Dwarf Cichlids: Complete Guide to Care, Breeding, Tank Size and Disease

Table of Contents

Dwarf Cichlids Overview

Dwarf Cichlids are inquisitive, brightly colored, small community fish making a comeback in the aquarium industry!

Cichlids are a group of fish that people misunderstand as aggressive and territorial. This notion is why some hobbyists usually do not prefer them. People blame the Cichlid species for doing aggressive acts such as digging up gravel and plants. Because of this, they are not as popular as their other fish counterparts.

Fortunately, the Dwarf Cichlids are pretty different from their counterparts. These fish species are not as significant as other cichlids. They are much less aggressive and will live well with other fish species in the same tank.

Another good feature of the Dwarf Cichlids is that they do not require much care as long as you keep them in larger tanks. The fish usually offers fascinating displays in an aquarium setting and will give a hobbyist great satisfaction. Keeping the fish in smaller tanks is easy and breeding them in small tanks is also an easy task.

There are two main types of Dwarf Cichlids: the South American Dwarf Cichlids and the African Dwarf Cichlids. You must note that these two species of fish usually need different water needs and requirements. The African Dwarf Cichlid species are good community fish. In contrast, the South American Dwarf Cichlids typically prefer to be alone in their tank. There are also more than 90 different species that belong to the Dwarf Cichlid family!

Let us take a look at how to best care for them in this guide.

Information Chart Dwarf Cichlids
Scientific Name: Apistogramma Cichlid
Family: Cichlidae
Care Level: Medium to hard
Temperament: Semi-aggressive, mostly peaceful
Color: Different variations
Lifespan: 5 to 10 years
Size: 3 to 3.5 inches on average
Diet: Omnivores
Minimum Tank Size: 20 gallons
Temperature: 70 to 80 degrees F
Water Conditions: pH 6 to 7, soft water, 2 to 15 dKH depending on the species
Tank Mate Compatibility Peaceful co-existence

Dwarf Cichlid Appearance

Dwarf Cichlids

Dwarf Cichlids are famous for their attractive colors. However, the yellow, blue and red shades are the most common among them.

The Dwarf Cichlids, especially those from South America, will exhibit a variety of colors. So, having them in your aquarium will be very appealing. There are also the West African Dwarf Cichlids that have stunning colors and relatively more minor bodies. These fish usually come from rivers, streams, and ponds.

As mentioned earlier, there are more than 90 species of Dwarf Cichlids. All of them look different from each other in colors and stripes or patterns on their bodies.

Varieties of Dwarf Cichlids

There are a lot of Dwarf Cichlid varieties, but the most common ones are:

Apistogramma Cacatuoides

Commonly known as Dwarf Cockatoo Cichlids, these are the most famous Cichlids. The reason why they are called that is that their fins are like the feathers of a cockatoo.

Apistogramma Agassizii

Agassiz’s Dwarf Cichlids come in different color patterns. The most common ones have a shimmering gold body and bright red tails. They are more territorial than the other species of Dwarf Cichlids.

Apistogramma Borellii

People commonly call them Umbrella Cichlids or even Yellow Dwarf Cichlids because their primary color is yellow, along with spots of blue and dots covering their entire head. They are gentle and do well in community tanks.

Apistogramma Macmasteri

The Apisto Macmasteri look very intimidating because of their size and fins. They have spots of red on their fins, along with black stripes.

Apistogramma Hongsloi

Also called Honglo’s Dwarf Cichlids, this species is quite colorful. Males are usually pink on the belly and face, with spots of red. Amongst the other varieties, Honglo’s Dwarf Cichlids keep their distance from the other fish and are peaceful.

Apistogramma Viejita

Many Cichlid enthusiasts tend to confuse the Viejita with the Macmasteri species because of their similar appearance. The easiest way to differentiate them is to look at their fins. The tail fin of a Viejita is rounded and flowing, unlike the Macmasteri one. Viejitas are mostly captive-bred. They have red spots mixed with dark and light specks of color.

Apistogramma Baenschi

Also known as the Inca Dwarf Cichlid or Apistogramma Inka, this species is new. It was discovered in 2002 and is quite popular. The head of the Inca is large, which makes it look big. Their lips also stick out. Usually, these have yellow and blue colors, with black stripes. At the tail end, they have a black dot and a thick band of orange.

Apistogramma Elizabethae

This fish is called the ‘Fisherman’s Dwarf’ as well because of its unique appearance. Their tail fin stands out because it has a spade shape and thin stripes over its body. Its colors are gold, blue and red and it looks very regal, just like its name.

Apistogramma Trifasciata

This fish is aptly named the ‘three-striped Apisto’ (or three-striped Dwarf Cichlid) because it has three bands of black along its body.

The Lifespan of Dwarf Cichlids

The typical lifespan of a Dwarf Cichlid is 5 to 10 years. Of course, their lifespan differs on factors such as the species in question. It also depends on their tank and water conditions.

Dwarf Cichlid Sizeblue spots

The typical Dwarf Cichlid grows up to 3 inches on the lower end and 3.5 inches for larger specimens. The quality of care they receive will directly impact their growth.

Natural Habitat and Origin

Dwarf Cichlids, or Apistogramma Cichlid, are a species of freshwater fish belonging to the Cichlidae family. They originate from South America, and you can mainly find them in the slow-flowing or standing waters.

As for their habitat, there are two derivatives of the Dwarf Cichlids living in two known natural habitats. These are South America and West Africa.

South America

You can find the South American Dwarfs Cichlids in the South and Central America region. This part is an extensive geographical area featuring diverse habitats from rain forests to savannah grasslands.

You can categorize the South American waters into three types: white water, clear water, and black water. Dwarf cichlids can still survive in hard water, but they may find it challenging to spawn. So, they need soft water to breed well. There may be slight variations in the pH of these waters.

West Africa

You can find the Western African dwarf cichlids in freshwater streams, rivers, and lakes. Some of the notable lakes you will find these cichlids include Lake Tanganyika, L. Malawi, and L. Victoria. These cichlids will habitat the upper portions of the streams or rivers that they dwell inside. The waters they reside in vary in hardness and can sometimes be soft and fresh. Those found in Lake Malawi live in alkaline water because the lake is much mineralized. Those found in Lake Tanganyika live in very stable water that is fresh and rich in oxygen.

You can mostly breed Dwarf Cichlids in captivity today. There are also some species of Dwarf Cichlids, such as Butterfly Dwarf Cichlid (Mikrogeophagus Ramirezi), which you can exclusively cultivate in captivity.

Dwarf Cichlid Care & Tank Set-Up

If you wish to keep these varieties of Cichlids in your home aquarium, you will have to bear in mind certain things. Below is an essential guide that you can follow to rear the fish in your home aquarium:

Dwarf Cichlid Tank Size and Specifications

Dwarf Cichlid Tank Size and Specifications

Optimum Tank Size for Dwarf Cichlid

The recommended tank size for Dwarf Cichlids is 24 x 12 x 16 (H). The basic rule to keep them at home is to have a tank of at least 20 gallons. You need to remember that this Cichlid species is not very aggressive and may not need much space like their large and aggressive relatives. It may be best to keep those sourced from the South American region alone in their very own aquarium without mixing with other fish types. These species of fish are usually territorial. They will be a little aggressive when it is time for breeding.

Filter Type

Dwarf Cichlids produce a lot of waste, more than an average fish. So, a strong filter is required to keep the tank water clean. A high-quality canister filter with carbon filtration media will do the job of ensuring good water quality.


The Dwarf Cichlid is a native to the Amazon Basin. The substrate of the tank has to replicate the river bottom. Use a fine sandy substrate for the fish to dig into the base. Using fine sand will reduce the risk of injuries while they try to dig in.

How many Dwarf Cichlids can be kept in a 20-gallon tank?

If you plan on having multiple species in the tank, keep no more than one of each cichlid species. Even non-aggressive cichlids can become territorial with other fish of the same or similar species. Maintain a male-to-female ratio of 1:3. Having too many males of any species could be trouble, so make sure plenty of females go around. Ensure that you get a larger tank if you wish to keep many of the fish. The rule of thumb is usually 12 mm of fish for every gallon. The water you put in the tank needs to be soft. To ease their breeding process, you can provide them with stones they will use for the spawn.

Water Parameters for Dwarf Cichlids

Dwarf Cichlids are sensitive to water temperatures and pH, so you must make sure to maintain the required amount at all times. Changing one-third or two-thirds of the water weekly is a compulsion for a Dwarf Cichlid tank.

Water Parameters for Dwarf Cichlids

Water Temperature

The ideal water temperature for Dwarf Cichlids is 70 to 80 degrees F. When you change the tank water, ensure that the new water has the same temperature as the old one. Dwarf Cichlids are very sensitive to temperature changes.

Water Flow Rate

Do not utilize any water pumps or air pumps for the tank, as Dwarf Cichlids are used to low water flow. If the water flow is not soft, they will not even breed.

pH Level

The perfect water pH level for Dwarf Cichlids is 6 to 7. The streams and slow waters that these fish are used to have a neutral pH.

Water Hardness

The water hardness for a Dwarf Cichlid tank can range anywhere between 2 to 15 dKH depending on the species.

Dwarf Cichlid Tank Landscape

The best way to make a fish feel at home is to set up a tank that mimics their natural environment. For fish species native to the Amazon basin, such as the Dwarf Cichlids, use a lot of natural decorations to set up the tank.

Dwarf Cichlid Tank Landscape

Best Plants for Dwarf Cichlid Tanks

Live aquatic plants are a must-have for Dwarf Cichlid tanks. They need lush vegetation around them to hide and to eat too. Some great plants are java moss, java fern, cryptocoryne. Try and stick with natural tropical plants which do well with a sandy bottom.

Worst Plants for Dwarf Cichlid Tanks

You should avoid plants that cannot grow on a sandy substrate. Exceptionally few plants will be harmful to a Dwarf Cichlid tank because they love thickly planted tanks. Dwarf Cichlids will not uproot plants, so you do not have to worry about any plant damage.

Decorations for Dwarf Cichlid Tanks

Mixing these plants with other items for decor such as driftwood, leaf litter, or pieces of rock, is an excellent addition to any tank. Adding things like a small plant or a colorful stone keeps the fish engaged, as they love playing hide and seek around these massive structures. They will also have multiple hiding places, which will replicate their natural environment.

Lighting for Dwarf Cichlid Tanks

There is no need for extra lighting for a Dwarf Cichlid tank. The fish are used to hiding under the cover of rocks and plants. However, the live plants in the tank will need light to grow. For this, the natural lighting hitting the tank is enough. Suppose the tank is in a dark corner, then provide an LED light bulb overhead. Make sure that during the day, the fish have plenty of places to hide and take shelter.

Feeding Dwarf Cichlids

Best Diet for Dwarf Cichlids

Feeding Dwarf Cichlids

These cichlids are the easiest to feed, so any aquarist will not find difficulty giving them food. They don’t eat as much food as their larger relatives do, but the aquarist needs to be keen on types of food to provide the fish. Below let us take a look at the kind of food that you can give to the fish:

  • Crustaceans
  • Invertebrates
  • Insects

They can be fed fish flakes, as well as live brine shrimp. You can also feed insect larvae to them.

Always ensure that the water is changed regularly to help keep things in the tank optimum. Cleaning the tank and changing the water there ensures that you remove food left by the fish; thus, you can eliminate any chance of bacterial or fungal growth.

How often should you feed Dwarf Cichlids?

You should typically feed dwarf Cichlids 3 to 4 times a day. You should only give them the amount they can consume within 30 seconds every time. This feeding style helps to curb a Cichlid’s aggression over resources and prevents over-feeding.

Dwarf Cichlids Behaviour and Temperament

Dwarf Cichlids can be termed semi-aggressive. If planned well, they can live peacefully within community tanks. However, you must plan their habitat very well. The reason for this is that Dwarf Cichlids are very territorial. Most of the time, the lack of space in the tank causes fights among them. That is why giving them ample room in the tank is essential.

Group of Dwarf Cichlids

Dwarf Cichlids spend most of their time at the bottom of the tank. They dig and pick at the substrate all the time. At the time of breeding, the Dwarf Cichlid will appear overly aggressive, but that is normal. It can also happen if there is not enough food in the tank for them. Fighting often occurs between males, so remember to keep the 1:3 male to female ratio in your tank.

Something unique about Dwarf Cichlids, among other species, is that they react very quickly to human movements. They will find you immediately and respond to your presence.

Are Dwarf Cichlids lone or societal?

Dwarf Cichlids are very social. They love interacting with their environments and exploring the substrate. They are also a peaceful community fish and will do best with the appropriate tank mates.

Dwarf Cichlids Tank Mates

Ideal Dwarf Cichlids Tank Mates

Dwarf Cichlids are good tank mates for other fish as long as you provide them with enough space of their own. Some good tank mates for a Dwarf Cichlid tank would be:

Bad Tank Mates for Dwarf Cichlids

Bad tank mates for Dwarf Cichlids are more large or aggressive species such as:

It is also essential to avoid ‘fin nipper’ species. Even though Dwarf Cichlids are not very aggressive, they can become aggressive in the presence of these fish. To keep the tank environment peaceful, we highly recommend keeping more females than males in the tank.

Breeding Dwarf Cichlids

Dwarf Cichlids are the easiest of the Cichlids species to breed. With a few adjustments in the tank conditions, everything will be fine. In the wild, they typically breed in secluded areas like caves or crevices. Their eggs are laid on a hard, flat surface as well.

Breeding Dwarf Cichlids

It is advisable to keep a dedicated breeding tank with only a few males and several females. It is because the males are polygamous and will form territories of many females.

Provide the cichlids with lots of clay pots or relatively large rocks that will act as caves for the females to get into during spawning. Doing this helps to facilitate breeding for the fish. The females will lay eggs in the caves then the male will go over them to release the sperm that will fertilize the eggs. It is the female that will remain in the egg location until they hatch.

The female will then watch over the fry until they grow large enough to hatchet fish themselves. You can then separate the juvenile fish from the mature ones and keep them in a separate tank.

All South American Dwarf Cichlids practice “brood care.” That means they guard and look after their eggs and fry and defend them against enemies. The details of this “brood care” vary depending on the genus.

Dwarf Cichlids Breeding Level – Easy

Dwarf Cichlids Sexual Dimorphism?

To distinguish between male and female Dwarf Cichlids, we need to notice their size and colors. Females are smaller than males. Also, the colors on a male Dwarf Cichlid are brighter compared to a female. During the breeding time, however, females will get more vibrant.

Golden Colored Dwarf Cichlids

Dwarf Cichlids Common Diseases and their Treatment

Dwarf Cichlids are not at risk of any major diseases. But being freshwater fish, they can suffer some common issues, which you can treat if spotted on time.


Ich symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, and restless behavior, but most importantly, white spots on the fish’s body. This illness will go away once you meet the ideal water conditions.

Gill flukes

Labored breathing and a loss of color might indicate gill flukes, a widespread disease amongst freshwater fish. To soothe the fish, you may use Praziquantel or other readily available solutions.

Parasitic infections

Parasitic infections are common in unclean water. If any leftover debris is in the tank, it will cause bacteria that contribute to these infections. The best thing to do is to isolate the affected fish and treat them first. If you maintain hygiene and care in the tank, these diseases will not occur.

Apart from looking out for these common diseases, stress reduction, offering plentiful space to them, and providing a clean tank are the best things that you can do to care for your Dwarf Cichlids.

Facts about Dwarf Cichlids

  • Dwarf Cichlids grow to be about 3 to 3.5 inches in size.
  • They are also known as ‘Apistogramma’ or ‘Apistosareas.’.
  • They have a semi-aggressive nature but are very playful and active.
  • Dwarf Cichlids come in multiple color variations. The most common ones are Apistogramma Cacatuoides with an orange body; Apistogramma Borellii, light blue with lemon yellow top fins; and Apistogramma. Trifasciata have many stripes along their body!

Are Dwarf Cichlids Right For You?

Author’s note: Dwarf Cichlids can sometimes challenge aquarists, but caring for them is very rewarding. Not only are they stunning to look at, but they are also attention grabbers. They are easy to breed as well. By keeping Dwarf Cichlids, an aquarist can learn how to make informed decisions on fish care. They are one of the best freshwater fish species for any home aquarium.

Beautiful Dwarf Cichlids


Can you keep Dwarf Cichlids together?

Yes, Dwarf Cichlids can live together. Even though not all Dwarf Cichlids are from the same region, they can coexist in peace. To ensure that they live well, provide enough space as they are territorial, and fight for freedom.

How many Dwarf Cichlids can you put in a 20-gallon tank?

You can keep 5 to 6 Dwarf Cichlids in a tank together. Even though 20 gallons is a minimum requirement, you should always go in for a bigger size to ensure peaceful co-existence.

Who can live with Dwarf Cichlids?

Even though Dwarf Cichlids can be aggressive, they can live well with small or medium-sized fish such as mollies, hatchet fish, plecos, cory catfish, etc.

Are Dwarf Cichlids hard to keep?

No, they are easy to keep. Dwarf Cichlids only need good care and hygiene, and they will thrive in a well-planted aquarium.


Dwarf Cichlids are one of the most recommended freshwater fish. They are different from typical Cichlids in every way. Their size and temperament make the blue spots unique and challenging. Dwarf Cichlids come in many different colors, and they are all showstoppers. Unlike other fish, these will come over to you immediately and be a playful addition to a tank. Having a school of these active fish is bound to make your tank a lively space!

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