Redtail Catfish Care Guide | Everything You Should Know

Jun 26, 2022

Redtail Catfish Care Guide

Credit: Mathias Appel (CC License)

I don’t mean to come off as rude, but redtail catfish aren’t suitable for just about any given aquarium. These fish grow to a massive size and require a monumental aquarium. I’m talking 2000 gallons or bigger. I wish I was exaggerating. 

These fish are only suitable for large walk-in aquariums. If you want to raise a redtail catfish, you should be committed to getting it a huge tank setup and spend hours every day taking care of the fish.

Are you ready to deal with a 4-foot-long predator that needs thousands of gallons of space?

In other words, they’re not suitable for home aquariums. 

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but I just want to ensure you get nothing but the trustworthy information to make the right decision. 

For us home aquarists, raising a redtail catfish is just wishful thinking. And there are more wishes than stars.

Nonetheless, here’s a detailed care guide on redtail catfish that will give you a rare but honest look at what it really takes to raise these fish. Then, the ball is in your court.

Redtail Catfish At A Glance 

  • Name: Redtail catfish
  • Scientific Name: Pimelodidae hemioliopterus
  • Family: Pimelodidae
  • Origin: South America
  • Lifespan: 15 years
  • Size: 4.4 feet
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Tank Size:1500-2000 gallons
  • Temperature: 68-80 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Care Level: Difficult 

Redtail Catfish Origin And Distribution 

The redtail catfish, also known as phractocephalus hemioliopterus, is a common sight in walk-in aquariums. 

Redtail catfish is the one and only surviving member of the phractocephalus genus and appeared in this world some 13.5 million years ago. 

The fish is native to the Amazon, Essequibo, and Orinoco river basins of South America in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela, and Ecuador. 

Found only in freshwater, this fish inhabits large rivers, lakes, and streams. Redtail catfish eat during the evening and night and remain motionless in the daytime. 

Today, redtail catfish are also found in Pahang and Perak rivers in Malaysia, where they are an invasive species. 

Redtail Catfish Conservation Status 

Redtail catfish are yet to be assessed by the IUCN. However, their population is relatively stable in their native regions. As a matter of fact, they’re an invasive species in some water bodies of SouthEast Asia.

So I guess their population isn’t dwindling at an alarming rate yet. 

Redtail Catfish Lifespan

In captivity, redtail catfish live for around 15 years on average. However, they’re known to live even longer in the wild, where the environment is more favorable. 

A decade and a half, to say the least – these fish are definitely a long-haul commitment.

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Redtail Catfish Appearance 

Redtail catfish have the unmistakable ‘catfish’ look, with a cylindrical body and long whiskers that so prominently stick forward. These two features are impossible to miss. 

The body is shaped like an arrow with a flattened belly and a laterally compressed tail. Their shovel-like mouth is somewhat depressed and is as wide as the body. The eyes are set on either side.

Redtail Catfish Colors

The upper part of the main body is dark gray and is covered with small dark spots. The lower part of the mouth is stark white. The color white stretches in a broad horizontal stripe all the way back to the tailfin. 

In juveniles, this white stripe meets the white under the mouth. However, as they age, it is broken up right before the mouth with gray spots. 

The caudal fins and the top third of the dorsal fins are pinkish-red – and that’s how they got their names. 

Redtail Catfish Size | How Big Does A Redtail Catfish Get?

In captivity, redtail catfish reach about 4.4 feet (1.35 meters) in length. However, in the wild, they are documented to grow up to 5 feet 11 inches (1.8 meters) long. 

Confining them in tanks limits their mobility quite significantly compared to the wild

Likewise, these fish can weigh as much as 180 pounds (80 kg).

Due to their enormous size, anglers often treat redtail catfish as game fish. 

Most pet stores sell these fish as juveniles when they’re just about 2 inches (5 cm) long. However, remember that they grow at a rate of at least one inch per week. 

They’ll outgrow their tank before you can spell Mississippi.

Redtail Catfish Male VS Female | How Do You Tell If A Red Tail Catfish s Male Or Female?

The sexual dimorphism between male and female redtail catfish is very subtle. Thus, you can’t tell them apart right off the bat.

However, females tend to be slightly bigger than males, and their stomach area is lighter than a male’s black-colored stomach. 

A female’s dorsal fin is also reported to be comparatively slender. 

Lastly, when the female is gravid, her stomach area will look rounded and slightly swollen.

Redtail Catfish Temperament | Are Redtail Catfish Aggressive?

A redtail catfish’s temperament varies depending on the environment. They are docile and calm in the right surrounding but capable of aggression and hostility if the habitat isn’t ideal. 

While they are tolerant of the presence of similarly-sized fish, they’re incredibly aggressive and intolerant of their own kind, as well as other fish from the pimelodidae family. 

Also, they’re super territorial. 

In public aquariums, they’re kept in big groups where they maintain a peaceful temperament. But remember, those tanks are enormous – they offer plenty of space for everyone. 

Honestly, it’s difficult and unfair to label any fish as ‘peaceful,’ ‘aggressive,’ and ‘territorial.’ They’re just doing what they know. 

Plus, the environment they’re living in hugely shapes their temperament. A wrong habitat and living conditions will make anyone cranky, right?

That being said, they’re a predatory fish in the end. Thus, keeping them with much smaller tank mates will sooner or later end up with the catfish gobbling up smaller fish. 

Redtail Catfish Diet 

By now, I’m sure you know redtail catfish can eat like a horse. So, in a way, it’s pretty easy to feed these fish since they’re eager to eat just about anything that has some meat in it. 

As with any other fish, the staple food for a captive redtail catfish will be pellets. 

However, pay attention when choosing the pellet brand for your catfish. 

Most brands use grain and starch-based fillers like cornmeal and potato in their pellets. And ground-up plant filler doesn’t go well with predators like catfish.

The pellets should ideally be made with ingredients like fish meal, shrimp meal, and other animal proteins.

Besides pellets, you must give the fish animal meat regularly. You can offer frozen brine shrimp, tubifex worms, and bloodworms when they’re small. 

But since these fish grow at an insane rate, these foods won’t satiate their hunger in a few months’ time. 

Although meaty, you should avoid offering food like feeder goldfish, rosy reds, and guppies if you don’t breed them yourself. 

These feeder fish are bred and kept in filthy conditions, where they, unfortunately, get infested with parasites, bacteria, and fungi. And when your redtail catfish consumes one, it will potentially catch the same diseases. 

Also, don’t give animal meat like beef heart and chicken. Mammal meat contains lipids that fish cannot metabolize efficiently. This can lead to organ degeneration and excess fat deposits. Just stick to lean seafood. 

Flakes aren’t a good idea either, as they don’t sink to the bottom.

In the wild, they eat worms, insects, and vegetation along the bottom of the river basin. Therefore, it’s best to take inspiration from their diet in the wild while formulating a diet plan for them. 

How Often Should You Feed Redtail Catfish?

When young, redtail catfish should be fed every other day. However, adults should consume food just once per week. 

These fish need plenty of time to digest the food as adults and often become lethargic after eating. Overfeeding is a common issue with these fish because of their strong predatory instinct. 

But remember, a wholesome meal once a week is enough. Then, of course, you can increase or reduce the feeding frequency based on the fish’s activity level. 

As I mentioned above, these fish become sluggish after a meal. And note that they should only be fed once they become active again.

Water Parameters For Redtail Catfish 

  • Temperature: 68-80 degrees Fahrenheit (20-26 degrees Celsius)
  • pH: 6-7 
  • Water hardness: 3-12 dGH (moderately soft)
  • Brackish: No
  • Water movement: Moderate 

Redtail catfish are hardy fish resilient enough to withstand varying water conditions. But as I always say, don’t make their resilience an excuse to keep them in subpar living conditions. 

The water parameters should be maintained as stated above at all times. In other words, water parameters should emulate the waters from their natural habitats in South America. 

Maintaining the water quality can be challenging, given their enormous size. As big fish with a voracious appetite, redtail catfish produce a lot of waste daily. 

You’d be surprised to see the amount of waste these fish produce every day. Continuous production of nitrogenous waste means you’ll need a powerful filter to keep everything under control.

Install a sump-style heater and an external heater as these fish are known to damage and consume parts of the equipment. But remember that a good sump filter can really rack up the bill. 

Since these fish prefer slow-flowing water, avoid using filters that generate powerful currents. 

The catfish will also benefit from a pump that provides water movement for gas exchange. 

Lastly, I suggest getting your hands on API’s Freshwater Master Kit. It measures 5 essential parameters – high range pH, pH, ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite. 

Lighting For Redtail Catfish 

Redtail catfish prefer dim lighting. If the light is too harsh or direct, it will severely stress the fish. 

However, if it’s impossible to create a dimly-lit environment, make provision for plenty of shaded areas with caves and plants where the fish can retreat. 

Aquascaping For Redtail Catfish

For hobbyists, aquascaping is a unique outlet to express one’s taste, passion, and experience. But unfortunately, redtail catfish are not big on aesthetics. 

As we have established above, redtail catfish love to eat. And that love isn’t just limited to animals and plants. They even chow down on random, inedible stuff like rocks, driftwood, and gravel. 

If you are bent over backward to decorate the tank, you can add some big branches and rocks that will not be consumed. 

Needless to say, plants will not tolerate the frequent abuse they’ll be subjected to in a redtail catfish tank. They will eventually die. 

Therefore, if you want to add plants, you’re better off adding plastic or silk plants. These plants don’t need specialized full-spectrum lighting and can endure rough handling.

But if you’re keen on adding natural plants, go for epiphytes. These plants grow on hard surfaces like driftwood and rocks. And once they’re established, they’re almost impossible to rip entirely. 

Some popular epiphytes in the hobby include anubias and java fern. These plants are hardy and don’t need much light. 

Java moss will also sustain well in a redtail catfish tank.

Since redtail catfish have an appetite for gravel, it’s best to stick to the sandy substrate. If consumed, gravel blocks the intestinal tract and can lead to an abrupt death.

There’s also the option to leave the tank bare, although you’d have to compromise on the aesthetics. But note that it will make cleaning sessions a breeze. 

All that’s required are quick passes with the siphon hose to remove the feces left behind. 

Another pro of leaving the tank bare is that you don’t have to spend any time rearranging the aquascape as the catfish will knock things over again and again. 

What Size Tank Do You Need For A Redtail Catfish?

The minimum recommended tank size for redtail catfish is 1500-2000 gallons. Yep, you read that right. 

As juveniles, these fish measure less than 2 inches. And they look absolutely stunning with intricate black, white, and red patterns. However, before you know it, these fish will grow 3 to 4 feet long within a year. 

And that’s why most redtail catfish keepers raise the fish in ponds. Obviously, you’ll need to live in a tropical region or have arrangements for a heated indoor pond. 

A pond would make an excellent habitat for a redtail catfish because the walls are curved, and the fish aren’t constantly running into them.

Also, it’s obvious, I know, but ponds hold way more water than all but the largest aquarium setup. 

Breeding Redtail Catfish – Is It Even Possible?

As of today, there’s no record of redtail catfish reproducing in a captive setting – not even in tanks with a capacity of several thousand gallons.

However, FYI, these fish are egg-layers. And they’ve been bred successfully in fish farms in South America with the use of hormones. 

In fish farms, they’re even bred to hybridize with other fish – once again, with the use of hormones. For example, redtail catfish are hybridized with tiger shovelnose catfish with the help of hormones to create a sought-after food fish: tiger redtail catfish.

Redtail Catfish Diseases 

Redtail catfish are hardy fish for the most part. However, in the wrong environment, they are subject to the same disease as just about any other tropical fish. The most common freshwater ailments these fish are susceptible to are nitrite poisoning, flukes, and fin rot. 

Nitrite Poisoning 

As the name suggests, nitrite poisoning happens when the fish is exposed to higher nitrite levels for a prolonged period. A sudden spike or drop in the nitrite levels can kill a redtail catfish within a few days. 

Some signs of nitrite poisoning are infected barbels, rapid gill movement, lethargy, and sluggish swimming.

Nitrite poisoning can be treated by reducing the feeding frequency and increasing aeration. Perform regular water changes and test the water parameters every day. 

Flukes 

Flukes refer to tiny, worm-like parasites that make home burrowed in the skin or gills. Flukes drastically reduce the fish’s ability to breathe in oxygen and cause lesions that can further invite secondary infections. 

Some signs of flukes in redtail catfish are flashing behavior, lethargy, breathing difficulty, and loss of appetite. Flashing refers to behavior when a fish rubs its sides against decors, substrate, or walls. 

You have to treat flukes with specific medications. Bear in mind that the medication shouldn’t contain copper and potassium permanganate because these fish don’t have scales and are sensitive to these kinds of treatments. 

Fin Rot

Fin rot is a fungal or bacterial infection that leads to the decay of the fins and makes the appearance tattered and dull. Some signs of fin rot are lethargy, appetite loss, and fin inflammation. 

The fish will develop a white edge on the fins if caused by a fungal infection. 

Fin rot is treated with antifungal or antibiotic medication. You also need to gradually increase the water temperature. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Before we end this article, here’s a quick look at some of the most asked questions on redtail catfish. 

Can We Eat Redtail Catfish?

Yes, we can eat redtail catfish. They’re edible and eaten in their native region. However, since these fish have dark flesh, they’re not a choice of food for many – people find it off-putting. 

Therefore, these days, experiments have been conducted to hybridize them with the tiger shovelnose catfish to create new food fish. 

These hybrids sometimes make their way into the mainstream aquarium trade with the moniker tiger redtail catfish. 

How Much Money Is A Redtail Catfish?

A redtail catfish costs anywhere between $50 to $200, depending on the size. Of course, the bigger the fish, the higher the price. 

Are Redtail Catfish Poisonous?

Like most catfish, redtail catfish have spines equipped with venom glands along the base. However, there’s yet to be any scientific research on the exact quality of the venom and how poisonous it is to humans.

How Often Should I Feed My Baby Redtail Catfish?

You can feed your baby redtail catfish once every two days. However, once they reach adulthood, cut back the frequency to once per week. 

Are Redtail Catfish Good Pets?

This is a subjective question. The answer depends on how you plan to raise it. If you can keep it in a heated pond with plenty of space and food available, it can be a gentle giant. 

However, if you cannot make proper arrangements for the fish, it will end up eating not just tankmates but also decors and equipment. 

So like I said, the answer is very much subjective. 

Final Words: Are Redtail Catfish The Right Pet For You?

Most probably not – sorry if that came off as rude. It’s not the right pet fish for me either because I simply don’t have the resources, time, and experience required to tame and raise a fish like this one. 

Hobbyists often fall for the 2 to 3-inch pretty juvenile redtail catfish and take them home. But little do they know that the fish will need a 1000-gallon tank in the near future. 

If you’re someone with the resources, time, experience, and the commitment to look after the fish for 15 years, go ahead. 

But for an average hobbyist like me, it’s better to appreciate redtail catfish from afar in a walk-in aquarium. 

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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.