Cockatoo Cichlid Care Guide: Feeding, Breeding & Diseases

The Cockatoo is a South American cichlid of the Apistogramma genus, widely appreciated by advanced aquarists worldwide. They are pretty adaptable to many living conditions, which allows breeders to fix many color variants.

Colors in wild fish fade compared to the domestic bred fish, but they still have spectacular fins. Coloring becomes more vibrant during courting periods in males as well as in females.

The Dwarf Cockatoo is a fairly small and non-aggressive cichlid only reaching up to 3.5 inches with a lifespan of 3-5 years.

Cockatoo Cichlid

Cockatoo Cichlid Care Guide [Overview]

Cockatoo cichlids require a 30-gallon tank. While these fish are quite adaptable to a wide variety of living conditions, you must remember that the tank’s temperature must not drop below 60°F. Cockatoo cichlids are carnivorous fish that eat insects and worms.

Tank requirements

As bottom dwellers, Cockatoos require a long, rather than deep, tank to allow plenty of swimming space. The minimum for a group of Cockatoos is a 30-gallon tank, but bigger is always better.

Heating is not always required if the room temperature never drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but sudden changes may still affect your fish.

If you do plan on placing a heater, set it between 72-74 degrees. Cockatoos are not very sensitive to water chemistry variations, but water changes have to be done on a regular basis to keep organic waste in check.

Feeding your Cockatoo Cichlid

In the wild, the Cockatoo cichlids are exclusively carnivorous fish feeding on insects, larvae, or worms, but in captivity it has been observed they are not very picky eaters.

Most aquarists feed them flake or pellet diets with great success, though meaty foods are also necessary. Feed them brine shrimp, baby brine, insects, crustaceans, or earthworms on a daily basis in order to have healthy fish.

Live foods are also very appreciated as the Cockatoos are predators, but make sure any feeder fish or shrimp you add to the tank is pathogen-free and will not spread infections among your fish.

If you plan on breeding them, feed your Cockatoos chopped earthworms, live black worms, daphnia, cherry shrimp, or live brine shrimp to boost nutrients and ensure successful breeding.

Fry should be fed on microworms or newly hatched brine shrimp, but they will also occasionally graze on plants, nipping at the nutritious biofilm growing on the leaves.


With proper tank maintenance, high-quality water and food, and no sudden changes in the aquarium, diseases should not be a problem.

However, if the water turn is dirty for long periods, less oxygen is available, or there are sudden pH or temperature shifts, this will stress your fish and weaken their immune system.

The Cockatoo cichlids are prone to the usual diseases of freshwater fish. White Spot disease or Ich is the first to appear on vulnerable fish, but these can be neutralized in the early stages by increasing the water temperature to 86 degrees for a few days.

If discovered later, it can be treated with copper, but you must make sure no water conditioners are present.

Other common infections are parasitic infections (protozoa, flatworms, or tapeworms), skin flukes, bacterial infections or turbidity of the skin.

Many of these infections may be brought to your tank by newly added fish, plants, or decorations, so make sure to clean them properly or quarantine anything you plan to add to your tank.


The Cockatoo cichlid is a non-aggressive fish that may be kept in a community tank, even with larger and peaceful fish. They are also pretty tolerant of their own species, being able to cohabitate in larger groups provided the tank is large enough.

During mating periods or if more males are present, they can get quite territorial and display aggressive behavior. You can avoid this by placing a multitude of plants and hiding places for them to be able to avoid constant encounters and calm down.

You may notice your Cockatoos, especially the males, digging in the sand and munching on it. It’s not for proper digestion, as it is in other animals, but for extracting leftover food items fallen in the substrate; the fish will squirt out any sand keeping only what they need to eat.

This is a normal behavior and you shouldn’t worry about it.

Tank mates

Cockatoo Cichlids are usually peaceful fish that will do well in a community tank, as well as with their own kind. Suitable non-Cockatoo tank mates will be smaller or same-size fish that are also non-aggressive like Cardinal tetras, Dwarf Gourami, Glowlight Rasboras, Julii Cory, Kuhli Loach, or Dwarf Rainbow fish.

If kept in a single-species tank, the best option is to keep one pair, or harem, with one male and 5-6 females. You can keep more than one male if the tank is large and provides plenty of hiding places.

Avoid snails, crabs, or shrimp, as Cockatoos may be aggressive towards them or try to hunt them.

Breeding your Cockatoo Cichlid

Cockatoos are cave spawners, which means a female will lay her eggs in her own cave. In harem tanks, each female will establish her territory and guard it against any approaching fish, except for the dominant male.

It is ideal to place more caves than females, with plants or decorations in between them to provide more privacy.

The male’s colors become more vibrant during courting periods when they dance and display for the female. The female will lead the male to a cave of her choice where she will lay her eggs and allow the male to fertilize them.

After the eggs are fertilized, the female will guard the cave until the fry hatch, a time during which she will display a beautiful black and lemon yellow coloration.

After the fry are free-swimming, she will herd them around the tank from one feeding place to another for several weeks.

If you like small fish with big personalities, you can add this cichlid to your community tank and watch its interesting behavior.  The Cockatoo will also attract attention to your aquarium with its vibrant and unique coloration.

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