rich water. So maybe, your dwarf cichlids from this lake would thrive best with an air pump. 

Now that you know all there’s to know about dwarf cichlids’ natural habitat, let’s see how you can create the ideal environment for them in the tank. 

Dwarf Cichlid Tank Size 

Credits: Harum Koh (Creative Commons license)

You can easily keep most dwarf cichlids in a tank as small as 20 gallons. So a 10-20 gallon aquarium would suffice for a mated pair. But as always, the bigger, the better. 

For most parts, they are peaceful. However, they’re cichlids at the end of the day – they do have innate territorial and defensive nature. So, if you can house them in a bigger tank, we definitely recommend doing so. 

The tentative rule of thumb is gallon (4 liters) of water for every ½ inch of the fish. 

Another strong reason behind getting a bigger tank is male dwarf cichlids’ territorial nature. As a result, you can expect feuds over territory often – even more so during the breeding season. 

For decorations, you can provide caves, grottos, and overhangs. And don’t forget some flat rocks for spawning.

The Right Diet For Dwarf Cichlids 

African dwarf cichlids are easy to feed. However, it’s been reported that South American dwarf cichlids can be pretty fussy about what they put in their mouth. But take this piece of info with a pinch of salt. I don’t know how true it is. 

It’s essential to zero in on good-quality staple pellets or flake food. You can then occasionally fortify their diet with brine shrimp, insect larvae, crustaceans, bloodworms, and other insects. 

South American cichlids are sand-sifters. They target individual bigger morsels of food or sift the surface and pick up a mouthful of sand, chew it, and spit out. Edible pieces of food are retained and swallowed while the sand is spat. 

Therefore, you should keep this information in mind while choosing a substrate for South American cichlids. Fine sand works the best. If your cichlids cannot chew sand, they will develop infections in gills mouth cavity. 

If you have wild-caught specimens, they can avoid frozen and dry food at first. You’ll have to resort to live foods. But be patient – you can quickly train them to eat frozen and dried food as well. 

As for feeding frequency and quantity, give small meals they can finish within 2-3 minutes 2-4 times a day.

For the best results, feed a variety of high-quality foods and rotate the fish’s diet occasionally. 

Here’s an in-depth article on how often to feed cichlids if you’re interested!

Water Parameters For South American Dwarf Cichlids 

Since South American dwarf cichlids are found almost everywhere in South and Central America, the water chemistry needs of the individual species may vary quite drastically. 

The water temperature for species from a higher altitude (Bolivia), south (Paraguay, Argentina Uruguay), and shady jungle streams of Peru should not be kept in warm water. The temperature should clock in somewhere between (68-75°F) 20-24°C. 

On the other hand, dwarf species from the open waters of Venezuela and Colombia require slightly warmer water – somewhere between 78-82°F (26-28°C). 

And lastly, Amazonian species should be kept at around 75-82°F (24-28°C).

In the wild, these dwarf species live in very soft water with general hardness ranging between 0-4° dGH and pH range between 4.5-5.5. However, as long as your specimens aren’t caught in the wild, these parameters are only needed for breeding. 

Soft to medium-hard water with hardness clocking in between 5-15° dGH and pH range of 6.3-7.5 would be acceptable for most species. And although some species can easily tolerate hard water (<20° dGH) and pH up to 8.5, we do not recommend exposing them to these water conditions. 

The ideal ammonia level is between 0-0.25 ppm, nitrite level is 0 ppm, and nitrate level is <20 ppm. 

Water Parameters For African Dwarf Cichlids 

The water parameters are invisible to us, but they are the benchmarks of determining whether you’re a successful fishkeeping hobbyist or not. Dwarf cichlids from Lake Malawi, Victoria, and Tanganyika need quite different parameters than most other freshwater fish. 

Temperature should be around 75-85°F (23-30°C). If it’s too cold, it will slow down your pet fish’s metabolism and compromise their immune system – making them susceptible to all kinds of illnesses and parasites. 

The pH range should be between 7.2-9.0, depending on where your cichlid comes from. 

Here’s a detailed look:

Malawi species7.4-8.6 (pH)
Tanganyika species7.8-9.0 (pH)
Victoria species7.2-8 (pH)

Lower pH directly impacts an African dwarf cichlid’s bodily functions and fades its colors. So make sure the pH doesn’t fluctuate too much during water changes. 

Ammonia and nitrite levels should be 0. And nitrate should be kept below 200 ppm. It’s no rocket science to achieve these figures. Cycle your tank regularly, and you should be fine. 

General hardness should be around 300 ppm, and carbonate hardness should clock in at 240 ppm. 

Breeding Dwarf Cichlids 

As with most fish, you have two options when it comes to breeding dwarf cichlids. You can either set up a separate tank for the bonded pair to reproduce or breed in the community tank and move the fry to a different tank later. 

However, we recommend setting up a dedicated breeding tank with no other fish present for the best spawning chances. 

Depending on the species, your cichlids could either be rock-brooders or mouthbrooders. South American species predominantly spawn in crevices, caves, or other secluded regions. The eggs are often laid on a flat, hard surface. 

Some species are known to perform bi-parental care, but in other species, you may require to remove the male after spawning to avoid infanticide. 

Don’t forget to provide numerous clay pots and big rocks, which will function as caves for the females to spawn in. Once the female lays the eggs, the male fertilizes them. In mouthbrooders, the matriarch will scoop the eggs into her mouth and incubate them in her throat. In rock brooders, the female will watch over the eggs laid on the rocks until they hatch and fend for themselves. 

The mating pair gets quite territorial and intolerant of the tank’s other residents during the breeding season. They specially lash out at bottom-dwellers when searching for a suitable nesting spot. Thus, we suggest transferring the mating pair into a different tank first once they have bonded. 

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Top 4 South American Dwarf Cichlids

Bolivian ram
Credits: Lucky8 (Creative Commons license)

  • Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid 
  • Golden Dwarf Cichlid 
  • Bolivian Ram Cichlid 
  • Checkerboard Cichlid 

Cockatoo Dwarf Cichlid 

Cockatoo dwarf cichlids are among the most stunning looking new world species we know. They are named so for their unique coloration that resembles the famous bird, cockatoo. Their dorsal fins are pretty big, with the extended first rays looking identical to the crest of the cockatoo bird. 

Like in most species, the males are larger and more colorful than their female counterparts. However, females will turn a brilliant shade of yellow when spawning. 

Males in these colorful fish grow up to 4 inches long, while females will clock in at merely 2 inches.

Cockatoos are non-aggressive fish for most parts and can be easily housed in a community tank. In addition, they’re known to be super tolerant of their own species – thus, able to cohabitate in big groups provided that the tank is big enough. 

They can be quite aggressive during the breeding season. But other times, they’re quite timid and easily feel threatened by bigger fish. 

In brief, cockatoo cichlids are super hardy, adaptable fish, although they’d thrive the best in neutral to slightly acidic pH and soft water. They do well in hard water as well, but it may compromise their breeding ability. 

Note that these fish should not be maintained as a single pair. In most cases, the male will spawn with multiple females. And while the fish can be raised in virtually any water, you have to closely watch the pH and temperature to successfully raise fry. 

Golden Dwarf Cichlid 

Golden dwarf cichlids are among the most well-known species of the Nannacara genus. This marvelous fish was quite famous back in the day but has become a rare commodity these days! 

As the moniker suggests, golden dwarf cichlids have beautiful honey-gold bodies covered in iridescent blue-green flecks. The male’s fins have red and orange specks as well. 

Golden dwarf cichlids make great additions to any tank, given their docile nature. They are incredibly peaceful and tolerant of other fish. And they’re not territorial – so atypical for a cichlid. 

However, breeding females get quite possessive and aggressively protect their spawns. 

Also, note that they don’t get well with catfishes. Since catfishes are the number one predators of nannacara eggs, these cichlids always take the ‘first strike’ approach when dealing with them. 

Breeding golden dwarf cichlids is relatively easy. You can easily identify the males from their long fins and red highlights. Also, when spawning, the female golden dwarfs take on a super beautiful pattern that makes them look like entirely different fish. 

Bolivian Ram Cichlid 

Bolivian ram cichlids are famed best for their calm demeanor. And we couldn’t agree more. As a result, they often top the list of most peaceful cichlids on the internet. 

And these fish are just as beautiful to look at too. They have a bright yellow body decorated with red highlights and blue marks across the caudal fin. 

At maximum, Bolivian rams can grow up to 3.1 inches long. However, males usually clock in around 2.4 inches, and females are smaller at roughly 2 inches. 

Bolivian rams are peaceful, well-tempered fish. They usually keep to themselves and are not aggressive towards other tank inhabitants. They like to be kept with their own species. And given their shy nature, they hardly interact with other fish. 

They only show aggression during the breeding season – that too, only if the intruder comes too close to the breeding area. 

These fish are also far more forgiving of water conditions. They can be maintained in tropical conditions but will also easily tolerate lower temperatures. 

Breeding Bolivian rams is quite easy too. The pair usually separates from the group and spawns on leaves, rocks, or other flat surfaces. Once the fry hatch, both parents work together to raise them. 

Checkerboard Cichlid

Checkerboard cichlids are as quirky as their appearance. These beautiful fish have a black and white checkerboard pattern on the body, complete with golden highlights. Females also have bright red or orange ventrals. However, males are more brightly colored than females. 

In the wild, they’re usually found in creeks and covered regions. Thus, they’ll greatly appreciate any plant or cover in the tank as well. 

Checkerboard cichlids are a tad bit bigger than most dwarf cichlids. Males reach about 4.5 inches long, while females are a bit smaller. Also, they’re peaceful most of the time. 

What’s super interesting about these fish is that they are capable of changing their sex. This trait is quite common among marine fish but is incredibly rare for freshwater species. 

When born, all checkerboard cichlids are females. After a year or two, the dominant female will transition to a male and claim the remainder of the group as his harem. The male is responsible for guarding the overall territory, while the females protect respective batches of eggs or fry. 

These fish should be kept in soft water to breed successfully. Hard water will hinder the egg’s hatching process. 

Top 4 African Dwarf Cichlids 

Krib cichlid
Credits: MidgleyDJ (Creative Commons license)

Multis 

Multis are among the smallest cichlid species in the world. Its natural habitat is the shell beds of Lake Tanganyika, where it lives in huge schools with thousands of individuals. 

The males grow to a maximum size of 1.8 inches, while the females grow about 1.4 inches long. 

Multis have a beautiful pinkish-beige body with dark vertical stripes. The fins have an almost iridescent, intricate shape to them. 

These small, shell-dwelling multis are perfect for aquarists who want to observe the fascinating cichlid behavior without dealing with their bad attitude and high maintenance. 

The most rewarding part of raising multis is watching their exciting antics. They’re quite particular about their environment. So you will see them constantly shifting the sand and moving things here and there to suit their needs. 

They dig by scooping substrate and spitting it out. They can even entirely change the tank’s landscape overnight. 

Multis are loosely social until sexual maturity. The breeding pair will often lash out at other inhabitants of the tank. Also, breeding them is not too difficult. All you need is a male, a female, some shells, and high-quality fresh or frozen food. 

Speaking of shells, multis have a great affinity towards them. They burrow sand to move shells, retreat in them, and also breed in them.

Lastly, multis are sexually monomorphic. This means it’s almost impossible to sex them based on just external appearance.

Kribensis Cichlid

Kribensis cichlids are one of my favorite freshwater species. These fish are stunning to look at, have a great personality, and add so much beauty to the tank. 

Kribs come in beautiful, sublime colors. They can be found in various color morphs even when not spawning – like blue, green, red, yellow, and even albino. 

These fish are tiny – reaching only around 3-4 inches long as adults. The males are usually larger and longer than females and also have slimmer fins.

Interestingly, females are more brightly colored than males – especially in the belly region – which is quite rare in the animal kingdom. 

Kribs are highly social and peace-loving creatures. That’s why they’re the top choice for most community tanks. In addition, they’re super easy to rear. They don’t pick on their females, feed readily, and if provided with a bit of privacy, will quite happily spawn. 

But since kribs make dedicated parents, they can get a bit aggressive when protecting their young ones. 

The only drawback I’d say about raising kribs is their innate shyness. To make them more proactive, you might want to take help from some dither fish. 

Also, it’s recommended to keep the breeding pair in a separate tank as they can become quite hostile while spawning – especially towards bottom-dwellers like plecos. 

Lionhead Cichlid 

Lionhead cichlids look just as regal as their name sounds. These fish are moderately easy to care for and make an excellent choice for hobbyists who cannot provide a large tank. 

Sizewise, they’re pretty small. Males grow up to 4.5 inches long, while females will clock in at just 3 inches. I found that some websites have cited a bit larger sizes (up to 6 inches), but this is super rare. 

One of the most notable features of these fish is the large fatty lump on the forehead of male an adult male. 

And although lionheads don’t boast vibrant colors, their unique body shape and eccentric behavior make them so fun to watch. The body has a drab olive color with blue, gray, black, and brown specks, but the eyes are a magnificent shade of teal. 

Although a little territorial, lionheads are widely considered community fish when paired with suitable tank mates. You can easily keep them with other smaller and peaceful fish that thrive in the same conditions. 

This fish is not demanding about pH and general hardness but requires super clean oxygen-rich water. They also love to dig in the sandy substrate and create caves and tunnels. So, make sure the decors in the tank are well secured. 

Lionheads often pair for life and will remain solitary if their mate dies. And like most cichlids, they get agitated quite fast during the spawning season. They usually become sexually mature at around 2-3 inches. 

West African Dwarf Cichlids 

West African dwarf cichlids are the smallest known cichlid species as of now. These tiny gems barely grow over an inch in length. 

In these fish, both males and females have a beautiful olive-brown body topped with light brown vertical stripes that extend into the dorsal fin. However, unlike most species, the females are more brightly colored with a red stomach and black-and-white striped tail fin. 

As long as you meet a few conditions, these fish are straightforward to keep. Make sure to provide decor like rocks and vegetation that emulates their natural habitat.

West African dwarf cichlids are relatively shy and tolerant fish you can add to a community tank. They thrive the best with other similarly-sized fish that can hold their own. However, note that they bear animosity towards any other fish that even slightly looks like them. They’re also not fond of their own species or others of their genus. 

Their petite size makes them a lot more manageable than many other cichlid species. They will also breed readily as long as the water requirements are met. And once the eggs are fertilized, both parents will guard them closely until they turn into small adults that can fend for themselves. 

If you plan to breed West African dwarf cichlids, don’t house them with plecos as the latter will eat the fish’s fry at night. 

Parting Words: Ultimate Guide On Raising Dwarf Cichlids

That was quite a long article, wasn’t it? However, I hope it was helpful for you to understand the unique needs and perks of raising these beautiful fish. Dwarf cichlids certainly pack big fishkeeping thrills in small packages. 

These fish pack all the behaviors, quirks, and intelligence of their larger cousins but in a small, more peaceful, and manageable package. So if you’re on the fence about raising dwarf cichlids, we 100% recommend seizing the opportunity. 

Happy Reading! 🙂

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rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.