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FISH / new pets

A Set-up Guide for Your New African Cichlid

Tips for home and health


5 things to know about African cichlids

  • Experience Level: Intermediate
  • Size: They grow to be about 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm) long, depending on the species
  • Lifespan: They can live up to 10 years
  • Behavior: They are very territorial and need lots of hiding places
  • Caution: They’re likely to eat smaller tankmates so they should live only with fellow cichlids or other semi-aggressive tropical fish

How do I set up my African cichlid’s new home?

Set up the aquarium at least 1 day before you add any fish.

Aquarium and stand

  • The minimum size of your aquarium depends on how many cichlids you have and how big they will be as adults. Cichlids that are 6 inches (15 cm) or less need at least a 20-gallon tank. Cichlids up to 8 inches (20 cm) long need at least a 29-gallon tank.
  • If you plan to have multiple cichlids, follow this formula to determine whether the tank should be even larger. The aquarium should have 2 gallons of water for every inch of fully grown fish.
  • Place the tank near a power source in a low-traffic area, away from direct sunlight and drafts.
  • Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon. Pick a very sturdy, stable base for your aquarium, then fill the tank with water.
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What do I put in my cichlid’s tank?

  • If you will be using an under-gravel filter, add it first.
  • Layer about 3 inches of gravel on the bottom of the tank. (That works out to 1½ pounds of gravel per gallon of water.) Rinse the gravel before putting it in the aquarium.
  • Fill the tank about halfway up with dechlorinated water.
  • Add a beneficial bacteria supplement to the water to promote biological waste breakdown.
  • Add the thermometer, heater, filter and other necessary equipment.
  • Time to decorate! Add plants, rocks and décor. Because cichlids are territorial, provide enough hiding areas that each fish can establish its own turf. Cichlids also like to hide, so put several cave structures in the tank. Rinse all décor before adding it to the tank.
  • Finish by filling the tank the rest of the way with water then add the hood with lights.
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  • An aquarium filter should be able to process all of the water in the tank 3 to 5 times an hour. For example, the filter in a 20-gallon tank would need to push through at least 60 gallons of water each hour. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for choosing and setting up the filter.
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Heat & light

  • Check the temperature your African cichlids will need before you bring them home. Tropical fish need warm water that’s between 73 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit (23-28 Celsius).
  • Choose an aquarium heater with 5 watts of power for each gallon of water in the aquarium. A large aquarium may need a heater at each end.
  • Wait 15 minutes after filling the tank before turning on the heater.
  • Place the heater close enough to the filter to distribute the warmed water.
  • Run the tank’s filter and the tank’s hood light for 24 hours, then check the water temperature and adjust the heater if necessary.
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How do I add African cichlids to my aquarium?

  • Bring your cichlids home right away after you buy them.
  • Place them in your aquarium — inside their bag — for 15 minutes so they can get used to the new water temperature.
  • Next, use a net to transfer the cichlids into your aquarium. Try not to bring too much of their old water with them.
  • Add only 1 to 3 cichlids at a time to make sure the filter can handle all the new action in the neighborhood.
  • The chemical balance in your aquarium will change with every new fish you introduce, so check the tank’s pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels regularly.
  • Change 10% of the water weekly, or 25% monthly.
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Water quality testing

PetSmart offers free aquarium water testing. Bring in a sample and we can test its quality within minutes.

What do cichlids eat?

Feed your cichlids flake or pelleted food daily, and supplement their menu with frozen or freeze-dried brine shrimp or tubifex worms. Feed your cichlid as much food as it will consume in 3 minutes, twice a day. Some species of African cichlids also like vegetable matter and can be given algae wafers, spirulina pellets or plants, like Anacharis, to nibble on.

How can I keep my cichlid healthy?

If your cichlids display any of these symptoms of illness or distress, talk to a PetSmart store associate or a veterinarian familiar with fish health:

  • Unusual swimming pattern
  • Thinness or decreased appetite
  • Fins clamped to the sides of body
  • Scraping body on rocks (flashing)
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Inflamed or discolored skin or fins
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  • Fish and aquatic animals can transmit disease to humans. Children, pregnant women, elderly people and people with immune-system problems should take extra care.
  • Keep fish away from food and areas where food is prepared.
  • Never release fish into the wild.
  • Thoroughly wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after contact with any pet or its habitat.
  • Adults should assist children with hand washing after contact with a pet, its habitat or aquarium water.
  • Always add a dechlorinator or water conditioner to tap water before adding it to the aquarium. Do not use soaps or detergents to clean aquarium or décor, since they are toxic to fish.


Pets purchased at PetSmart are part of our exclusive Vet Assured™ program, designed by PetSmart veterinarians to help improve the health and well being of our pets.

Our vendors meet a high standard in caring for pets and screening them for common illnesses. This program also includes specific standards for in-store pet care.


If your pet becomes ill during the initial 14-day period, or if you’re not satisfied for any reason, PetSmart will gladly replace the pet or refund the purchase price.