Zebra Pleco Care Guide | Diet, Habitat, Breeding, Tankmates 

Jul 18, 2022

Zebra Pleco

Image Credit: Birgir A (CC License)

Zebra plecos are stunners. You’d be lying if you denied that one of the reasons you are planning to bring them home is their good looks. 

However, they are high-maintenance fish. Therefore, they’re not suitable for all aquariums and experience levels. 

There’s no doubt that zebra plecos will add a captivating look to your tank and seize the spotlight. But remember, beauty comes at a price. 

In this care guide, I’ll brief you on everything you need to know about raising zebra plecos. Unfortunately, the internet is littered with wrong and misleading information. 

Therefore, we’ve put together this guide to set the record straight once and for all. Let’s begin!

Zebra Pleco At A Glance 

  • Name: Zebra Pleco
  • Other Names: Altimira Pleco
  • Scientific Name: Hypancistrus zebra
  • Family: Loricariidae
  • Lifespan: 10-15 years
  • Size: 3-4 inches
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Tank Size: 20-30 gallons
  • Temperature: 79-88 degrees F
  • pH: 6.5-7

Zebra Pleco Origin

Zebra pleco is endemic to Brazil’s Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon River. The fish was first described in the early 1990s and has been immensely popular ever since. 

As a matter of fact, their demand soared so high that their population in the wild dwindled steeply. I’ll explain more about this in the next segment. 

Zebra Pleco Conservation Status 

It’s been only a little over 2 decades since zebra plecos were first discovered. But thanks to their beautiful appearance, these fish were exported in great numbers from Brazil. 

As a result, the fish population declined steeply. 

To make matters worse, the construction of the Belo Monte Dam in the Xingu River led to a severe reduction in water flow in the distribution range of zebra plecos. 

Due to these reasons, the species has now been classified as endangered. As a result, the Brazilian government has banned the export of zebra plecos. 

Luckily, they can be bred in captivity and are subject to numerous captive breeding programs. 

Zebra Pleco Price | How Much Is A Zebra Pleco?

Since zebra plecos are rare, they naturally fetch a higher price. Their price is listed in the $300-$400 range on the internet. 

From what I gathered from fish forums, local breeders usually price them in the $150-200 range. 

These fish are often smuggled into the USA from Brazil in illicit ways and are reportedly a smuggler’s favorite. This is one of the reasons they cost an arm and a leg. 

Zebra Pleco Lifespan  

Zebra pleco is a long-term commitment. Under the right care, it can live for anywhere between 10-15 years. Therefore, if you’re testing the waters in the hobby for the first time, I think you’ll be better off raising a short-lived species. 

I don’t mean to exaggerate, but owning a zebra pleco requires almost the same commitment and effort as raising a cat or a dog. 

In the long run, it will cost you a significant amount of time, money, and effort to provide for this fish for over a decade. 

That being said, not all zebra plecos get to live that long. Their lives are often cut short owing to the wrong environment and inadequate diet. 

A healthy diet, coupled with optimal water parameters, will help prevent most, if not all, diseases that shorten a zebra pleco’s life. 

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Zebra Pleco Appearance 

Zebra Pleco
Credit: Peaceinpianos (CC License)

Zebra plecos are hands down the most beautiful catfish to exist, in my opinion. Staying true to the catfish style, these fish have long whiskers, a suckermouth, and a flat bottom. 

What sets them apart from the rest of the pleco species is their characteristic black and white stripes that run laterally all over the fish’s body, including the tail and fins. These stripes really pop in flattering lights. 

The unique stripe pattern is even present in a young fry that looks like scaled-down versions of the adults. 

The eyes are big, protruding, and look like they’re following you wherever you go. 

The fish has the trademark suckermouth. The mouth is quite small compared to other catfish. Thus, you need to be careful with their feeding style. I’ll cover more about this in the “Diet” section below. 

The dorsal fin is a sharp triangle that stands up tall. However, they can lay it down when they want. 

On both sides of the body, they have pectoral fins and a set of rayed fins – all of which are pretty large. 

If you look carefully, you will notice that the pectoral fins closest to the pleco’s head are hairy. 

Zebra Pleco Size | How Big Do Zebra Plecos Get?

As adults, zebra plecos grow about 3-4 inches (7.6-10.2 cm) long. They’re relatively smaller than most plecos, which could be an issue while selecting tank mates. 

This is also why they shy away from crowds and keep to themselves most of the time. 

Zebra Pleco Male VS Female 

The sexual dimorphism in zebra plecos is very subtle. Males have a more streamlined body, forming the shape V. On the other hand, females have a paunchy body with a U shape. 

Also, males reportedly have larger and broader heads, and the hair on the pectoral fins is more obvious in males. 

Zebra Pleco Temperament 

Zebra plecos are introverts – they are peaceful and shy. So, you’ll seldom see them out and about. They are solitary creatures that don’t really prefer socializing or swimming outside their comfort zone. 

In the daytime, the catfish often hides in the caves to spare itself the ruckus of other fish. Since these fish are nocturnal species, don’t expect much activity during the daytime. 

They will only come out, swim around, and explore the tank at night when other fish are asleep. 

Despite their timid nature, zebra plecos are pretty territorial and possessive – especially against their own kind. This is especially true with males. 

If you plan to keep multiple males together in the same tank, the tank should be colossal to begin with. Next, add plenty of hiding spaces – go all out. 

Even then, there’s no guarantee that the males won’t fight. They’re hardwired like that. If each fish has plenty of space to call its own hiding space, innate aggression and possessiveness can be kept in check. 

However, at times, their territorialism comes in handy as it is the males that guard the eggs once they have been laid. 

Zebra Pleco Tank Mates 

Cardinal Tetras
Credit: Josh More (CC License)

A zebra pleco’s tank mate should ideally be peaceful and non-competitive for food and space. They should also be able to endure strong currents and preferably live in the upper and middle levels of the tank.

Bear in mind to avoid aggressive species that compete for food and space.

Here’s a list of suitable tankmates for zebra plecos:

  • Cardinal tetra
  • Phantom tetra
  • Ember tetra
  • Platy 
  • Apistogramma
  • Cherry barb
  • Denison barb

Here’s a list of peaceful bottom-dwellers for a zebra pleco tank:

  • Celestial pearl danios
  • Bumblebee goby
  • Freshwater snail
  • Cory catfish
  • Cherry shrimp
  • Zebra otocinclus 
  • Kuhli loach 

Here’s a list of fish to avoid for a zebra pleco tank:

It’s quite tempting to raise zebra plecos and discus fish in the same tank since their needs for water parameters are pretty much identical. But I’d recommend against it, given both parties’ dispositions. 

Can You Keep Multiple Zebra Plecos Together?

There are 2 conflicting schools of thought when it comes to keeping multiple zebra plecos together. 

While some claim to raise a couple of dozens of zebra plecos together in a 75-gallon tank, others believe that 1 zebra pleco per tank is the way to go. 

As we discussed above, zebra plecos can get quite territorial and are intolerant of their own kind – especially the males. So, if the tank is small and there are multiple males, be prepared for a showdown every once in a while. 

If you want a tank full of zebra plecos, you can consider keeping 1 male and several females. But if you are adamant about raising multiple males together, do so in a massive tank with plenty of hideouts.  

Zebra Pleco Care And Tank Setup 

There’s nothing particularly difficult about raising zebra plecos. But then again, there’s nothing particularly easy either. These fish require strong, fast-moving currents. Oftentimes, aquarists fail to provide that. 

Remember, one of the reasons their population was wiped down in their native region in Brazil is because a dam stopped the natural current. 

The river these fish occupy in their native land is teeming with life. Xingu is one of the largest clearwater rivers in the Amazon basin and is filled with all kinds of natural wonders. 

In this section, I’ll explain everything you should know about creating the correct aquarium setup for your zebra pleco. 

Recommended Tank Size For Zebra Pleco 

The minimum recommended tank size for zebra plecos is 20 gallons. However, I’d recommend getting a 30-gallon tank as the fish would feel comfortable in a large space with lots of hiding places. 

If you plan to raise multiple zebra plecos together, you must buy a considerably bigger tank since these fish are territorial and intolerant of each other’s presence. 

Water Parameters For Zebra Pleco

  • Temperature: 79-88 degrees F
  • pH: 6.5-7
  • Carbonate Hardness: 2-6 KH
  • General Hardness- 5-10 GH

The best way to ensure your zebra pleco is living its best life is to emulate the water parameters of its original habitat in the tank. These fish need highly oxygenated water and a strong current. Therefore, investing in a good air pump would be a good idea. 

Likewise, zebra plecos prefer warm water on the neutral side. Anything too acidic or too alkaline will profusely stress out the fish. 

To maintain the water quality, weekly monitor the parameters using a reliable kit. We use and recommend using one from the API.

Here’s a link if you’re interested:

Clean the glass and change the water weekly. Once every two weeks or so, clean the filter and rinse the filter media. 

Just make sure you don’t rinse the filter media and change the water quality on the same day. It will eliminate the good bacteria colony and wreak havoc. 

Substrate And Decors For Zebra Pleco 

For substrate, you can use sand or gravel and pebbles. Since these fish spend most of their time at the base, don’t add anything with sharp and jagged edges. 

Add a couple of boulders, rocks, driftwoods, and artificial caves on top of the substrate to create secure spots for the pleco to hide. Since these fish are introverted, they’ll take full advantage of those hideouts. 

To mimic the look of their natural habitat, it’s important to add plants too. You have the liberty to get creative and add a variety of plants as you wish. 

Just make sure you don’t obstruct the swimming area. 

Lighting For Zebra Pleco 

You can install simple aquarium lighting. Just make sure to turn it off at night. 

Zebra Pleco Diet | What Do You Feed A Zebra Pleco?

Zebra plecos are omnivores. However, they’re more into a protein-rich diet and love meaty food. Now whether that protein comes from living, dry, or frozen food is up to you. 

That being said, these fish prefer live food, which is naturally more nutrient-dense compared to other food choices. 

You might come across your zebra pleco chowing down on tank algae every once in a while. However, they’re not as fond of it as other plecos who love it. 

Also, don’t assume the catfish can do well on just algae-based food. As I mentioned above, they need a high-protein diet. 

To fulfill their protein needs, you can regularly give them bloodworms, brine shrimp, and fly larvae. Protein-rich dry food is also a good choice. Just make sure you buy pellets instead of flakes. 

Pellets will sink to the bottom of the aquarium, allowing your plecos to eat in peace. 

You can give plant-based food occasionally too. They, of course, don’t love it as much, but they will eat it. This will also help ensure they’re getting all the right nutrients. 

Occasionally give blanched veggies and algae wafers. Hobbyists report that these fish are pretty fond of zucchini and peas. 

Based on the above paragraph, here’s a list of acceptable food for zebra plecos:

  • Brine shrimp
  • Blood worms 
  • Fly larvae 
  • Cucumbers 
  • Sinking pellets 
  • Crushed peas 
  • Zucchini 

Keep in mind that a zebra pleco will seldom go out of its way to find food. Like most fish, they don’t go into a frenzy during feeding time. 

If they’re uncomfortable, they won’t even come out to eat – heightening the risks of malnutrition and even death. So, you need to choose a quiet spot in the tank to feed them. 

This way, they will feel much safer and less stressed, and you can be ensured they are getting sufficient nutrition. 

An important thing to remember is that these fish have tiny mouths. Thus, the food you offer must be cut into small and fine pieces. 

How Often To Feed Zebra Plecos? 

Although zebra plecos eat algae and detritus, you still need to supplement their diet. You can feed the pleco once every day. 

Like we discussed above, give small pieces of food and offer the food in a quiet and secluded area. 

Breeding Zebra Plecos

Although zebra plecos are endangered and rare, thankfully, they breed easily without any complication or special stimulation. You just need to pull a few tricks like raising the temperature and oxygen levels. 

Zebra plecos are often bred in captivity, and it’s a pretty straightforward process. In the wild, these catfish spawn in the warm rainy season between July and September. 

In the tank, increase the temperature to around 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Next, infuse some oxygen into the water using an air stone and an air pump. 

These subtle cues will be more than enough to get them to breed. By the way, know that the male is ready to spawn when you see spikes protruding from the first ray of the pectoral fin. 

When the male is ready, he will trap the female in a small cave or an enclosure until she lays eggs. The male will turn hostile and bite her if she attempts to flee. 

I know this sounds barbaric, but it is what it is – this behavior is entirely “normal” and expected in plecos. Depending on how much the female resists, the egg-laying process can take anywhere between 1 to 5 days. 

The female will lay about 15 eggs and is finally freed to leave the tank. The male will fertilize the eggs and watch over them until they hatch. 

Thanks to the male’s extreme possessiveness, possible intruders and visitors will be shooed away at all times. 

The eggs will hatch in the next 3 to 7 days after being fertilized. The male will look after the fry for a couple of days. 

The fry will feed off the nutritious yolk sac attached to their bodies. Once the sac is depleted, you can introduce powdered fry food and later transition to baby brine shrimp. 

The fry will have the signature black and white stripes right after birth. By 2 to 3 months, they grow about an inch long and look like miniature versions of their parents. 

Zebra Pleco Common Diseases 

Zebra pleco are hardy fish. However, they’re at higher risk of disease when their immune system is compromised. The number one reason behind a weakened immune system is stress, resulting from poor diet and water quality, overcrowding, and so on. 

Some common ailments zebra plecos are susceptible to are a parasitic infestation, bacterial infections, and fungal diseases. 

Parasitic Infestation 

There are one too many different parasites that can affect a zebra pleco. Some of them are fish lice, ich, flukes, and costia. 

In most cases, parasitic infestation occurs when new inhabitants are introduced to the aquarium before quarantining them.

The fish will naturally be stressed when they’re being moved from one place to another. And when stressed, the immune system will be weakened. 

These hitchhiking parasites seize this opportunity and attack the fish when they’re weak. Before you know it, the entire tank can be infested. 

Some clinical signs of parasitic infestation in fish are lowered appetite, loss of scale, bruising and panting. 

The choice of treatment varies depending on the parasite involved. Therefore, you need to seek professional guidance and treat the fish accordingly. 

Bacterial Infection 

Most bacterial infections in fish are secondary responses to primary stressors like foul water, overcrowding, and malnourishment. Some examples of bacterial infection are fish tuberculosis, dropsy, and cotton wool disease. 

Some clinical signs of bacterial infection are skin edema, ulcer, lowered appetite, fin erosion, and lethargy. 

Unfortunately, excessive medication with over-the-counter antibiotics has led to quite resistant bacterial strains that often require aggressive treatments. 

However, before you dump a bunch of stuff into the tank, consult with an aquatic vet for a proper assessment. 

Fungal Disease 

Fungal disease usually only affects the dead fish skin. These patches form on dead scales, decaying fins, and traumatic injury sites. 

Fish with weakened immune systems are most prone to contracting fungal infections. Most cases resolve on their own once you remove the dead skin. 

However, persistent infections will require aggressive therapy directed by a vet.

Frequently Asked Questions

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

Are Zebra Plecos Hard To Keep?

Raising zebra plecos isn’t hard, but it’s not easy either. As long as you are mindful of their need for a high-protein diet, plenty of space, and strong currents, you’ll do perfectly fine. 

Do Zebra Plecos Eat Algae? 

Yes, zebra plecos eat algae but don’t expect them to devour it like some other fish do. Instead, a zebra pleco requires a high-protein diet – so feeding them plant or algae-based food regularly might not be good for their health. 

Can Zebra Plecos Live Alone?

Yes, zebra plecos can live alone in a 20 or 30-gallon tank. They aren’t exactly social animals. Matter of fact, they’re quite territorial. 

So, they’d probably be happy to have the entire tank to themselves. 

Why Are Zebra Plecos So Expensive?

Zebra plecos are expensive because they can not be imported anymore from their native land, Brazil. And that’s because the zebra pleco population is decreasing steeply due to overfishing and the construction of dams. 

Final Words: Are Zebra Plecos Suitable For Your Aquarium?

Raising zebra plecos isn’t a big challenge if you offer plenty of space and hiding places. However, remember that they live for about 10-15 years on average. 

So, if you’re planning to raise one, know that you’re in for at least a decade or so. 

If you’re not on a budget and are looking for a knockout to amp up your tank’s aesthetics, zebra plecos can be just the right addition. 

The article has come to an end. If you have any questions about zebra plecos, shoot us an email. We would love to help you. 

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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.