Why Are My Cichlids Dying? Don’t Make These Mistakes!

Nov 10, 2021

Why are my cichlids dying

Image Credits: Maciej Kowalczuk (Creative Commons license)

Aquarium fish aren’t uber expressive as furry pets nor share a very affectionate bond with their owners – well, to be fair, they’re fish. But, nevertheless, the unexpected death of the fish can leave you feeling emotions you didn’t know you were capable of. 

Did it sound too dramatic? I guess fish parents can relate. 

Cichlids are gems of the freshwater aquarium scene. Their brilliant colors and sassy personalities give marine fish a run for their money. 

I don’t think there’s anything more frustrating than waking up one fine day, marveling at your aquarium, and seeing a lifeless fish floating on the surface.

The heartbreak continues when you find a couple of more fish dropping like flies in the days that follow. 

So, what could be the reason? If you’re wondering, “Why are my cichlids dying?” you’ve come to the right place. 

Why Are My Cichlids Dying?

As hardy as cichlids are, they too have Achilles’ heel. The number one reason behind cichlids dying is wrong water parameters. Stress is a close second. And some other causes include bullying, overfeeding, overstocking, and diseases. 

Let’s go through these conditions one by 1 by 1 to decipher the underlying culprit behind your cichlid’s untimely death. 

Your Tank Is Dirty

Dirty cichlid tank
Credits: Andrew Huff (Creative Commons license)

African cichlids come from the sunlit, blue waters of colossal lakes. And American cichlids are natives of the gushing, cool waters of the Amazon. So, it wouldn’t be wrong to say cichlids are used to the freshest, cleanest, and most stable water parameters. Their homes are nothing short of grandeur. 

As much as we try to mimic the same water conditions in our modest tanks, sometimes, things go haywire. And a dirty tank is undoubtedly the recipe for dead fish. It’s the number one reason behind the premature martyrdom of your beloved cichlids. 

The general practice is to remove 20% of the water every week and pour in clean water. Filters are pivotal in maintaining the correct water parameters, but you cannot wholly lean on them. 

Cichlids are avaricious eaters – thus, they can make the water quite dirty while feeding. They’re also known to produce a good amount of bioload. So, waste builds up quite quickly in a cichlid aquarium. And that, in turn, spikes the harmful ammonia and nitrite level. 

With cichlid aquariums, there’s more than what meets the eye. But, unfortunately, a tank that looks perfectly healthy and clean to our naked eyes could be brewing dangerous levels of toxic chemicals.

For a freshwater aquarium, you should aim to keep the ammonia and nitrite levels at 0 and nitrate levels below 20 ppm.

Thus, it’s pretty critical to test the water parameters on time. For that, I recommend getting the API Freshwater Master Kit since I’ve found them to be more convenient, economical, and accurate than strips.

This master kit can test 5 different water parameters on the go.

So, providing a well-oxygenated and clean tank is the first step towards the longevity of your cichlids.

The Temperature Changed Rapidly

Cichlids despise cold water. There are over 1,650 identified species of cichlids, and not a single one prefers cooler water. They come from tropical regions, where the water’s warm and stable. Thus, it’s crucial to ensure the temperature is set ideally and isn’t prone to fluctuations. 

Consistent exposure to cold water severely stresses out cichlids, which in turn suppresses their immune system. Worst case scenario – your cichlid will go into a shock and never recover. 

The first sign of cold water exposure is your cichlid will appear very lethargic – almost as if it has forgotten how to swim. And before you know, he’ll be down with sickness and pass away. 

Here’s a table of ideal water temperatures for cichlids for reference

Temperature For Cichlids In °F Temperature in °C

African Cichlids 74-82°F 23-38°F
Central American Cichlids 74-82° F 23-28°F
South American Cichlids 74-82°F 23-28°F
Asian Cichlids 68-84° F 20-29°F

Be careful when performing water changes, so you don’t pour in a lot of cold water at once. 

Unwelcoming Neighbors

Cichlid closeup
Credits: Jon VanBuhler (Creative Commons license)

Cichlids are notorious for their temper and very rightly so. These fish are highly aggressive and territorial. And during the breeding season, the animosity is through the roof. 

It’s not unusual for the dominant male to bully subdominant males to death. Females are equally on the receiving end too. 

The aggression in the tank often stresses out cichlids quite a lot, which in turn compromises their immunity and makes them prone to illnesses. 

On the other hand, escalated tension often leads to biting and nipping – inflicting wounds that can be fatal if not treated timely. 

With cichlids, it’s often advised to overstock the tank to curb their aggression. However, we often get carried away and add many fish from different species – sometimes mixing archenemies. 

And it’s not easy to escape a bully in a tank. Thus, being constantly harassed by the dominant fish will quite seriously compromise your cichlid’s quality of life – leading to a sooner death. 

Generally, African cichlids like Mbunas, peacocks, haps, and Central American species like firemouth, convicts, jack dempsey, and wolf cichlids have a reputation for being difficult tank mates. 

Your Cichlid Is Sick 

Although the knowledge of fish’s anatomy and bodily mechanisms isn’t mainstream yet, it’s easy to know when a fish is sick. Some visible signs are of disease in fish are: 

  • Struggling to breathe
  • Struggling to breathe against the current 
  • Laying low on one side of the tank
  • Having trouble maintaining buoyancy
  • Discoloration 
  • Inflammation of mouth or gill

If not treated on time, your diseased sick will die – whether it’s ich, columnaris, a parasitic infestation, or the infamous Malawi bloat. Thus, it’s always important to monitor the symptoms closely if you see your fish acting weird. A stitch in time saves nine, right?

But more than that, it’s essential to make sure the cichlids are living in a clean, stress-free environment and are feeding on a balanced diet. If these three parameters aren’t met, cichlids become super vulnerable to bloating – which, if left untreated, is fatal. 

If you want to read up on effective treatment for cichlid bloat, head over here

You’re Overfeeding Your Cichlids

Beginner aquarists are often surprised by how little cichlids or any other fish, for that matter, need to eat. It’s easy to express affection and care towards pet fish by pouring in extra food or giving treats frequently, but don’t make it a habit. 

Give your cichlids 2-3 small meals per day. Give them the amount they can eat within 20-30 seconds. Cichlids are greedy eaters. So, this duration is more than enough for them. And this method is particularly well-suited to manage their aggression. 

Round up on quality commercial food that meets most nutrition requirements, so you don’t have to go through the hassle of carving out an intricate diet plan for them. 

Here’s Ron’s Cichlid Food that I give my cichlids: 

This particular product here has many accolades to its name but what won me over is that it’s formulated and sold by someone who’s been breeding cichlids for a quarter of a century. 

Also, it’s important to do homework on the cichlid’s specific diet needs. For instance, if you feed herbivore cichlids food super rich in protein, it’s bound to get sick and vice versa. 

Herbivore cichlids have very long intestines – making them more vulnerable to digestive complications. And never feed African cichlids food formulated for American cichlids – they contain way too much protein and fat than what’s needed for African cichlids. So, you see – you need to be mindful about things like these. 

Recommended Readings!

Plants For Cichlid Tank | Your 6 Best Bets

Do Cichlids Sleep? Can They See In The Dark?

Pseudotropheus Saulosi Care Guide: Diet, Habitat, Breeding, Accessories

Your Tank Is Too Small 

Overcrowded cichlid tank
Credits: Oakley Originals (Creative Commons license)

I hate to break the news to you, but maybe your tank is too small for your cichlid’s liking. And it goes without saying – an overcrowded tank is a death sentence for your cichlids – slowly but surely. 

For starters, the one inch of fish per gallon rule is bollocks. It may work for smaller fish like tetras and guppies, but would you keep a 20-inch fish in a 20-gallon tank? Or 1 8-inch fish and 2 1-inch fish in a 10-gallon tank?

If you have a small tank, make sure you don’t overstock – you will be doing injustice to many nautical lives. There will be territorial aggression, mating aggression, competition over food, and whatnot. This will all lead to a bunch of anxiety-ridden fish. 

Second, small tanks are temperamental. They’re more prone to cyclical changes and toxic buildup than big ones. 

Suppose you have a small, overstocked tank. And it’s given that a smaller tank will have a lesser amount of good bacteria. Inevitably, in a small, overstocked tank, fish will poop at a faster rate than the rate good bacteria will break it down – turning your water deadly! 

So, all in all, small tanks cause death in cichlids in two ways – creating a stressful zone and leading to high levels of toxic buildup.

Your Cichlid Is Stressed 

I know I have stressed a lot on stress – but I just can’t stress enough! Sorry for that wordy sentence, but did I get my message across?

Stress is the silent killer in cichlids. And as hardy as these beautiful fish are, there are quite a few triggering factors that set in the anxiety in them. It could be wrong water chemistry, hostile tank mates, a sickness, or anything under the sun. 

But luckily, it’s pretty easy to spot a sick cichlid if you have a sharp eye. 

Here I have outlined some tell-tale signs of stress in cichlids:

Weight Loss 

I know it’s not possible to weigh the fish physically. Still, you’d just know by looking when your fish has become emaciated. Sometimes, they’ll lose weight from stress even if they have a regular appetite. 

Hiding 

As primitive as their brains are, fish do have their unique personalities. Some are more friendly than others. But if you see one fish acting particularly shy most of the time, this could be because he’s stressed and fearful. Perhaps there’s a bully in the tank?

Glass Surfing

Is your cichlid frantically swimming up and down the sides of the tank? This means your tank is the last place your cichlid would love to be in at that point. Maybe the tank’s crowded, the fish is sick, or there’s a mean fish in the picture. 

Illness 

Stress often culminates into illness – it’s true for us, and it’s true for cichlids. So if your cichlid in question is getting more frequently sick than usual, maybe it’s because stress is suppressing its immune system and metabolism. 

Your Fish Made A Rough Journey 

Fish dropping dead – no, more like floating motionlessly on the surface – just a couple of days after bringing it home. Has it happened to you? I’m familiar with it, too – I experienced it quite a few times. 

Now, imagine being out and about on a sunny day, and someone suddenly abducts you and puts you in a tiny cell. Did I scare you? Of course, it sounds horrendous. But it’s the reality for most of our aquarium fish. They make journeys across half of the world in small containers and plastic pouches before ending up within the 4 walls of our tank. 

And without a little doubt, these long journeys scare the wits out of them – inflicting some severe mental and physical exhaustion. And sometimes, that last leg from the fish store to your home could be the final nail on the coffin. 

Honestly, there’s not much you can do about it than hope for the best and place them in a properly cycled tank. Sometimes, that’s just how things pan out. 

You Forgot To Properly Set Up The Tank 

Setting up an aquarium is easy – take a glass tank, fill it with water, place a few decors, and add some de-chlorinator. That’s all, right? No. There’s much more to setting up an aquarium than that. 

For starters, fish aren’t the only thing that will go inside the aquarium. Another vital member includes a microscopic bacteria colony. They live across the tank but are most concentrated in the filter and gravel. And they have quite a special task to perform – break down waste and remove them from the aquarium. 

Fish and good bacteria have a symbiotic relationship. Without the fish and the waste they produce, the bacteria colony would die. But, on the other hand, without the presence of good bacteria, the water would quickly become inhospitable for the fish. 

And the thing is that this bacteria does not exist by default in a new tank. So you got to cycle your tank before you add the fish so good bacteria can thrive. 

I won’t go into the details of how to cycle an aquarium right now. But don’t forget to read up on the nitrogen cycle and the methods of cycling a new aquarium to find a convenient technique for you. 

Your Fish Was Old

If none of the above-mentioned reasons ring a bell, maybe your cichlid died of old age? Frankly, this is perhaps the least likely reason, but we never say never. 

Especially if your cichlid has had a previous owner, it’s possible that the fish died of old age. However, you can at least find solace in the fact that it led to quite an eventful and happy life, right?

That being said, it helps to quickly google the lifespan of your cichlids to get a tentative timeline of their age and offer care accordingly. For example, most African cichlids live for around 8 years, whereas oscars can go on for two decades if provided with the right care. 

Final Words: Why Are My Cichlids Dying?

So, that was a roundup of our top 10 reasons behind the untimely or frequent death of cichlids. 

Sometimes, the reason is a naive mistake from your side, like failure to properly set up the tank or maintain the water parameters. Sometimes, it could be things out of your hands, like old age or a rough journey of a thousand miles. Nonetheless, don’t be hard on yourself! Accidents happen – cherish the beautiful memories you shared with your deceased cichlid and work towards creating a better life for surviving ones! 

Recommended Readings!

Do Cichlids Need A Heater? What Temperature Is Too Low For Them?

Ich On Cichlid? We Swear By This Treatment!

How Long Do Angelfish Live? Find Out Angelfish’s Age

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.